How to catch Sydney harbour kingfish

I just missed out the on the Kingie jigging fad that swept the boat fishing scene on the east coast throughout the sixties and early seventies.

Crazy days on Sydney’s close offshore reefs of which the ‘Peak’ was the jewel in the crown. Most accounts recall the adrenaline inspired slaughters ending either as a result of exhaustion of the angler or of lack of space for any more fish in the boat. The greed and lack of foresight towards sustainability from the amateurs was pretty much in line with where some of the pros still are today. It’s ‘in’ all of us, just that some of us will only ever learn the hard way.

Kingie traps became popular at about the same time and I suppose for a while it would have been hard to tell who was doing the most damage. Numbers of particularly big fish declined rapidly, and the jigging fad died with them. Let’s get one thing straight though, we didn’t stop killing them in the name of conservation. We stopped our slaughter because there were not enough left to keep us happy.

With recreational pressure eased, numbers should have increased…, that is of course assuming that we were the problem in the first place.
But stocks continued to decline giving us a pretty fair indication that the traps were to blame.

Some years later with king stocks in a very sorry state it was obvious something had to be done quickly. Studies suggested that the traps may have wiped out as much as 60% of the kingfish population.

I’ll give you an example of the Pros attitude towards the kingfish. I watched one unload his trap just off south head one morning. The removal of the kingies from the trap was done with a small hand gaff. The legal sized ones were dropped in a fish box and the undersized ones over board. Many of the undersized kings were gaffed through the head so that they would come out of the trap more easily and as a result were DOA when they hit the water. The pros fully deserved what was coming next.

Despite some fairly heavy pressure from the pros, which included a bullet through his front door, the fisheries minister of the time, Bob Martin, made a heavy move and pulled the traps out of operation. From memory this was about March 95

I didn’t expect much to happen for the first couple of seasons. In actual fact things got worse. Big kingies, that had been around in reasonably numbers as little as ten years ago, all but disappeared from the harbour and numbers of rats was well down too.

The next couple of seasons were even worse but this was courtesy of some unprecedented warm water which brought with it good numbers of sub-tropical ring-ins like spotted maceral Samson fish and swarms of mac tuna. It was too warm for the kings (preferred range 19 to 21 deg) and we experienced the worst season I can ever remember. I was beginning to think that it was too late for the king populations, that maybe we had fished them beyond the point of return.

Early in the 99\00 season reports started coming in from down south, of swarms of rat kings offshore. I spoke to a charter operator working out of Eden who reported the best king season in his twenty years of chartering. They were all rats, but they were swarming.

Then in November 99 they hit Sydney. It started with a plague of rats just off north head. With sounders full of fish, it was impossible to troll past Old Mans Hat (a prominent land mark) without a hookup. The amount of hookups that you could achieve at one time was only limited by the amount of lures you could swim without getting in a mess.

What made this even more noteworthy was the fact that, previously, trolling minnows for kingies had proven to be a poor technique.

Then they moved up Middle Harbour. When they first moved in they were mainly on the surface and it wasn’t unusual to see a genuine acre of yellow tails finning around the boat. Later in the season they went deep but this didn’t mean they were any harder to find. Every major point in the system held vast schools but there were that many travelling schools that you could stop almost anywhere from the Spit bridge to Bantry bay and have a frenzied school under your boat within the hour, at worst.

I can recall one particular day where I only had one customer on board. Generally, it is my policy that I do not fish while I have paying customers on board but on this particular day I wasn’t left with much choice. All five rods went off at once and with only myself and Mark on board ———- well you can see my predicament. We landed all five fish and I made a decision to fish just the one rod on which Mark was connected to kingies non-stop for the next three hours. He ended up with thirty-seven kingies to the boat of which he kept three. Thirty fish a session was nothing unusual for that season but generally it was between three or four anglers.

By January kingies swarmed throughout the main harbour as far up as the Harbour bridge.

All the marker buoys and beacons had schools of fish stacked from top to bottom and often trailing down current for thirty meters. I saw one school that had pushed their way through the shark net at Clifton Gardens and into the swimming pool in pursuit of baitfish. The pool was literally full of fish. Tailor and bonito fishermen were starting to complain about the number of fish they were getting swiped by kingies.

So frantic were the kings during a filming session I did with ET for his new Foxtel show, renowned fishing camera man John Hankey commented that it was the hottest action that he had seen anywhere in many years. That’s a big call considering that John has just spent the last few years filming the acclaimed SBS Wildfish series

The fishing raged on like this for eight months from November to late June which is both the latest and the longest I can ever remember a season going.

In previous years a session of twenty fish was usually the highlight of the season. Last year it was a slow day if you didn’t get twenty on any given trip.

