Softbaiting Techniques For The Shallows

Josh Darby’s preferred fishing style is casting soft-baits into shallow, kelpy territory, and as can be expected, he now knows a thing or two about pulling trophies out of the rough stuff…

In my previous feature Getting out of Jail, I shared some tips and techniques relating to freeing your fish after being taken to ground. In the process of writing this, I started to think about a saying in modern healthcare – “the best cure is prevention”. This is a truism that is also very applicable to those of us who like to fish in the shallows, especially with lighter gear. While it’s helpful knowing that there are techniques for getting your fish unstuck, it would be great if we could prevent this situation from occurring in the first place. So, I thought I would share with you a story of a recent and torrid battle we had while attempting to land two sizeable kingfish in the shallows on soft-bait gear.

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To say I was excited would be somewhat of an understatement; a long-standing and disturbed weather system had been hampering my fishing endeavours for weeks on end when suddenly a weather window with variable winds appeared – “You beauty!” Hurriedly, I sent out an SOS to two of my best fishing buddies, Eli and Joe, and we hatched a plan to head to the Mokohinau Islands for a full day of soft-baiting in the shallows. The anticipation levels were at an all-time high until a day later when I realised that, while perusing my calendar, I had a meeting of the unmovable variety in the afternoon of our planned adventure – “Bugger!” Devastated, I touched base with the crew to share the news and propose an alternative plan; a half-day fishing our feet around the shallows of Kawau. Somewhat deflated, I consoled the guys, as well as myself, with the knowledge that there had been a lot of bait schools in and around the area we would be targeting, so it was likely we could encounter some good fishing.

Launching close to Kawau, we made our way to our chosen destination with the assistance of our chartplotter given the sun had not yet fully shown itself. As we rounded a large headland, I slowed down a little to allow the transducer to provide a better picture of what was happening below, something it pays to do when heading over fishy looking territory. Sure enough, despite being well short of our intended destination, a number of solid snapper arches appeared above the shallow and undulating bottom shown on the sounder. I backed off the throttle completely, remarking, “Let’s give this a go”. The boys didn’t need any further encouragement and seconds later an array of soft-baits were slowly and enticingly making their way towards the unmistakable snapper arches below. The serenity of a distant and magnificent sunrise was suddenly interrupted when the small belly in my line suddenly straightened. Still well off the bottom, a good snapper had picked up my 4” Smokey Shad soft-bait and I was on. A few solid head nods and the loss of a small but not entirely insignificant amount of line eventually led to a nice snapper of 6 or 7lb joining us boat side. The next 45 minutes or so provided half a dozen or so similar fish before the bottom of the tide brought about an end to the bite-time.

We decided to make use of the lull in action and make our way to our intended fishing destination. Rounding the corner of the headland we had been fishing, we were greeted by an aquatic battle zone. Terns, shearwaters and shags were frantically working the water, which appeared to be alive with a mixture of baitfish and kahawai. The fray was spread out over a large area of water ranging in depth from around 5 to 20 metres. The sounder indicated an underwater terrain with a mixture of incredibly foul areas dropping off to a relative sandy and unobstructed bottom. We immediately began casting again, sticking with the 4” Smokey Shad Z-Mans we had previously selected to match the anchovy schools that were present. The ‘match the hatch’ selection didn’t take long to pay dividends as a mixture of snapper and trevally were landed – “Looks like the backup plan might work out after all,” I said to the boys, knowing I had a bit of credibility to regain given I had unintentionally scuppered our earlier and more substantial fishing plans.

Over an hour in and the fray continued. Eventually, we found ourselves in around 10 metres of water surrounded by large schools of anchovies, and with a kelpy bottom below. I cast out, taking into account our drift direction to ensure my cast angle would assist me keeping in contact with my soft-bait. Eli and Joe also had their soft-baits deployed when I noticed my line respond to what I thought was a bite. A quick half wind of the handle confirmed my suspicions and I set the jig-head by striking firmly before rapidly winding my rod point to a near-horizontal position and striking again. For a moment I thought I had hooked the bottom, such was the load through the rod. However, a few large head shakes and I began to lose line at an astonishing rate. I turned to the boys and remarked, “It’s a real one!”. Eli responded by retrieving his line to help me out when he too came up tight on a substantial predator – things were about to get interesting.

