Return of the Sydney kingfish

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AN enormous amount has changed in angling since I first started fishing 50 years ago. To put that time frame in perspective, modern fish (ray fined fish – the ones we catch) have been around for 390 million years and ancient fish, in general, much longer than that.

Only 20 years before I was born, if you could afford a fishing rod (most couldn’t) it would be made of cane and your lines would have been either silk, linen or catgut. Sonar depth sounders, although commercially available from the late ‘50s, did not achieve broad acceptance until the early ‘80s. To highlight the significant jump in technology that sonar represents, its predecessor was the “plumb bob” – a weight on a string. Hi tech plumb bobs had some putty on its underside so that when it hit the bottom it would pick up a sample of the substrate. Some of the greatest advancements in fishing equipment – GPS, braid lines, carbon fibre drag washers and electric “spotlock” motors – have all occurred in my short lifetime. And let’s not forget smart phones where fishos can download apps than will show them everything from nav charts, weather radar, real-time tide info, right through to satellite imaging, sea surface temperatures and even chlorophyll concentrations. Then there’s social media where fishing action and info can be streamed real time, if not within minutes of a fish being captured.

The dynamics of our fisheries have also changed considerably in my time. Waterways that were hot spots when I was a kid are now degraded and fishless and vice-versa. A combination of fisheries management (some good, some bad), pollution control and habitat restoration and the creation of Rec Fishing Haven has seen some surprising turnarounds for selected waterways. Sydney Harbour is a classic example of a water way that has been transformed from a toxic waste drain to a fishing mecca in just three decades. The “clean waterways program” of 1989, removal of commercial fishing and some good rec angling management have all contributed.

The various fish species have met with mixed fortunes, too. One of the biggest losers among them, over the past few decades, has been the mulloway. I believe overfishing from the commercial sector, with its unaccounted by-catch and black marked estimates, is the main cause, but the rec sector must also accept a small part blame. Things are set to get much worse for the jewfish with a rapidly emerging Chinese market for their swim bladders that are fetching over two thousand dollars per kg.

One of the biggest winners during my fishing career has been the mighty yellowtail kingfish.
I just missed out the on the kingie jigging fad that swept the boat fishing scene on the east coast throughout the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

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.

Commercial 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. Lets 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. Some studies suggested the traps may have wiped out as much as 60 per cent of the larger 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 overboard. 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 commercial fishos, which included a bullet through the window of his Port Stephens home, 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 and there’s no question the average size of Sydney kingfish has increased dramatically ever since.

There’s some debate as to just how well kingfish stocks are doing but there’s no doubt that one of the key indicators of a recovering and healthy population, that being, an increase in big fish, is clear. I will admit that numbers of kings don’t seem to have greatly increased over the past 30 years, but, in my opinion, numbers were never the issue. When I first started guiding we caught plenty of fish. Sessions of 30 kings were not uncommon, but they were all in the 60 to 70cm bracket. Anything over that was a rarity, it was the big fish that were absent. An 85 cm fish was newsworthy and you would be lucky to see even one metre long fish every couple of years. But every season since the banning of the kingfish traps the average size of kingfish seems to creep up a kilo or so to the point now where a one metre fish could be described as common. There are so many 80s and 90s around they barely rate a mention these days. Runs of even bigger fish in the 130cm range are also reasonably common these days.

With this current upward trend how big can we expect kingfish to ultimately get in the Sydney region. Officially they can grow to 70kg but even in the meccas like Lord Howe and NZ, this is extremely rare. We know that there are geographic variations on size for many species. Lord Howe island’s silver trevally , although identical in appearance, have been proven to be genetically detached from Sydney populations. But does this apply to large mobile fish like kings. I did a quick search through online records (ANSA, IGFA and Sydney game club). Unfortunately, some of the records were vague about location stating only AUS or NSW at best. Sydney game club didn’t list location at all, but old member, Grahame Donaldson, assures me that it is fair to assume that the bulk of their fish would have been caught in or near Sydney. In their records 30kg seems to be a common upper limit. In fact, 30kg seemed to be a common figure in all records I searched. I did find an isolated reference to a 50kg fish from The Peak and a 1.5m (40 – 45 kg approx.) fish from JB rocks but overall 30kg seemed to be the magic mark. Donaldson assures me, that even in the old days, Sydney kings never got as big as Lord Howe or NZ kings. He did point out however, that kings were very rarely specifically targeted in the old days (pre ‘60s). I guess only time will tell how big Sydney kings will grow in the future. There were a couple of huge fish nudging 40kg taken by spear fishos this season. Are these an anomaly or a taste of the future? Mind you, either way, no one is going to be complaining about a 30keger, especially one caught within sight of the Sydney Harbour bridge.