It’s late August as I write this and just two days ago I had a king session at the Eastern wedding cake that, had the air temperature not been only twelve degrees and the water only sixteen, you could have convinced me that it was mid kingie season of march or April. I have never seen kingies anything like this in the middle of winter. They were biting voraciously and were present in large numbers.

Similarly, ausi salmon became a year round proposition once commercial pressure was backed off. I can remember a time when salmon were pretty much limited to a short season of about six weeks somewhere between august and October. We still get the massive surface thrashing schools at that time Since the cannery closed at Eden, to a lesser degree, salmon can be caught nearly all year round. Let’s hope the kings go the same way.

The only lull in kingy activity last season sadly came just after the Pros netted three ton out of Clifton Gardens and then only one week later another two ton from Rose bay. Doesn’t that just suck.

Although there is still a disturbing absence of big kingies the future is, at last, looking very bright. If we can keep the pros ‘hands off’ it’s only a matter of time before lots of little fish turn to lots of big fish.
I can vividly remember a comment that an old fisho made to me after describing those mad jigging sessions of the sixties and seventies. He finished off by saying “we will never see that again” If we play our cards right there’s a good chance that he might just live long enough to happily hear that he was wrong.

Fast Forward to the Present

What you have just read above was the opening to an article I wrote for Fishing World magazine over 18 years ago. Well I’m very happy to tell you that my prediction that “lots of little fish turn into lots of big fish” has well and truly come true. Drastically improved water quality, good fisheries management and the removal of commercial fishing from the harbor has meant we now have large numbers of kings in the 80 to 100cm mark being regularly encountered. We now have the best kingfish fishery that anyone under 70yo can remember.

How To Catch Them

It seems to be taking us a long time to break out of the old, bad, traditional habit of using live yellowtail for kings (and jews for that matter). Live yakkas for kings are now an historical bait. Techniques for fishing are improving all the time. Tackle technology improves, and we are finding better techniques and baits to catch fish all the time. Its called progress and now in the year 2018 the best bait for kingies is squid —-just as it always has been –we just didn’t know it.
Kingies will accept a wide range of baits and techniques. They will pick up a stray bream bait, grab a trolled minnow lure, eat the occasional live bait and pick up a crab drifted down for Grouper. Increased numbers of Kings are making them easier to catch.

If you want to catch the occasional king the above-mentioned methods and baits will do it. If you want to catch a lot of kingies all the time, then there is only one bait and two types of lures.
If you go to the trouble to learn to catch squid, you will always catch a lot of kings and that is the only way I know of to do it. If you go to the trouble of going to the fish markets and buying very fresh squid you will catch a few kings, sometimes.
If you want to catch them on lures a lot, you must use the six or nine-inch Slug-go or saltwater flys. Poppers are OK for a few kings occasionally

Kings can be caught year-round nowadays. In the past it was rare to see a king through winter, but now they are quite common, and the winter fish are usually big. Its interesting to note that after the initial increase in numbers, after the traps were banned, it’s the size of the fish that has increased more recently , rather than numbers.

At about Christmas time the rats come in. These are the fish that will swarm throughout the harbour all summer and autumn. The first signs of them is on the surface. That time of year sees a lot of surface action with bonito tailor and recently salmon on the lower harbour. The kings get in on the act as well. They are hard to catch at this time and your best bet is with a fly.
They are feeding on ‘eyes’ (tiny baitfish) and its hard to interest them in anything else.

Once they go off the “eyes’ they move in around the marker buoys and yacht moorings. This happens in about late January. Now they are much less selective, and this is the time to catch large numbers of them on Squid, Slug-go and flies. You can see the fish visually and on the sounder. They are smaller fish ranging from 50 to 70 cm and they are real silly puppies.

By mid February they will be throughout the harbour ranging as far up as Blues point in the harbour and Bantry bay in Middle harbour depending on how much rain we have had and where the squid go. North harbour will be thick with them as well. They are generally going nuts by this stage and it’s a sorrowful day when you can’t catch at least a couple

By late May you won’t get too many around the markers, but they will still be going crazy in middle harbour. There’s some bigger fish move in again around the deeper markers and the Spit.

By July numbers have thinned down but the fish that remain tend to be well up into middle harbor and above the harbor bridge– and they are big. A study done on harbor kingfish, tagging them with trackable electronic tags found some interesting results. On April 28th 80% of the tagged fish left the harbor. Of the 20% that remained, they all stayed in the harbor right through winter.

I have caught fish both big and small around the wedding cakes, Neilson park and north head in winter and early spring but there is no consistency or pattern to these appearances.

Soft plastic stick baits, particularly Slug—go’ are an awesome lure on a whole range of species but particularly kingies. It’s a good thing that most people think that they are a bit of a joke—– good for the fish that is. They are not new, they have been used in Australia for over 20 years now it’s just that they are unpopular and about the only thing that seems to really like them, apart from a handful of anglers, is the fish. The challenge is up for a better Kingie lure though. White slug-gos are the best.

