Where would we be without the humble but powerful kahawai? Andy Macleod looks at this popular recreational species.
Kahawai might not be at the top of most surfcasters’ list of favoured quarry, but they are still a much loved and targeted species.
Many of the annual surfcasting competitions held around the country every year are dedicated to the biggest kahawai, and even outside of competitions many surfcasters target them knowing they are often present and willing to bite. Their fighting characteristics are well known and their eating qualities underrated – my wife regularly berates me for releasing kahawai.
One of the appealing characteristics of kahawai is their willingness to bite during daylight hours when other target species stay well clear of the surf zone and shallow water. This makes them accessible to thousands of Kiwis who don’t count themselves as serious surfcasters, but like to throw a line out on a hot day at the beach. For these people, catching a hard-fighting kahawai is a genuine thrill and perhaps the highlight of their summer holiday – and who can blame them?
Sometimes no great science is required to catch kahawai. After all, they may take just about any bait presented in any way, but at other times they can be extremely wary. Additionally, their availability fluctuates from season to season and day to day. So what are the secrets to achieving consistent success with kahawai?
Kahawai are highly mobile and can be here one day, gone the next. If you have observed a ‘boil up’of schooling kahawai and attendant birds (usually gulls, terns or sooty shearwaters), you will have noticed how the school can move several hundred metres in just a few minutes. In this scenario they will be chasing a food source, usually baitfish, and this is a key with kahawai: fish where their food is. During the spring whitebait run, kahawai are routinely caught at river mouths, but this is not the only place to catch them. In summer, particularly on surf beaches, kahawai will raid the shallow channels where small baitfish congregate in the sun-warmed water. (I fondly remember one summer afternoon wading through shallow channels to cast at Porangahau Beach in Hawkes Bay, and occasionally crossing paths with large kahawai aggressively chasing baitfish in water not more than knee deep.) Around the edges of rock outcrops are also good places to try, as these can attract other food sources.
Kahawai have finely-tuned eyesight and hearing, which greatly assist their predatory habits. Often I have stood on the rocks monitoring fish in the berley and marvelled at these skills. Even when the water is churned up, full of berley and teeming with fish, kahawai have the ability to hear and track down a lure cast up to 30m away – and the speed to strike it moments later.
It’s therefore possible to exploit these attributes when surfcasting by using visual appendages (floats, beads and flies). That’s why all my rigs have some form of visual attraction attached when targeting kahawai, though this aspect can be more subtle some days (see below).
It is more difficult to exploit the kahawai’s keen hearing, though I have heard of surfcasters attaching bubble floats full of lead shot or ball bearings (a kind of rattle) to attract them.
On days when they are feeding indiscriminately, kahawai will take just about any bait; indeed, I’ve caught them on every sort of offering I’ve ever used in the surf. However, to my mind fish-based baits are by far the most consistent, since they most closely match the kahawai’s staple food source (baitfish). It is hard to go past fresh pilchards or anchovies, but appropriately-cut fillet bait – such as trevally or skipjack (or kahawai itself for that matter) – is also effective.
Bait presentation is a day-by-day thing with kahawai. When biting boldly, a whole pilchard matched with a large float bead can be the way to go. Such a presentation maximises the olfactory and visual attractiveness of the bait. On other days, typically when the water is very clear, kahawai will inspect baits very carefully and a more subtle approach is required. If you don’t believe me, spend some time on the rocks watching them in berley trails. When wary, they will follow lures and stray-lined baits closely and turn away at the last minute. From the surf you won’t have this visual confirmation of their habits, so if you feel kahawai should be present but aren’t biting, try using smaller baits, smaller hooks, and smaller beads/floats.
In such circumstances I tend to use 2/0 or 3/0 hooks, small pilchard tail baits, and float beads not much bigger than a marble (see photo above). On calm days, particularly from deep beaches, floats can be deployed, and this can be a more effective technique when kahawai are wary. Floats hold the bait above the bottom to avoid unwanted attention from undesirable bottom grubbers such as red cod and small sharks.
Knowing exactly where to cast can be a bit of a lottery with kahawai, but it is useful to know that they will access even shallow white water that many other species avoid. For example, when fishing a shallow surf beach, serious surfcasters will generally seek to ‘beat the bar’ (i.e. cast over the last line of breaking waves) and land baits in the deep water beyond. With kahawai this is not always necessary. In fact, kahawai will actively hunt for baitfish in rushing white water. For the same reasons they often cruise the drop-off on deep beaches, sometimes only metres from dry sand. This makes them a regular by-catch for moki fishermen fishing with shellfish baits (moki also feed in the drop-off zone).
Kahawai can be caught at any time of the day or night, but they are generally more willing to bite at dusk and dawn, when they can use their keen eyesight to identify prey, as well as take advantage of the faint light to ambush it. Also, as noted earlier, kahawai seem to be adept at identifying and avoiding suspicious-looking appendages (like hooks!) in clear water, so murkier conditions can increase your chances of success. Kahawai also feed at night, especially under a big moon, which confirms for me the dominant role that sight plays in their feeding habits.
Once hooked, kahawai fight enthusiastically, producing a trademark head-shaking leap that can be repeated several times during the course of the fight. Surfcasting sinkers (typically 4 or 5oz in weight) do slow kahawai down somewhat, but these fish still give a fair account of themselves and can easily throw the hook if played carelessly. By keeping the line tension steady and not applying too much pressure, it is possible to reduce the amount of jumping a kahawai does when hooked on a surfcasting outfit, and this definitely sways the odds in your favour.
Kahawai also change direction regularly, creating slack line, so it is critical to take up any slack as soon as possible; wind quickly and don’t be afraid to move around on the beach either. Finally, apply even pressure when bringing the fish through the surf and onto the beach. Kahawai have soft mouths, so too much pressure can easily wear a large hole that the hook will fall out of.
As I’ve written previously, I’m a big advocate of watching rods closely on the beach and remaining close to them. This is doubly important with kahawai, because they hit fast and can spit the hook just as quick.
After many years on the beach I still have the utmost respect for kahawai. Most caught from the surf are in the 0.5kg to 2.0kg range, but they do grow bigger, and summer is a good time to catch a big one. At this time of year bigger solitary fish hunt in the surf for baitfish. In my local waters around Wellington, Wairarapa and Wanganui, fish around 3kg are commonly caught, making them a worthwhile reward.
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