How to catch kingfish on livebait

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Being prepared to fish with bait can be the difference between a good fish in the boat or going home empty-handed.

TARGETING kings on topwater lures or jigging is certainly in vogue at the moment, and it’s understandable why. Catching kings on lures is a blast! But sometimes lures aren’t the most effective means of triggering a kingfish bite. This species will often play hard-ball and what worked well on one day can often draw a blank on another.

A good mate and myself recently did a run out to a cluster of islands near our hometown. We opted to leave the bait behind and just pack a swag of lures. We had good weather on the day, and once we arrived at our chosen location there were about a dozen other boats working the same area.

We ran a selection of diving hard body lures along the foaming edge of the islands and around some bommies. We micro-jigged around some shallow water lumps and did some heavy jigging out wide over a couple of deeper reefs. Apart from a lone southern bluefin that crashed a diver along the backside of the main island, we drew a blank. We didn’t even see any signs of kingfish that day. With the boat traffic, it was obvious the fish were wary.

Even the humble pilchard can turn up big kings.

Back on shore we heard one of the boats did well…with bait. Now I’m not one of those purists who will only chase fish on lures; I’m happy to use whatever method is working at the time. When the next window of weather rolled around, we were back out there. We had an early start and caught 10 live baits before the sun came up, and we were at the islands shortly after run rise.

We picked a likely location in the lee of one of the islands and dropped the anchor in around 25 m of water. I bought a 10 kg block of pillies from a local sardine factory, which allowed us to start a slow berley trail from the back of the boat, as well as dropping a berley pot mid water. Within half an hour we had a school of kings in the trail, and they were good fish too. My mate and I carefully rigged a livie and drifted the kicking fish down the trail…for absolutely nothing. We couldn’t believe it, two perfect live baits in front of 10 kings without so much as a sniff.

We decided to set the live baits at differing depths – mine close to the bottom and my mates in mid-water. The livies sat there…and sat there. In the meantime, some big silver trevally had arrived in the berley trail, so to pass the time I flicked out a half pilchard on a lighter outfit on a single 6/0 hook, and started catching a few trevally for fun.

My half pillie managed to float underneath the trevs on one occasion, and got smashed. Using a 20 lb outfit that I normally use for snapper, the fish ripped a heap of line before slugging it out underneath the boat. It was a great fight, and eventually a 110 cm king hit the surface. Sweet.

My mate James quickly rigged a single hook and flicked a pillie out the back as well. He was rewarded with a hook up within minutes, all the while our live baits sat untouched. We managed to land some nice fish over the next couple of trips while floating dead baits down the berley trail – something we hadn’t done on previous trips.

Unweighted dead baits

The kings we caught over those couple of sessions were tuned in to feeding on small baits drifted down the berley trail. This may not happen on every outing or at every location, but it’s certainly worth trying, especially if the fish aren’t focussed on taking lures or livies.

Floating unweighted dead baits down a berley trail can often result in hook ups when lures have been ignored.

Establishing a berley trail was the biggest factor here, and we used about 10 kg of pillies on each of the trips. These pillies needn’t be good quality; if anything the second grade product is more effective in breaking up and creating an oily trail.

Once the trail is established, try floating baits as naturally as possible alongside similar-sized pieces of berley. Other fish such as silver trevally, salmon and even tuna will often feed in the same trail. The ensuing feeding competition isn’t a bad thing provided you can still get baits underneath these fish and to the kings below. We also picked up a Samson fish on the floating pillie on one of our trips, adding variety to the catch.

Because we are fishing unweighted, we have been concentrating on areas of minimal current and tidal flow, so we can drift our baits together with the berley as naturally as possible. This has meant focussing on the lee shores of islands and on the inside of headlands which offer protection from the elements.

This style of fishing is also effective around reefs and bommies in open water around the turn of the tide once the main flow has slowed. Water in the 20 to 30 m depth can be effectively fished with unweighted baits, but we found with water any deeper it became challenging to deliver unweighted baits into the feeding zone.

This is also where a quality sounder is worth its weight in gold, and spending a bit of time sounding an area and looking for signs of fish and bait will certainly fast track your success. Getting to know your sounder and being able to interpret the reading is vitally important, especially in deeper water. I run a Simrad NSS on my boat and can’t rate the unit highly enough.

As for tackle, outfits in the 6 - 10 kg range have proven perfect for this style of fishing, but mind you most of our fish are in the 90 to 110cm range and are quite manageable on this tackle. Hooking a big guy will inevitably have a different outcome. I have been running 20 lb braid as my mainline on 50 lb leader, and this has been working well so far. A single chem-sharp offset hook in the 6/0 to 8/0 size range is idea for these fish.

Fishing live baits

Although we have just detailed the effectiveness of fishing with dead baits in certain situations, there is still a place for fishing live baits around these offshore islands and reefs, and that’s for targeting the bigger fish. A well-rigged livie is still the number one bait for 20+ kg kings in our local waters, and I’d say the vast majority of big fish we’ve caught have been on livies.

Want bigger kingfish? Try live baits.

When fishing with live baits we are fishing the same locations as detailed above but we are focusing on dawn / dusk and into the dark of night for these big kings. We don’t berley to the same degree as we do when fishing unweighted baits, but a trickle of berley will still make a difference.

There is a wide selection of baits that can effectively be used for kings, including live slimy mackerel, yellowtail scad, salmon trout, garfish, mullet, herring, silver trevally, and of course squid. Of the above baits, live mackerel, salmon trout and squid are, in my opinion, the number one baits. It’s worth the extra effort to secure some good livies at the beginning of the day, as kings are notorious for their fickle feeding habits, and you want to give them a few options.

It’s worthwhile knowing some good inshore bait grounds to source your livies at the start of the day, as most of the deeper reefs and offshore islands are patchy for sourcing smaller live baits. It can be a long way out to find-out you can’t catch livies.

We fish our live baits down deep; normally setting the baits in the bottom 5m of water. In some locations this means downrigging, especially if drift fishing or slowly motoring around a headland or island. More often than not though, we’ll anchor in a likely location and set some stationary live baits. When fishing livies, having two baits set down deep is ample; any more can create chaos if the boat is swinging at anchor, or when you get a hook up.

While at anchor, we normally run a sliding sinker above our trace line with around 90 – 100cm of 100 to 120lb mono running from a ball bearing swivel to our hook(s). The running sinker isn’t utilised so a fish can pick up the bait unhindered (we run our baits off the bottom anyway), it’s so the live bait sits naturally and doesn’t twist around the sinker or mainline.

Whether you run with one or two hooks depends on the size of the bait you're using. When rigging live squid we will generally run two hooks (around 10cm apart depending on the size of the squid), but for live fish we will run a single hook most times. Heavy gauge offset live bait hooks in the 9/0 to 10/0 size range are preferred. These may sound like an overkill, but trust me they’re not.

As for tackle, we run relatively heavy gear just to make sure we can turn the bigger kings before they reach the edge of a bommie or run over a ledge. Whether threadline or overhead is personal preference, both will do the job fine. As a starting size I would recommend a 10,000 size reel, a PE4 or 5 rod and 50 lb braid for targeting big kings on livies, and even going up to an 80lb or 100lb outfit if fishing around unforgiving territory. Remember the harder you lean into a good king, the harder the fish will run in return.

Fishing with baits may not seem as cutting-edge as running lures, but in some areas it can make the difference between landing a couple of fish or going home empty handed. It takes a bit more preparation to fish with baits, but it’s worth the effort when that first golden-tailed fish hits the surface.

The author releasing a bait-caught kingfish.
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