The Comeback King: Catching kingfish in Port Phillip Bay
  |  First Published: February 2008

I can clearly remember flicking through fishing magazines as a young tacker, looking at pictures of blokes like Marc Rushton and Andrew Rothic holding massive kingfish taken from The Rip and the surrounding waters close to the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. Unfortunately, several years back, the big kingfish population was severely depleted by the highly effective kingfish traps wiping out the fish stocks further up the coast in NSW. Thankfully that was stopped just in time, and now anglers are starting to see not only some big kings, but also big numbers of ‘rat’ kings returning to our southern waters.

While the removal of the traps has seen numbers increase, I believe other factors, such as improved water quality, have also helped increase the baitfish that form the kings’ primary food source. Whitebait, pilchards, garfish, barracouta, mackerel and yakkas, all rate very highly on the kingfish menu.

The majority of kingfish talk around the bay usually centres on the often rough (and sometimes downright dangerous) waters of The Rip. There is, however, another option for anglers who prefer calmer waters – and that is to chase the good numbers of kingfish move up into northeast Port Phillip Bay.

Many people don’t believe these bay kingfish exist, or that they are only a rare occurrence. If you take the time to actually fish for them, however, I think you may be pleasantly surprised at how many are around.

The Learning curve

In the last two summers, for the first time in a few years, there have been huge numbers of garfish and slimy mackerel in the Bay. Hot on their tails have been the kingfish, so much so that many whiting and garfish anglers report having their fish harassed by bunches of small kingfish everywhere from Mt Martha to St Kilda.

The major problem is that there is so much potential kingy ground in the Bay that finding their whereabouts on the particular day you are fishing can take time. Without any real tide or current flow in the Bay, the fish tend to move around a lot. Swing the odds of finding them in your favour by searching areas of reef that hold good populations of bait, especially if they also have deeper water close by.

My fishing mates and I have found most success in water that many would think is too shallow: anything from 4-8m seems to be good.

If starting your search for a Bay king, good areas to try are the coastline between Mornington and Frankston, along with the reefs from Mordialloc to Brighton and down towards St Kilda. Prime areas to target (as with all kingfish) are around larger separate sections of reef, areas such as Wooleys Reef, Parkdale Pinnacles and Anonyma Shoal. All these hold plenty of food and allow while kings to patrol the deeper edges out of sight.


Trolling is an effective way to catch kingfish, as well as a great way to find potential locations while getting a handle on the type of bottom in the area, and any potential patches of reef for anchoring on later.

We like to troll a Halco Rooster popper or Cotton Cordell Pencil popper on one rod, as well as running one or two diving minnows such as a Rapala Magnum CD11, Tilsan Barra or Laser Pro 120. Other top lures include trolled soft plastics such as Squidgy flickbaits, Slug-Gos and 100mm Squidgy Fish. Try using baitfish style colours such as blue and silver, or green and silver.

Often the kings, and big salmon for that matter, will smash the popper or swirl below it before smashing one of the other lures.

If you have found an area that you think should hold fish, don’t just pass it once, work it thoroughly with several passes in different directions.

Another option that is highly successful is to slow troll bridle rigged garfish or squid slowly behind the boat. Here a small boat with an electric motor can be an advantage, as it enables you to slowly pull the baits along. The only down side to this is that you don’t cover a lot of ground so we tend to do it in targeted areas such as around the reef systems mentioned earlier.


We have had our most consistent success when anchored, due to several factors. Firstly, when anchored we use live bait as part of the equation to bring the kings around. Often we find it best to catch the live bait in other areas, because when the kings are around and hungry, there is a fair chance you will struggle to catch bait on the chosen fishing location.

For instance, I remember the first time my mate Mornae Muller and I got into the kings, we had to catch our gars and slimy mackerel out in 12m of water, then move back into 6m to fish. While there were gars in the shallow water, they weren’t keen to eat with kings hot on their heels.

Once you have found your spot and anchored up, it pays to get the berley going. For this we generally use a pellet berley soaked in tuna oil, in a pot mixed with crushed pilchards. This helps to attract garfish, squid and other bait to the area. Even if they won’t eat, there is nothing better than a whole bunch of gars swimming around the boat to act as a live berley trail.

While waiting we have two baits out suspended under torpedo floats, both of which are positioned so we can just see the actual baits in the water on the edge of our vision. This offers two advantages. Firstly you can keep an eye on the bait to make sure they are still healthy without having to wind in the fragile baits to check them.

Secondly kingfish are very inquisitive, so the idea of holding the baits close to the boat was that if any kings do come along to look at the baits, even if they don’t eat at least we know they are there. We can then change baits and techniques to get them to eat.

Our first successful morning saw us put four kingfish in the boat, ranging from 2-4kg with one fish of 4.6kg taking the biggest bait of the morning (a slimy mackerel). On that day it took about five minutes get the kings to show up at the boat, but another 15 before we could tempt one to eat a bait.

Tease ’em

At times these kingfish will eat like there is no tomorrow, but generally you will find they are far from dumb, often happy to swim around and terrorise the livebaits. They will even head butt and beat them with their tails!

To turn these lookers into eaters, we have had great success pinning a fresh dead gar through its head with a single hook, casting it out, and skipping it back along the surface. It rarely goes unnoticed and often turns a fairly tame kingfish into an angry monster. After chasing the skipping gar to the boat, the king will then head straight for one of the livebaits, or a plastic, and scoff it as though it has never seen it. Interestingly though we haven’t ever had a king actually try and eat the skipped gar.

Tackle ’em

While the kings we have caught in the bay aren’t big by any standards, they are still full of fight like all kingfish. We use 4-6kg outfits for the live baits. Reels are Calcutta 400’s, loaded with 6-8kg monofilament. Both are set up with a small torpedo float and a 40lb leader on snooded suicide hooks. Hook size depends on the bait being used.

We also have a 10kg outfit in the boat just in case a big fish turns up, as well as spin sticks rigged with soft plastics. These are deadly and some days catch fish when the livebaits don’t. Our number one plastic is the 145mm Squidgy flickbait in evil minnow or slick green colour, rigged on a light jighead. We also have success with a Slug-Go rigged unweighted with a worm hook, and retrieved with an erratic twitchy retrieve. Often the kingfish quickly fire up and clobber the plastic.

Time and tide

Kingfish can be caught in the bay between January and April. During these months, by far the best time of day to target them is dawn and dusk. The state of the tide doesn’t seem to have too much effect.

By no means are the methods described here the only way to catch the kings, but they have worked well for us in Port Phillip Bay. This season we have a few new ideas we are keen to try, so hopefully I can let you know about these at a later date.

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