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While lures and jigs certainly catch plenty of fish, a well-rigged livebait remains the No.1 way to connect with XOS kings – as well as various other species.  JAMIE CRAWFORD reports. 

IT’S no secret that livebaiting is a gun method  of connecting to broad-shouldered, keg-sized kingfish. In my book, it’s the go-to technique for big kings. Don’t get me wrong, plastics, poppers, metal jigs and divers all account for their fair share  of quality fish – and they’re a fun way of fishing –  but when fishing deep water and with big fish on your mind, you simply can’t go past a well-rigged livebait. In my home waters of SA, livebaiting accounts for more big kings than all other techniques combined. It’s a big call, but true.

And while kingfish are our No.1 target in these deep offshore waters, we encounter some pretty cool bycatch as well. If it’s big, nasty, and lives over deep water structure, then chances are it too will eat a livie. 

The majority of our deep water livebaiting is done around the offshore islands and deep reefs wide of our exposed western coastline. I won’t go into specific locations on areas as there are a lot of known haunts in both SA and neighbouring waters. Instead I’ll focus on the process of livebaiting in these deep waters.

By deep waters we are referring to depths from around 25m down to 70m; not extreme inky depths but still deep enough to warrant a change of tactics when compared to the livebaiting practices employed in skinny water. 

We have two main styles of deep water livebaiting. The first being at anchor in the lee of an island or headland, and the second is fishing deep water lumps. Both are highly effective, but quite different from each other.

When fishing deep water around islands and rocky headlands, we position the boat on the lee side of the island or headland, and settle in for a night at anchor. Most of the islands we fish are a reasonable distance from shore, so to save travelling the long haul back to shore in darkness – we’ll make  a night of it.

The island anchorages we visit lie in water of around 25–30m. Although these anchorages provide adequate protection from prevailing swell and wind, we still pick our windows carefully as it’s an uncomfortable night if the wind starts to howl after dark.

Once we’re sitting comfortably at anchor, we start a berley trail to attract some live bait to our area. If we know these grounds have been devoid of baitfish activity, then we’ll visit some inshore bait grounds before venturing to the livebaiting possie. We only fish two livebaiting outfits at a time to keep the deck as clean and uncluttered as possible. We also take it in shifts to catch some shut-eye during the night, and thus rotate the fishing. Hence, two of us will fish at a time while the third person is curled up in the cabin.

During warm summer evenings, the winds can be quite fresh – even around offshore islands. It can feel bizarre approaching an island on a calm afternoon, only to feel the breeze pick-up as you draw close to the island. It’s due to the exchange of warm air rising  from a warm landmass and drawing in cooler air to fill its place. The negative  of this is it often makes a boat swing at anchor and can create headaches for livebaiting as mainlines cross each other, pass under the hull or around the outboard leg.

There are a couple of ways to work around this. The first is to set livebaits under a balloon, but you will need to set the baits a long way under the surface in these deeper waters. It will, however, draw the mainline out the back of the boat and away from possible danger around the transom. The second option, which is our preferred method, is to use outriggers to keep the mainline a safe distance away from the boat. It’s pretty cool hearing the “click” of the outrigger clip snap open when a bait gets eaten, seconds before the reel erupts in a howling run. 

When fishing around islands and headlands, we try to set our baits close to the bottom. We let our livies hit the bottom before retrieving two or three metres of line to raise the bait just off the seafloor. In the semi-protected waters we visit, we don’t have much current to contend with, although in other locations stronger flows may be an issue. We try to use a minimal amount of lead for  the depth we are fishing, and we can generally get away with using a 100g running bean sinker. It’s a fairly chunky sinker, but in 25–30m it’s necessary to reach the bottom. 

Our rigs are basic for this style of fishing: a pair of 9/0 live baiting hooks are snelled 10cm apart on a 1m length  of 100lb hard-wearing mono trace line. Some great live baiting hooks include the Mustad Hoodlum, Mustad Big Gun, Gamakatsu LB and Black Magic KS. A good quality heavy swivel separates the trace line from the mainline, and it’s above the swivel where the running sinker lies. 