Another good indicator of the kingfish stock recovery is a noticeable expansion of their season, particularly in Sydney harbour. A harbour winter fishery for kings was almost non-existent a decade ago. Now they are nearly year-round with the winter fish being nearly exclusively in the 90 to120 cm bracket.

There is a parallel precedent with the Sydney salmon fishery. Before the close of the Eden cannery and the easing of commercial pressure salmon in Sydney were known to be very seasonal. Salmon were quite abundant in Sept/Oct, but you rarely saw them outside of that. Post revival salmon numbers boomed, and their season expanded in both directions to a point where they are nearly year-round.

So how has the increase in size effected our attitude and the way we fish for them?

I believe that bigger average size results in a decrease in numbers of fish kept by recreational fishos. An interesting observation I’ve noticed on my charter boat is that my clients are voluntarily opting to take less fish home and release more. The reason is simple – most people are aware that a 90cm plus king provides at least two or three feeds for the average sized family whereas a 65cm fish barely provides one decent feed. My customers, who were traditionally inclined to take home the bag limit of five kingfish in the old days when most fish were around the 65cm mark, are now happy to take home just one or two fish.

Our attitude to kings as a table fish has also changed dramatically. Not that long ago they were considered to be only one step up from baitfish (as were calamari) and were rarely kept for the table. It’s not unusual to see king fillets in the market running at $50 to $70 a kg these days. Improvements in preparation and storage techniques and some cooking lessons from our Aussie-Asian community has rendered them a highly desirable and respected table fish. New techniques in ageing kingfish is set to raise their desirability even a notch higher in the future. Versatility is a big part of their appeal being great for many styles of cooked and raw dishes. I might also hint that you haven’t had the full experience until you have tried butterflied kingfish head grilled Japanese style.

Bigger kings have also necessitated some noticeable changes in equipment and tackle.

Although of limited use in the Harbour and much more applicable offshore, downriggers have become very popular. I’m personally not a big fan. Live fish baits and live squid, to which downriggers are most suited, are not the key to big kingfish. Prime baits for big kingfish don’t troll well.

My filleting knife is much longer than it used to be. My old knife just doesn’t span today’s big king fillets. My filleting and skinning board is also much bigger. There’s no monofilament on my boat anymore, bar leader material. When I first started guiding twenty-pound mono main with a 40lb leader was all that was required. Today, if you are not running 50 to 80 braid mains you are not in the game. We are all using threadline reels (eggbeaters) these days thanks mainly to vast improvements in drag and line roller technology and to a lesser degree, infinite anti-reverse and general overall strength improvements. Thirty years ago, there were very few eggbeater reels capable of handling todays kings. Overheads were the tool of choice for those chasing big fish back then. The jump up to heavy gear also meant that my old plastic, multi adjustable, rod holders became obsolete. I watched three of them get ripped off the gunwale, rod still attached, and disappear into the depths before I got the message on that one. My boat now bristles with welded aluminium tube rod holders. Jigging offshore has had a resurgence and knife jig sales have skyrocketed. Big SP stick baits work much better in the harbour. My old “butterfly” landing net that sufficed through the ‘90s has been replaced with a huge, heavy mesh, stainless framed “Barra” style net.

The kingie comeback is great news on many levels – most of all in the reassurance that our fisheries can bounce back if managed properly.

In a world of mostly bad news about species and environment decline it’s heartening to hear a positive story about a fish doing well – particularly when it’s a big fish that happily swims right up to the doorstep of our biggest city.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sydney Harbour's longest established fishing guide, Craig McGill, started guiding in 1992. Craig’s level of experience and intimate knowledge of Sydney harbour and its surrounds and its abundant fish species is second to none. With Kingfish up to 50lbs and Jewfish up to 80lbs encountered within sight of the famous Opera House, along with a huge variety of other seasonal targets, it’s no surprise Sydney harbour is ranked as a world class fishery, and there’s no better choice of guide than Craig to put you on the fish of your dreams.

More info at fishaboutsydney.com.au or 0412 918 127.

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