The type of stray-lining I’m talking about is a daytime pursuit, using a berley trail to bring the fish around first, with well-presented baits then appealing to their visual feeding instincts while floating slowly down. I also want to get even more specific by explaining how to pull highquality species from the middle to lower part of the water column.
The upper North Island – places such as East Cape, Bay of Plenty, Coromandel, Great Barrier and Northland – is where most of New Zealand’s serious rockfishing is done, and the methods explained here relate to these locations and the fish typically available.
Stray-lining is an adaptable method and most fish species can be caught this way, but the three most desirable and sought-after species from the upper-north rocks are trevally, snapper and kingfish.
I typically stray-line with pilchard baits – until a kahawai or trevally comes up the rock. At this point I usually change over, preferring the tough skin and firm flesh these fish provide as bait. Just as importantly, they are attractive to the more popular target species.
First though, let me first explain what I call ‘the stray-line column’. Assuming you are fishing into a depth of five metres (which is pretty typical of decent rock platforms in these locations), the following distribution of species typically applies:
• Surface to one metre: kahawai
• One to three metres: trevally, kingfish and kahawai*
• Three to five metres: snapper and tope*.
(* Please note: I’ve only mentioned kahawai and tope because they are prolific in some locations; avoiding them can be the key to catching the target species.)
The following are the fundamentals to presenting baits in the right part of the water column.
Let’s deal with trevally first, as these can be the most frustrating to hook. Except when good numbers of hungry fish are present – a real treat, but fairly rare – they tend to show all the wariness of trout, frequently nosing baits and turning away at the last moment.
Trevally will often show up in the berley trail – but you must get your bait below the top third of the water column, past the surfacehunting kahawai. If you can do this, you still won’t always avoid hooking kahawai, but at least the trevs have an even chance of snaffling your bait. When hungry, they are ultra-aggressive and won’t hesitate to bulldoze kahawai out the way – or much bigger kingfish for that matter.
Aside from getting your bait into the right zone, the trick with trevally is to allow the bait to descend slowly and naturally, whereas kahawai and kingfish prefer to see baits with more erratic movements.
Kingfish tend to operate in the same part of the water column as trevally, though they will break the surface when really hungry – as their suicidal tendency to hit ‘popper’ lures indicates at times.
However, most kingfish in berley trails tend to be more chilled out and wary than the supercharged versions that keep rock fishers awake at night, so learning to hook them using more subtle, subsurface techniques is well worth doing.
Conventional wisdom dictates that kingfish are best attracted, hooked and caught with a live bait under a balloon. I’m not going to argue with this as a technique, but increasingly we are learning to catch them using other methods, such as stick-baiting, slidebaiting etc. Having said that, stray-lining has probably accounted for more kingfish than any other land-based technique over the years.
With berley in the water, fish buzzing around feeding, and perhaps a live-bait fluttering under a balloon, kingfish often turn up and cruise around much like the ever-present kahawai, supping away at loose bits of berley and fish chunks thrown their way. These kingies are suckers for decent stray-lined baits.
What separates kingies from other fish is the mood they are in on the day; more than any fish, you can read their body language and hunger level. Your ability to identify this can be critical to success. When they appear hungry, anglers should keep the bait up high, moving it quickly and ‘twitching’ it to attract them visually; their natural speed will get them to the bait before the kahawai.
Most of the time, though, kingies sit in the same part of the water column as trevally, and you can use the same method as described earlier to hook them. If both species are present and buzzing around your bait though, it may be a lucky-dip situation in terms of what you hook (to my mind that’s a pretty good problem to have!).
Finally, snapper. These fish range throughout the water column; I have even seen them come right up to the surface for a chew on berley bags, but mostly they stay down deeper, content to grab the few bits of berley that make it through the fish feeding higher up. You therefore need to get your bait down so it’s close to, or on, the bottom.
Sandy bottoms minimise the risk of snagging-up and provide a stress-free technique. It is even possible to just let your bait rest stationary on the bottom. However, in more rugged territory it pays to stay in touch with your bait and not let it rest too long, because there’s always a rock or bull-kelp frond waiting to snag you up.
Returning to sandy bottoms, they can have problems of their own in the form of tope sharks. These grow big – to 30 or 40kg – and may be present in large numbers. Mostly they hug the bottom, and although they prefer stationary baits, they will eagerly take stray-lined baits as well when hungry, often resulting in you being ‘snipped off’ after a few minutes. However, if hooked in the corner of the mouth, they put up a spirited fight, which is good fun – unless better fish are around and you want to get into them instead!
Snapper prefer baits that are fished lower and slower than trevally and kingfish, but a bit of movement is okay. So try gradually ‘bouncing’ your bait back towards your position (‘walking the dog’), and you should catch a few and avoid the tope sharks while doing so.
While there’s a bit of theorising involving where the fish hang out, getting your bait into the right part of the water column to catch them is the practical part. A bit of dexterity and practice can see you learning to move baits up and down the column, but the first part of the equation involves choosing the right line and sinker. Three key factors need to be considered when doing this:
• The wariness of the fish on the day
• The territory you’re fishing in
• The amount of wind and current – both of which can ‘drag’ the line.
Lighter, thinner-diameter lines drag less in the water and work well in situations where the fish are wary or there is a lot of wind or current. Braid is particularly good and does a reasonable impersonation of a fly line as it slowly folds into the water and allows your bait to drop oh so naturally.
Fishing like this, you will get a lot of bites, but braid doesn’t survive a decent run through the rocks – it’s really designed for clean fights from boats. Hence, a mono-leader is essential. However, if you end up losing them to fish or snags, it can be an annoying, time-consuming exercise to tie new ones on (especially when big fish are charging around in the berley), so bring a spare spool for your reel – or use a monofilament mainline.
Although the thicker mono produces more water and wind drag than braid, I find it performs well in light to moderate wind and current conditions – perhaps not getting quite as many bites as braid, but performing better after the hook-up. Aside from mono’s better abrasion qualities (mostly due to its much greater diameter rather than being made from a tougher material), playing big fish off the rocks requires the angler to establish a strong, stable base on uneven ground, and mono gives a far more comfortable, ‘cushioned’ fight than braid, which basically doesn’t stretch.
In a nutshell, unless fishing over a very clean, sandy bottom, where I can let fish run without fear of being rubbed off, I will plump for mono over braid.
My main observation concerning mainline and ‘fishing the water column’ is that the thinner-diameter lines, whether mono or braid, drop quicker and more naturally than thicker ones, and on windy days or locations with a lot of current, this can be a decided advantage.
The final aspect is sinker weight. I like to stray-line without any weight at all if possible, but this is only practical on very calm days without seagulls (the bane of a stray-liner’s life, plucking baits off the surface before they have time to sink). So, mostly, I have a small ball sinker sitting on top of my hook’s eye. In the spirit of keeping the added weight as light as possible, I tend to start with a ¼-ounce sinker. If I have to go heavier, I’ll go up to ½-ounce or even an ounce. If the latter is necessary though, I’m probably fishing messy seas, with trevally and kingfish already off the table anyway.
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