Found throughout New Zealand, depending on the season, kahawai can be caught by: trolling small lures behind the boat; casting and retrieving metal spoons and jigs; vertically jigging; fly-fishing; or with soft-baits.
Kahawai are easy enough to catch on natural baits, especially small, whole fish baits, so why bother with lures? Well, in many instances lures work just as well as natural baits, but are far more convenient and less messy to use – and besides, catching a fish on a lure is more fun.
When fishing lures you can use lighter tackle than you might if fishing natural baits, especially when using spinners or soft-baits. Light tackle really allows the superb sporting qualities of kahawai to shine through.
Kahawai will eat almost any lure if in the right mood, but the most consistent are lures that imitate small fishes. Lure size can be extremely important: if seeing kahawai but not catching them on lures, chances are your lure’s too big. While kahawai eat big lures as well, smaller is often better considering the size of the baitfish they normally feed on. Flashy silver-blue casting lures of 20g or less are consistent fish-takers, along with small trolling spoons and fish-shaped saltwater flies.
Trolling is an effective way to catch kahawai. It works best when schooling fish are feeding on the surface, but you can also catch kahawai when they’re not visible by trolling small lures through the white water close to islands, headlands and river mouths.
These days we are spoiled for choice, with most tackle stores stocking dozens of lures suitable for casting or trolling for kahawai.
However, while a wide variety of lure types are suitable for trolling, many of the metal jigs, spinners and slices used so effectively for casting and retrieving are poor choices for trolling, as they create too much twist in the line, leading to tangles.
Having said that, a good quality swivel can make a big difference, especially very small ball-bearing models.
The 3”-sized Smith’s Polynesian-style plastic trolling lures are proven fish-takers (small ball-bearing swivels help in this instance, too), as are small metal spoons and Rapala-style bibbed lures. Bib-less trolling/crank baits also work, as will saltwater flies and small, chrome-plated metal trolling heads fitted with plastic or Mylar skirts.
I find natural colours are best, with some flash incorporated really helping. As already mentioned, size can be very important; it generally pays to keep your offering small – 6-8cm is usually about right. And make sure the hooks are strong enough. If not, replace them with in-line singles or stronger saltwater trebles.
The trolling speed for kahawai should be somewhere between three and five knots, considerably slower than is usual when targeting tuna or marlin with lures, but faster than if trolling on a lake for trout. It pays to experiment with trolling speeds to see what speed works best on the day. Also, most lures have an optimum speed at which they work best. For bibbed minnows such as Rapalas, it’s usually around four to five knots, or a little less for the smallest models. While saltwater flies and skirted lures can be towed faster, the extra speed does not necessarily produce more strikes – but imparting small, regular jerks with the rod tip will.
Running lures slightly under the water’s surface can be a good way to improve trolling success. Downriggers, paravanes and planing boards allow you to run lures well below the surface, or you can choose to run bibbed and bib-less lures that swim under the water’s surface by design. Sometimes there’s no need to run lures particularly deep to catch kahawai, but a metre or two under the surface seems to make a surprising difference, even when fish are schooling on the surface. Most paravanes and many bibbed lures run at such depths.
Another trick to improving trolling success is to run lures well behind the boat – 20 metres or more. When fish are boat-shy, this can really do the trick. If trolling more than one lure, try running one near the surface well back behind the boat and perhaps another one closer in, but use a paravane or similar device to sink it deeper in the water column.
Trolling tackle can be anything from a hand-line to general boatfishing gear or even soft-bait tackle. Remember to set the reel’s drag to give line when the fish strikes: drag pressure should be firm, but not so hard you risk the hooks tearing out or the line or rod breaking when a kahawai strikes.
If you get a strike on one lure, continue motoring ahead for a short distance to see if you can entice strikes on other lures in the spread. Don’t overdo it though, or the hooked fish may throw the hooks.
I much prefer casting for kahawai to trolling for them, particularly when they are feeding at the surface.
Diving, wheeling terns are a sure sign of feeding kahawai, which can move very quickly, busting up for a minute or two then disappearing, only to reappear hundreds of metres away.
The best way to fish such schools is by chasing them down with the boat using the birds as a guide, positioning the boat ahead or to the side of the bust-up, then casting small metal lures into the melee. The action can be hot, and due to the light casting tackle allowing the kahawai to perform at their best, it’s a really fun way to catch them.
Useful spinning-lure patterns include a variety of fish-shaped Pirk-style metal jigs/slugs in smaller sizes, as well as spoons – anything with a bit of flash and a baitfish profile that’s heavy enough to cast. The venerable and ever-reliable chrome slice in 15-40g weights offers a decent option, too.
With small lures, it pays to change out any fine-gauge treble hooks and lightweight split-rings for heavier single hooks and stronger rings. Don’t overdo it though, or you may adversely affect the lure’s action through the water, making it less attractive.
Soft-baits, slow-jigs and inchiku jigs work well on kahawai, too.
Soft-plastics are very effective and it’s easy to choose a leadhead and imitation plastic that closely matches the size of the forage fish. If kahawai are feeding on pilchards or yelloweyed mullet, five-inch soft-baits work well; if eating anchovies, change down to four-inch or even three-inch soft-baits. When kahawai are on whitebait or smelt, sometimes only a small fly will do the job.
Soft-baits are absolutely deadly in work-ups – simply cast them into the fray and allow them to sink like a wounded baitfish.
Vertical jigging takes kahawai, too. Again, for best results use smaller jigs from 16 to 60g.
Kahawai are also perfect targets for saltwater fly fishers, because flies are such excellent imitations of the small fish kahawai like to eat. Casting flies into work-ups is guaranteed to produce great sport, but a very fast retrieve is sometimes necessary, with the rod tucked under one arm and both hands used to retrieve the line. You can also fly fish close to headlands and reefs where there’s plenty of white-water, or around river mouths where kahawai congregate in pursuit of whitebait.
• Deploy at least one lure deeper in the water column
• Experiment with lure size, colour and trolling distance from the boat; if you know there are fish in the vicinity, but bites are slow in coming, let out more line
• Regularly change the trolling speed and course to entice strikes, but don’t troll too fast; kahawai prefer lures trolled at 3-5 knots
• Try to match the lure size and colour to the baitfish the kahawai are targeting
• Avoid using lures that are too big; kahawai generally feed on small fish. If terns are present, the baitfish are small, so use small lures
• Don’t approach feeding kahawai head-on. Troll lures in the same direction the fish are heading – they expect to see their frightened prey swimming away, not heading towards them
• Use the boat to swing your lures through a school of fish by approaching them from behind at an oblique angle, then crossing in front of them and turning away before you disturb them
• Don’t troll through a work-up – the boat will only put the fish down and make other nearby anglers grumpy!