Māori name: Kahawai
Scientific name: Arripis trutta; Arripis xylabion (Kermadec Kahawai)
All-tackle NZ record: 9.75kg
Eating quality: Good
Kahawai, aka ‘the people’s fish’, are one of the best light tackle sportfish species swimming in New Zealand waters. They are fantastic fighters and, due to their widespread availability, are the first ‘proper’ fish that many Kiwi kids catch.
An adult kahawai’s streamlined body features a shining silver-white belly and speckled grey-blue to blue-green shoulders. They are fast-growing, primarily eating krill and small fish, with an average size of 40-50cm in length and 1-2kg in weight. Juveniles (under 25cm) have yellow spots scattered along their flanks along with dark grey stripes on the back.
The Kermadec kahawai is a subspecies that can grow much bigger, to at least 94cm and over 9kg, and is found seasonally in small numbers around the Far North and the Kermadec Islands.
If dispatched and bled properly, the oily flesh of kahawai makes delicious sashimi and is a popular candidate for smoking.
Kahawai can be caught in most coastal waters, harbours, and estuaries around the country, in both the North and South Islands – however, they are more commonly found north of Kaikoura. River mouths offer the best chance for encountering kahawai in the South Island, as they are attracted to congregating shoals of whitebait and smelt.
The ubiquitous kahawai is a regular catch for beach, wharf and boat anglers. Kahawai frequently school on or near the surface, and generally where you see birds diving and feeding, the people’s fish will not be far away. Adult fish often conspicuously form large schools around exposed islands and headlands.
Kahawai are prevalent year-round in many locations, but they peak in both condition and inshore numbers over the spring when they are chasing whitebait and pilchards, and again in autumn when they feast on anchovies.
Although kahawai are rarely fussy at any time during the day, they generally bite even more recklessly during the early morning and evening!
The voracious kahawai can be hooked using all manner of fishing techniques – from lures to baits, and even bare hooks on occasion! Being highly visual feeders, they are an especially fun prospect for lure and fly fishers.
Kahawai are suckers for a spinner, jig, soft-bait or trolled lure when they are schooling., but it pays to match the hatch. For example, if they are feeding on small silver baitfish, a silver jig will be deadly. When kahawai are gorging on krill around exposed islands and headlands, sometimes a very small lure like a micro-jig or aji soft-bait will be required to pique their interest.
If lures retrieved along the surface are not working, try letting your lure drop down deeper in the water column and retrieve it with a twitching motion to imitate an injured baitfish.
Any agricultural bait fishing rig will have a fighting chance at catching a kahawai or two. A decent berley trail will often bring in kahawai and, if they are spotted zooming around the berley, a small unweighted straylined bait – such as a cube of pilchard – will likely be gobbled up instantaneously. When fishing from a beach, try casting your baited offerings into deep gutters where kahawai tend to roam in search of food.
Due to their availability and spectacular aerial fighting displays, kahawai are a favourite target for many saltwater fly aficionados. Hooked on a 6 or 7-weight set-up, these fish always give a decent account of themselves. A streamer fly imitating any of the smaller baitfish species stripped quickly just below the surface should have any kahawai in the vicinity interested.