How to catch Kahawai - baits and trolling

  • HTC - Kahawai

Mark Kitteridge looks at the best ways to catch kahawai (and in the process admits he finds catching them is almost as much fun as the much bigger fish that eat them afterwards!)

Some people may find the concept of targeting kahawai for bait a little strange. Kahawai are great fish to catch in their own right, happily biting all sorts of angler offerings and, when hooked, boring off on powerful runs interspersed with vigorous, gill-rattling jumps. 

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So, while this series is about catching bait – and kahawai is definitely great bait used dead or alive – fishers targeting kahawai for their own sake will also benefit from what follows. 

An erratic target

How to catch Kahawai - baits and trollingIt’s often a case of feast or famine when it comes to kahawai. You can almost guarantee they will be in plague proportions when targeting other species, such as snapper, grabbing every lure and bait in the water, but when you’re desperate to catch a few for bait, they’ll inexplicably disappear.

Or they’ll play hard to get, becoming a different beast altogether. Rather than dashing around smashing anything that moves (or doesn’t move!), you may see tightly-packed schools of kahawai swimming languidly in the same direction, hoovering up concentrations of krill with their heads just showing above the water. When they behave in this fashion they’ll usually ignore every offering tossed in their direction or trolled behind a boat. 

Or they can be seen zooming around after whitebait, so focused on these tiny slivers that most lures will prove too big to attract their attention. This article suggests tactics you can use to take advantage of such scenarios.

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Recommended tackle

While 10kg and 15kg outfits bring kahawai to the boat with minimum fuss, they do little to make the most of the fish’s fighting spirit. Consequently, many anglers opt for lighter gear of 4-8kg, depending on the size of fish present and just how important it is to get them in quickly. How to catch Kahawai - baits and trolling

Another negative for using heavy tackle occurs when kahawai are feeding on smaller prey items, with suitably sized lures being so light they can’t be cast far, greatly diminishing the chances of success. Indeed, often only the tiniest lure attached to the thinnest line on a light spinning outfit will do the business – and even then this may prove too clumsy. At such times, just the few anglers using fly-fishing gear armed with even tinier flies and specialized techniques will get them to bite!

How to catch Kahawai - baits and trollingWhatever you use though, it should cast well, so choose your outfit with this aspect in mind.

Fishing cut baits 

As mentioned earlier, sometimes kahawai can suddenly become very thin on the ground. When this happens, the best way to attract and then get them biting freely is with berley.

It is an advantage to see the kahawai coming into the berley, so most people deploy the berley from the surface. There’s really no need to set the berley any deeper if the water is less than 15m deep. 

Since we’re chasing fish feeding on free-floating scraps of fish, a pea-sized 1/8oz ball sinker sitting on top of a single re-curved hook is all the weight you’ll need to do the job. 

I suggest tying a short length of slightly stronger leader on the end of lighter lines, because hooking snapper and kingfish is always possible. About 15kg fluorocarbon trace is usually enough. 

Next, hook a slim strip of cut bait just once through the thicker end, or use a chunk of pilchard. Drop or lob the bait into the water and feed line out at a pace that allows the bait to descend reasonably naturally. When a bite occurs, quickly click the reel into gear, pause just long enough for the weight to come on, and if using a circle hook (recommended – J-hooks are often swallowed, causing the bait to bleed), set it by steadily lifting the rod. 


Trolling lures is often not the most effective way to catch kahawai, but does result in plenty of area being covered, so if your boat’s slow (for whatever reason) and/or you’re particularly relaxed in your fishing approach, you may want to give it a go. 

How to catch Kahawai - baits and trollingThe main reason why kahawai ignore trolled offerings is due to the lure’s size; when they are locked onto smaller food items such as whitebait, anchovies and krill, only lures that closely match the prey in size and shape tend to be effective. So try using slim-profiled 7-15g spinners on 2-4 metres of light 6-10kg breaking-strain fluorocarbon leader. It also pays to replace a treble hook with a straight-shanked single hook with a big eye to accommodate the lure’s split-ring. A single hook makes handling and unhooking kahawai easier, so they are in better shape for live baiting.

Always check the lure’s action alongside the boat to see what trolling speed suits it best: you want to see it wobbling or flashing seductively, rather than ‘helicoptering’ or skittering out of the water. This generally means trolling at around 3-5 knots. 
Any extended period of trolling will cause some twist in the mainline, so be sure to incorporate a small swivel in the rig. Don’t simply tie on a snap-swivel and clip it to small lures, because this can make them appear significantly bigger, reducing their attractiveness. Instead, incorporate the swivel 30cm or more away from the lure, perhaps as the connection between the heavier trace and the mainline.

How to catch Kahawai - baits and trollingTrolling very small soft-plastic lures works well too, though you’ll need to use them with suitably small lead-headed hooks. They’re less streamlined, so you’ll need to slow the trolling speed, but the fact they won’t twist the mainline is an especially attractive feature. 

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Small lead-headed squid or very small jet-head/lead-headed skirted lures are also effective, especially those in pink-white, blue-white and/or with a lot of flash. These don’t twist your line either, unless you’ve fitted them with an offset hook. Again, one straight hook or a claw (double) hook works well, perhaps with the barb squashed down to make them easier to remove from the fish, the net, or your fingers. 

Sometimes kahawai become wary or are feeding deeper down, which is when deploying a diving paravane pays dividends. A shortish 7-10m length of reasonably heavy green cord (it tangles less than mono) is tied to a ‘green paravane’ towing two metres of 27kg/60lb fluorocarbon trace with a small Solvkroken silver spoon fluttering on the end. This rig can be absolutely lethal at times, with pan-sized snapper a common by-catch. 

If kahawai are in a less fussy mood, you will probably catch them on the ‘old favourite’ Smiths plastic jigs, especially the 3-inch size in white or green.

Last, but certainly not least, are saltwater flies. 

On the fly

How to catch Kahawai - baits and trollingIf I was only allowed one trolling lure for kahawai, it would be a saltwater fly, with its size and the amount of weight added being determined by the conditions. 

The huge advantage to using flies is their unmatched effectiveness when kahawai are feeding on very small prey such as whitebait and small anchovies. At such times small (#6-1/0), flashy, smelt-type flies usually do the job best. 

To make the most of this deceptively effective lure, let out quite a bit of line (usually 50-70 metres, but sometimes more), drop your rod tip down so the wind doesn’t put a big bow in the line, then impart short, stabbing motions to the rod. As a rule, the lighter the trace (5-10kg fluorocarbon is good), the more strikes you’ll get – but be sure to use a landing net on decent-sized fish and retie the connecting knot regularly if the action’s hot. 

In windy conditions, you may need to add a small bean sinker around two to three metres ahead of the fly (not straight on top, as this kills the fly’s action and makes it appear too big). Troll the fly at about 3-5 knots, How to catch Kahawai - baits and trollingdepending on the conditions and how the kahawai are feeding. Note: you don’t have to troll the fly from a fly rod and there’s no need for a fly line, just use regular mono or braid. 

Schooling fish strategies

When approaching surface schools of feeding kahawai, do not motor straight through them – doing so will put the fish down and make you very unpopular with other boats working the school. Instead, approach from the side, motoring in the same direction the school is heading. Drive past the school and then angle the boat so the lures end up amongst the feeding fish.


April - 2015 - Mark Kitteridge

New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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