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Big City Bruisers


You need to rig up hard and heavy if you expect to trade blows with the rampaging hoodlums that inhabit the surging washes around the reefs, bommies and headlands fronting Sydney Harbour, writes CHRIS CLEAVER.

AN inky orange glow emerged over the ruffled water on another cracker Sydney morning. With the last of the baits secured in the livewell, we powered off toward a rapidly rising sun on our way to one of Sydney’s most prominent headlands. We edged toward the wash of the point in the early morning gloom. Plucking a candy-sized squid from the livewell, it was quickly rigged up. Now sporting some 9/0 Mustad jewellery, the squid disappeared behind the boat. I feathered the braid back about 20m and clipped it to the downrigger ball.

The boat lolled around in the swell and backwash of the point. “Be ready, things can go from silence to mayhem in the blink of an eye, boys,” I said.  The crew for the day gave a half-hearted smile. They had no idea what they were in for.

Ahead of the boat a shower of gars dashed for freedom as a school of bonito erupted. The boys grabbed the medium spin sticks and fired casts toward the frothing commotion. They had already broken the Big City Bruiser code – “be ready” – but you try stopping kids in a lolly shop.

As if on cue the jig rod cracked down in the holder and creaked under load of around 15kgs of drag. Line was leaving the reel at speed – it was like we’d hooked a V8 supercar. An arse-whipping was imminent. The brute had one thing in mind, and the nearest bommie was where it was going to do it. I wrestled the rod from the holder while screwing the drag knob down in the process. “Go, go, go!” I yelled.  I’d prepped the boys earlier about the need to drive for deeper water as soon as we hooked up. I somehow managed to slow the first run and started to lay into the fish, trying to put some hurt on it; the kingie lunged, trying to pull against the now 23+kgs of drag. This is no time to be messing about. In my boat, make them or break them is the standard approach – and it works. Mostly.

The fish began to tire, as did I. While fights with these beasts are short, the heavy drag pressures needed on fish of this calibre certainly test your fitness levels. The leader came into view, as did the fish. As a king of solid proportions arced across the transom, I still reckon I heard two jaws hit the deck. I eased the drag back several turns now we were in the safety of deeper water and had the king well off the bottom. Tug-of-wars on a short leash next to the boat can spell disaster: pulled hooks, broken rods and/or torn muscles are par for the course. The rod bucked as the leader came through the guides and around 120cm of Sydney king lay beaten on the surface. In the mayhem no one had thought to get the net ready, fortunately the king played the game and was soon lying on the deck with high fives all round. The boys’ eyes were like golf balls while they snapped some pics; a quick measure on the brag mat and the king was soon swimming boatside. As the water pumped through those chrome-plated gills, I thought to myself that kings are one fish that can never be given enough respect.

Local hoods
I don’t know of any other species that creates so much anticipation and commotion in the fishing fraternity, yet breaks some many hopes and dreams, as the kingfish. Some anglers manage trophy fish when using tackle that can only be described as “under gunned” and others get humbled even with all the right gear. Every season anglers await “the return of the king”, from 1kg rats to 20kg bruisers. While the rats are quite easy to find, the “hoodlums”, as the trophy fish are mostly known, take a little more time to work out.  Once you find where they live, however, their predictability and susceptibility to certain techniques mean that captures like the above can be quite regular.

The current kingie crazes of the past few years have included popping, stickbaiting and jigging. All three techniques are quite successful, and it has to be said that watching a green torpedo monster your surface lure is something else; but for sheer consistency livebaiting stands tall, for me anyway.

Some purists will argue this, saying one big king on a jig or popper is worth five on a livie. Each to their own, but I’ll take five over one any day.

The livebait options are many and varied. Kings can be fussy but more often than not will monster a well presented bait, no questions asked. Yellowtail, slimy mackerel, bonito, frigate mackerel, garfish and pike are all effective kingie baits. When the fish are fussy in my area of Sydney and the neighbouring locations north and south that I frequent, one bait reigns head and tails (or tentacles) above the rest – live squid.

Along with a dedicated band of other anglers, I’ve tried all manner of livebaits over the years. We all agree that squid will outfish all other livebaits on almost every occasion. I’m not saying here to ignore all other baits. In your area slimies could be the gun bait, for instance. You should experiment until you find what’s best. Where I’ve fished for kings, however, a live squid is rarely refused.

Of recent times, squid have been thrust into the limelight as they’ve become a very popular target in their own right. And why not? They’re fun to catch, are great bait and taste great if the kings aren’t biting. Dedicated “egi” rods, reels, lines and jigs are just a few of the items now lining tackle shop shelves. The main benefit of the current squid craze is the quality of the jigs now available. My advice is to invest in the quality models – they will outfish the old $5 specials hands down. I use Sephia egixile jigs in various sizes and colours, but have found the Keimura models to work extremely well in low light situations.