For this style of fishing, any recognised live baiting outfit will fit the bill. I prefer the use of overhead reels around these islands and headlands, as the kings are often in the larger size-class so having the extra line capacity is always piece of mind. I generally fish a 15kg outfit, but also have a 24kg rigged and ready to go should we hit some larger fish.

Either braid or mono will do the job, but I opt for braid as it’s easier to sense vibrations from the bait through the GSP or braided line than it is through mono. Knowing how your bait is behaving is important. Sensing nervous vibrations lets you know when some predatory fish have arrived on the scene, or just knowing that your bait is still alive and swimming strong gives you confidence in your bait.

Around these islands and headlands, we begin our livebaiting shortly after nightfall and fish through until daybreak. Most of the big-fish (20kg+) action centres on the early hours of the morning, from about midnight to 4am. It’s a pretty rude time to be fishing, but the rewards are justified. 

We often get a run of smaller kings (5–10kg) shortly after sunrise. While the bite can be hot, it is generally short-lived. These small to mid-sized fish travel  and feed in schools, so having several similar sized kings following a hooked fish is a common sight. Although smaller than the night time brutes, these fish still eat relatively large baits.

Fishing in these protected lee waters, it’s not only kingfish that chew our live baits either. Samson fish, snapper, blue groper and gummy sharks also eat our deep livebaits set for kingfish. A good fishing mate of mine recently caught a 6.8kg salmon while livebaiting for kingfish around an offshore island – that’s a whole lot of Aussie salmon.

When the conditions are favourable, we hit some deep water reefs wide of these islands and headland haunts. The reefs rise from 90m of water to within 40m of the surface, with most of our fishing done around the 50 to 70m depth. It is deeper water than the previous island locations, but it’s still possible to catch some solid kings on livebaits – even at these depths.

Once we’ve arrived on the mark and sounded the area for likely schools of fish, we’ll drop anchor and send some livebaits down to the reef. We gather all of our baits before arriving on the scene, so a bit of prior preparation is required.

Using the same livebaiting outfit as before can double for this application, with braided or GSP lines almost a necessity over these deep reefs. The terrain and depth makes this a “lock-up and-drag-’em out” fishery so we generally go for the heavier 24kg outfits. Setting the hooks on a big king just metres from heavy reef makes this a pretty intense style of fishing. 

The rigs are quite different to the aforementioned shallower, low current locations. Out here we use a paternoster rig, making sure the sinker sits below the livebait. We have a 60cm dropper of 100lb hard-wearing mono leading onto our snelled 9/0 live bait hooks. This dropper runs from the top of a 1m trace, the bottom of which is affixed to our sinker. We’ll use anything from a 160 to 230g of lead just to drag our livie to the bottom. If the current is really running hard, we’ll use a downrigger to hold the bait in position.

The bait doesn’t have a lot of action at these depths; its movement is dictated by the sinker. However, once it reaches position over the reef, it rarely lasts long. The nervous flickering of a live mackerel or scad over the reef rings a dinner bell and an assortment of reef dwellers home in on the free meal. 

In addition to the targeted kingfish, we regularly catch Samson fish, snapper, big nannygai, blue morwong, gummy shark and school shark plus an assortment of other reef species. The bycatch makes this style of fishing very entertaining, although you do go through a lot of baits for a day on the reef. 

There are a host of baits suitable for deep water livebaiting, with available species varying depending upon location. The best baits in our region are slimy mackerel, yellowtail scad, salmon, trevally, trumpeters, Australian herring, squid and redbait. There are plenty of other options, but remember it’s a benefit to use tough, strong swimming, silver bait fish. If you use weaker baits such as garfish or mullet, you’ll be forever renewing baits, especially at night when lots of waiting is involved. There are some big kings hanging around our offshore islands and deep reefs – they’re just waiting for a livebait to swim by ...

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