How to

Kings on top!

Springtime is kingfish time in southern Australia. 

Last spring I made the 11-hour road trip from my homebase in south-west Victoria to Port Augusta at the top of the Spencer Gulf in SA to chase kings.

After a generally quiet season through the winter months, the infamous power station, the site of much kingie action over the years,  had been switched back on only a week earlier.

This acted as a magnet for large schools of kingfish in the region, drawing them down towards the warm water flowing from the outlet channel.

I arrived on day one to find livebaits scarce, which was depressing as catching a good fish without them would be near impossible.

I was really only hoping to get one bite for the week at this stage. Without any livies I just started casting poppers and stickbaits, just like I do back at home in the summer months.

It took a few hours, but eventually a school of kingfish drifted past and my lure was promptly engulfed in a massive surface strike.

The fish wasn’t a monster, but at 15kg it was a good start to the trip. In fact, it set the precedent for the next five days of some of the most amazing surface fishing I’ve had on kingfish.

Over the next few days we persisted with lures, but also had livebaits out.

Interestingly we didn’t catch one fish on a livie all week. Out of the 30 fish we saw landed only a couple were taken on live salmon or squid.

Probably one of the reasons for the intense activity of the fish was the water temperature, the size of the fish and the size of the schools they were in.

They were perfect lure casting candidates as most of the fish were between 10-20kg and some of the schools would have had well more than 100 fish in them.

Water temperature is a big factor affecting the activity of kingfish. While they can commonly be caught in water temperatures around 16 degrees Celsius, often kings are sluggish in cool water. Once the water warms to around 20 degrees or more the fish tend to fire up.

On this trip, conditions were ideal with only 17 degrees in the upper gulf with the water coming out of the cooling channel around 23 degrees. The fish were angry!

You need to be on the ball when fishing to kings on the top.

Paying attention to minor surface disturbances and making quick, accurate casts are both very important.

Often kings are reasonably spooky, particularly in shallow water, and if you put them down they can be very difficult to find again. 

The sounder doesn’t often help very much as they may avoid travelling under your boat completely or spook before you even get close to them. 

As a result, you need to sneak up on them with an electric motor, drift or anchor and quietly wait for them to come past.

Being able to quickly mobilise is also important, which is why I always have an anchor on a float I can dump if I need to chase busting fish.

We saw some awesome bust ups over the few days of our trip. Often the fish would only come up for 30 seconds and you had to be quick to get near them.

Plenty of times we weren’t fast enough, but it was certainly exciting to see hundreds of big fish smashing up gars in the glassy water. 

Often this left us casting into rippled water with no success but it was pretty exciting – if only we’d got there five seconds earlier!

One of the best things about schooling kings is that even though it may be hard to tempt them, usually it’s only a single fish that you need to get interested or excited.

Then it’s simply a matter of “one in all in”.  This usually results in multiple crashing surface strikes. If your mates have their lines in the water, then hook-ups all around are standard practice.

Surface fishing is a highly visual experience. This is what makes it so exciting – and it’s not just the sight of a big fish crashing your lure.

I tell plenty of people that the key to this fishery, particularly in shallow water, is to find the fish before firing random casts.

First up you don’t get a sore arm. More importantly, when the fish come up you can land your lure in the direct strike zone and not 10 or 20m away.

An inaccurate or speculative cast often gives the fish time to check out the lure. This may result in follows or the fish wising up.

The best method is to cast just in front of the lead fish (if you can pick their direction or path). It’s that instinctive reaction strike you need to draw.

Fish in this situation react to the lure quickly and that excitement ripples through the whole pod or school of fish. This is very effective when the fish are being difficult to catch – you only need one strike to make your trip.

While kings respond to large stickbaits and poppers, most of the fish we caught at Port Augusta took smaller lures between 5-8 inches in length. 

These can be easily cast off relatively light spin tackle. When I say “light”, I mean 50lb braid on a 4000-5000 sized reel. This is more than enough if you’re able to chase the fish around and allow them to make screaming runs, however, this does not always guarantee you a capture!

Due to the brutal tactics employed by hooked kings, you’ll still get reefed occasionally, but you tend not to pull hooks. In fact, fishing light is my personal preference as you will nearly always get the fish – if you’re patient and if it doesn’t reef you!

The opposite approach applies in more rugged country where you need to hold on and attempt to prevent the fish from reaching cover.

Upsizing to 80lb tackle is a better option here. The tackle you use is generally determined after you’ve busted off so weigh up the risks and be prepared.  Experience is something you get after you needed it!

On our SA trip we persisted with 50lb braid and 60-80kg fluorocarbon leader and managed to land plenty of fish. With the ones we lost I don’t think it would have mattered what we were using …

Lure selection is important when targeting kings on the surface.

On our trip to SA the lures fish took varied between poppers, big soft plastics or stickbaits. The best technique, if you’re fishing with mates, is to each cast something different. We made sure that we had a rod rack full of gear rigged with different lures ready to cast.

You may only get a single chance to cast at fish so you need to be ready to make the most of your chances.

Sometimes the fish would come up on the popper and eat the stickbait or vice versa. Often one lure would fire the fish up enough for them to eat everything else thrown at them – you just needed to work out which one it was.

The last night of our trip was insane. I was fishing with good mate Lubin Pfeiffer, who managed to land a fish over 20kg on fly.

In that final two-hour session we managed to land six fish and lose as many more in their rampaging runs across the rubble.

I really didn’t want to go home the next day, but it had been an awesome trip that just reinforced the effectiveness of surface lure fishing for kingfish and how effective it can be in any part of the country.

This story was first published in the Fishing World October 2013 issue.


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