To be good at catching kings takes a few things, and having a good bait supply is right up there. No bait means no fish so before looking for the big hoods spend time in your local area sussing out good areas to target your bait, whether it be squid, yellowtail or pike. I generally won’t start fishing until I have at least 10 squid in my livewell. In my area this means being up at least an hour before sunrise mooching around from spot to spot trying to get my quota to start the day. Learning the tricks to your local bait supply will have you and your crew further advanced than most, especially on the tough days. Once you learn it will get easier, which means less time wasted catching bait and more time spent getting your arms ripped from their sockets.

So you have all the good bait, and you know a spot or two where the big hoods hang out. It’s all looking good but if you’re going to bring a knife to a gunfight it will all be in vain. All that can be said here is that you need to rig for war. These fish are tough, bloody tough. Too many times I see crews downrigging the right areas with the right bait but with tackle that even a modest fish around 80cm will make a mockery of. Sure, you’ll get the odd one but when the trophy slams that bait you’ll more often than not be left with limp line and a shattered ego.

I’m not about to preach about what gear you should use – this article is about bringing you a step closer to cracking the code for the bigger kings, not a tackle catalogue. However, I will detail my outfit to give you an idea of the sort of tackle you’ll need.
I run a Stella 20000SW on a T-Curve 400 Jigspin loaded with 80lb braid as a minimum with around 15ft of 150lb leader with a double hook rig comprising of a 9/0 and 7/0 Mustad Hoodlums. Gear of this calibre might seem excessive, but trust me you’ll need every bit of it when that beast jumps on. To most people this outfit represents a large investment and for many it’s just not an option. All I can advise is to buy the best quality gear you can afford. The main point I want to get across here is that you need to rig big, rig heavy and go hard.

The other necessities are a quality sounder/chartplotter. Marine electronics help not only to find fish but to mark where you’ve had previous big fish encounters, to see tracks of areas already covered in search of hoods and monitor depth so you don’t end up snagging a downrigger ball (which is no fun, let me tell you).

A large net, like an Environet, makes for less danger than a gaff and also helps to not damage fish destined for release. The last item to consider is a downrigger. While not vital, downriggers do help in regard to setting baits at precise depths and to control the amount of drop back via the release clip. If a downrigger is stretching the budget, a range of medium to large barrel sinkers rigged a metre and a half above the bait will suffice.

Where & When
I won’t detail precise locations as I believe finding good grounds yourself is half the challenge and part of the overall thrill of the hunt. A good start, however, would be to keep your ear to the ground, surf the fishing chat rooms, ask some questions around your local tackle shop and boat ramp and suss out what pro fishermen in your area are up to.

With this in mind, the best locations are the ones you find yourself; these areas may not be new but kings are where you find them and locating a new area with less boat traffic and pressure will have you hooked up more times than not. Start by working your baits around the most prominent points, reefs and bommies. These areas work as current breaks and also hold bait, which obviously attracts fish. Cover these areas thoroughly and watch the sounder intently for any bait or larger fish marking. Sometimes the big kings will only bite on a certain part of the tide so if you mark good fish either hang on them or return at a later stage. Sooner or later you’ll work out where your local hoods hang.

Which depth to fish is a pretty common question. Depending on your area the prime kingie depth could be anywhere from 20ft to 220ft. This might seem vague but it’s true. I tend to find all my biggest kings in shallowish water of 60 feet or less, hence the reason I rig so heavy. During my juvenile years I spent countless hours livebaiting the rocks from Coffs Harbour to Greencape. The amount of big greenback hoodlums my mates and I saw and even landed on occasions was phenomenal. These early experiences have influenced my current fishing – I try to get as close to the wash line as possible in my boat. Big hoods are not afraid of shallow water.

When you can expect to catch big kings can only be assessed by time on the water. Always keep a record of your trips, even if they’re failures, and over time a pattern will emerge. Although generally considered a summer species, I reckon kings are a year-round proposition. Clued up crews are catching massive fish in the depth of winter these days so don’t put your kingie gear away at the end of the season.

Getting more specific, if you know a productive area and you can coincide a tide change with low light periods you have a recipe for some pulled arm sockets. As the water cools, kings become more selective about the tides they feed on, hence the reason winter was for so long regarded as no good for king fishing. Once you crack the code those chilly mornings certainly heat up.

The only parting words I have is stick to a goal. Time on the water will have you learning every trip, but if you put in the hard yards you’ll be bragging to your mates and have them begging you to take them out. As a final note, I won’t be held responsible for sore arms, bad backs, lost tackle, ink-stained clothing or a wife nagging about the knee high grass in the front yard. All that is part and parcel of dealing with an addiction to Big City Bruisers …

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