That challenge doesn’t include flies which are also very good for kings. Their major drawback is that they are much harder to deliver at the best of times but even more so if it is windy or rough. Good flies include blue or silver surf candy and Deceivers in white.

Big Kingies do like whole live squid but small ones don’t. Big kingies will just as happily take a squid head or gut. So, by using a squid head and gut you will get lots of big and small kingies. If you use live squid, you will get fewer fish, but they will be bigger on average. A whole squid gut is not only an exceptionally good bait, but it is also the best burly that you can use for kings. Its all about the guts. Use the guts and especially the ink to entice the fish You can burst the ink sac before you send the bait down or you can let the first king burst it for you. The gut is always the first bait to go which must mean it’s the best bait. Strips of squid cut from the tube are good baits particularly after the guts and heads have got the school in a frenzy. Rub it all in Ink.

Kingies mostly hold from mid water down so obviously this is a good place to present your bait

Remember “Glow Bait” that green fluorescent dye that you added to your bait to highlight it. That’s on the right track. Now just come up with something similar that imitates squid ink. I’ll be right behind you

High tide and the first two hours of the run out, early morning and late afternoon is when you will find them really feeding. That’s also a good time to catch squid. You won’t have to worry too much about tides or time of day it you pay very close attention to what I said earlier about the bait the guts and the ink. Kings are easily turned on and then off again if you know what buttons to push. The worst thing you can do is to keep presenting something that has been rejected, in the same manner. A school of following kings can be turned into a school of taking kings by something as simple as changing the presentation angle. This applies to both lures and bait. If they follow a lure or show interest in a bait for more than three times without taking it don’t present it again.

They are the exact opposite to barra in this sense. Barra can be teased into striking where kings can be teased out of striking. They are stubborn bastards and the more you shove it in their face the more they’ll reject it

Change lure size, let it sink, change presentation angle or best of all go away, try another spot and come back in half an hour.

To turn them on, surprise them. Rock up to a spot noisily. Throw your anchor with a big splash and then get all your baits out there quickly. Let the baits sink to the required depth and then rip them back in. Just as an excited dumb dog does stupid things so do kingies. As soon as the anchor hits the water they come straight over to see what is happening. The key is to not give them to much time to think about it. Trick them into an impulse attack. Action excites them but not for long, so work quickly.

In addition to this you are better to have five or six baits in the water rather than just a few. Once again this is more likely to excite them. If you can’t handle six rods just take a few out of action once you have the fish on the bite.

One final but equally important tip is to fish with your reel in gear and with your normal fighting drag. Don’t feed kingies any line when they take your bait. Once a take is felt lower the rod down and move with the fish. Once the rod reaches the water its time to strike.

A by–catch of kingie fishing in Sydney harbour is the occasional Samson fish, Amber jack, cobia and to a lesser degree, Rainbow runner.
Distinguishing between the four had always been quite easy for me mainly because they were always caught in their juvenile sizes. Once they get big they become harder to tell apart.

The hardest to pick apart are amberjack and kingies because even as juveniles they are similar in coloration and body shape. If you have a king and an amberjack side by side it’s quite obvious. Amberjack are rounder and fuller over the top of the head and have a slightly bigger and more forward eye. They are generally darker in coloration and have a distinct yellow band running the length of their body. The tail is not as yellow as a kingies.

Samson fish, as juveniles, are very distinct and couldn’t possibly be confused with kings or Amberjack. They are very ‘trevally’ shaped and the coloration is a blotchy mix of brown, yellow and white. According to Grants guide to Fishes, they have red teeth although on the juveniles that is only just apparent.

Rainbow runner do get confused with kings but in my opinion, you would have to be very unobservant to do so. They are very elongated, have a bigger tail and a pointy snout. Their coloration is the most distinguishing feature being bright iridescent blue\purple stripes running the length of their body on a yellowish back ground

There has always been a bit of confusion regarding distinguishing between kings, amberjack and Samson fish mainly because juvenile samsons look very different to adult samsons and none of the text books I refereed to mentioned this. The books say that Samson and amberjack are very similar which is true when they are big. So, when someone catches a small Samson and it looks nothing like an amberjack the ID problems start. Secondly juvenile samsons vary dramatically in coloration between life and death. When a samson is dead it becomes a very uniform yellowish\amber, similar in color to a dead amberjack.

Of course, you can’t go wrong with fin counts but that’s way too boring to go into here. If you are really interested in that — buy a good ID book.

Ambers, Samson, cobia and Rainbow are all too uncommon, in Sydney Harbour, to target specifically. If you really want to catch one, then the only advice I can give you is to fish for kingies and sooner or later one will show up. Just like kingies they are all suckers for fresh squid and respond to the same techniques. The only other thing I can suggest is to fish when the water is at its warmest.

Craig McGill

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