Boat designs that allow you to move freely from bow to stern can be an advantage when slugging it out in the shallows.

Boat designs that allow you to move freely from bow to stern can be an advantage when slugging it out in the shallows.

Our normal tactic when someone hooks a substantial fish in the shallows is to have those not hooked up reel in quickly and set about retrieving the sea anchor and jumping on the helm/MinnKota as quickly as possible. There is no place for selfishness in these close-quarter encounters and seconds count when it comes to ‘closing the distance’. By this I mean chasing down your fish with the boat to reduce the line angle. Doing this reduces the risk of a bust off and being taken to ground, as the reduction in line angle minimises the chance of your line contacting underwater obstacles, while also improving your position of leverage (longer soft-baiting rods, 8ft plus, also assist with this). Unfortunately for us, our fish steamed off in opposite directions; mine off the stern portside and Eli’s off the bow starboard side.

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Despite the predicament we were in, neither Eli, nor I, were tempted to adjust our drag setting. This is of note as it is hard to know how much drag you’re adding when using a spinning reel. Additionally, drag automatically increases as the diameter of your spool decreases. Therefore, when it comes to drag, we prefer to set and forget rather than risk overloading the capacity of the line. By now Eli’s fish had slowed allowing him to regain some line, which was fortunate as my fish had me almost down to the backing. With Eli’s fish slowing, I was able to slowly back down on my fish to regain some much-needed line. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that luck can sometimes play a significant role in landing big fish in the shallows, and as luck would have it, Eli’s fish changed direction allowing him to join me in the battle from the stern. Shortly after, Eli’s fish showed itself to be a substantial kingfish and we were able to get a good gaff shot and briefly celebrate before realising we still had an ongoing situation – “E, we gotta get after mine bro.”

With Eli’s fish in we were able to close the distance quickly, leading me to think we would momentarily be graced with the presence of my kingfish. This wasn’t to be the case. This kingfish, as seems to be the case with many large fish, appeared to have a sixth sense for where freedom might be found; in this case, a large kelpy bottomed area close by. A fish running you through the kelp, be it a large snapper or kingfish, is certainly an unnerving feeling and is often experienced as a ‘pinging’ feeling through the braid. Sometimes you can avoid this by achieving a ‘stale mate’ position with your fish where enough pressure is exerted to ensure the hook remains set but not so much that you aggravate the fish causing it to pull back. From here you can begin to slowly manoeuvre your boat away from danger and into deeper water as the fish will often, but not always, allow you to lead it out. Unfortunately, we were having limited success with this approach as this kingfish continued to plough through the kelp below. Luckily, I have in recent years upped the strength of both my braid (20-30lb) and leader (25/30lb) for situations just like this. The braid was successfully cutting through the kelp as evidenced by patches of kelp surfacing around the line.

The next 30 minutes was a true team effort as the fish stubbornly sought its freedom. With Eli on the helm, I communicated the need for changes in boat direction and speed depending on what the fish doing. Joe continued to film and commentate while also clearing the remaining rods and any other potential obstacles from the deck. Eventually, we caught sight of a large yellow tail just beneath the surface off the bow and soon after we had the kingfish somewhat subdued and in range of a gaff shot. Eli obliged, expertly sinking the gaff through the gill plate of the kingfish and with that we made the obligatory high fives and headed for home. Ironically, it had turned out that our half-day fishing expedition in close had led to better fishing than we may well have experienced at the Mokes – at least that’s what I kept emphasising to the boys on our way home! 

Eli and Josh with their prize for successfully slugging it out.

Eli and Josh with their prize for successfully slugging it out.

October 2021 - Josh Darby
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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