Keeping kings out of trouble
  |  First Published: December 2014

Every season the average size of Sydney kingfish seems to creep up a kilo or so, to the point where a 1m fish could now be described as common. I can remember not that long ago when you were lucky to see a fish this size once a season. Now you can expect one every week.

But with this current upward trend, how big can we expect kingfish to ultimately get to in our region? Officially, they can grow to 70kg, but even at Meccas like Lord Howe and New Zealand, this is extremely rare. We know that there are geographic variations on size for many species, but does this apply to large, mobile fish like kings?

I did a quick search through online records (ANSA, IGFA and Sydney GFC). Unfortunately, some of the records were vague about location, stating only Australia or NSW at best. The Sydney GFC data didn’t list location at all, but veteran member Graham ‘Grimace’ 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 the records I searched. I did find a reference to a 50kg fish from The Peak and a 1.5m 40-45kg fish from the Jervis Bay rocks, but overall 30 seemed to be the magic mark.

Donaldson assures me that even in the old days Sydney kings never grew as big as Lord Howe or Kiwi kings, but I guess only time will tell. He did point out, however, that kings were rarely specifically targeted in the old days (pre 1960s). Mind you, either way, no one is going to be complaining about a 30 kegger — especially one caught within sight of the Opera House!

Actually landing one of these suckers around the heavy structure where they are often found is another matter though, and to some degree is linked more to technique than tackle upgrade. Going up in line class creates a number of problems, including difficulties in delivering baits or lures, and a decrease in interest from the fish due to the obvious distraction of heavy traces. Heavy gel spun lines are a poor defence around barnacle-encrusted structure, despite allowing a better presentation than mono of the same class. Furthermore, heavy line and equivalent drag settings are inherently detrimental to the technique that best suits landing big kings.

Working on the theory that the harder you pull the harder the kings pull, I’ve found it best to go fairly lightly until the fish is clear of cover. Some fish charge straight into trouble regardless of what you do, and I don’t think much can be done about it. In general though, I’ve found that gently leading fish away from cover is a lot more productive than going hammer and tongs.

A good skipper is a great asset in rough country. Quite often, for reasons unknown, big kings will run straight away from cover. This is great if it happens, but you have to know how to handle it. The natural instinct is to chase the fish out, but this can prompt it to swim against the direction of the pull and back towards home. I’d suggest staying close to cover and let the fish tire for a while before chasing him. I’ve never had a king swim back towards the boat like tuna do, so keeping near cover will ensure the fish will not swim back to it.

Once you are confident that it’s either too tired or too far from home to get back, then move the boat quickly towards it. From here on in, keep the boat directly above the fish. The greater the angle the line is from the boat, the more chance the fish has of clipping it across the top of bottom structure. Furthermore, being directly above the fish means that it will have to take drag to make any ground downwards toward bottom structure — thereby expending more energy. Low line angles created by the fish being away from the boat means that it needs only to swim sideways to make ground, without having to take line.

In a situation where you have led the fish gently away from the danger zone, wait until you feel you are a safe distance away and then go hard. Before you get stuck in though, place the boat between the fish and home in an effort to encourage it to swim away from the boat and therefore out from cover.

All this is much easier if you are drifting, but it can be achieved at anchor if your crew acts quickly

Once the fish is close to the boat, back the drag off a touch to compensate for the reduced stretch of a shorter line.

Presenting a bait in such a way that it draws the fish away from any structure has obvious benefits. This is done by casting so the bait lands very close and letting it sink, on a tight line, back towards the boat. This encourages the king to race out after the bait and into the open.


While the salmon have been in abundance this season, they have been exceptionally hard to catch. They are tough at the best of times, but this year even moreso, to the point that even fly fishos with their minute offerings have been struggling. The first sign that you are in for a struggle is when you find a huge bubbling surface school and notice that there are very few or even no seagulls overhead.

There's not much on offer for the gulls when the baitfish are so small, so they are relatively scarce compared to when the prey is larger. Tiny prey usually gets inhaled whole, in a process that leaves few scraps behind for the birds. When the food fish are larger, let’s say for example 75mm pilchards, then there is more chance of there being crippled bait and chopped up pieces on the surface. This provides a worthwhile feed for the gulls.

So it’s fair to assume that that the prey is tiny if you find a school of surface feeding fish with relatively few gulls on top. If, on the other hand, the school is supported by plagues of gulls, then chances are that the bait is of a decent size.

I’ve also found that predatory fish feed very tightly on small prey and loosely on large prey, so if you pull up to a school of loosely feeding fish with plagues of birds, then you will be fairly safe in tying on a 50-75mm lure. Furthermore, when they are chasing tiny prey they will feed for hours, but if the prey is big the feed session will be dramatically shorter — maybe as little as 20 minutes. That's pretty obvious when you think about it; it’s going to take a lot longer to fill up on 50 tiny whitebait than it is on 3 big pilchards. If they are feeding on large food, they will be easy to catch, and if they are feeding on tiny prey then they are going to be tough.

The bait at the moment is tiny. You can’t match it with a lure and it wouldn't make any difference even if you could. When salmon are feeding on tiny stuff, they are not targeting an individual fish and hunting them down, but randomly charging around the bait cloud, gulping water and hoping that a couple of baitfish go in with each gulp. It’s hard work for the salmon as it takes them up to 3 hours to get a bellyful of this pathetically small food.

Fly fishermen have successfully matched the hatch and have the means to deliver it, but it’s often proved no more successful than spinning with larger lures. I'm thoroughly convinced now, that matching the hatch is not always the key. The point I am trying to make is that when they are feeding on tiny bait they are not chasing them individually, so it is unlikely that they will specifically chase down your lure or fly, even if it is the right size.

When they are feeding on bigger bait, they are singling out an individual fish and chasing it down. The odds of them doing the same to your lure are therefore good. It’s the modus operandi of their feeding technique that is the problem, not the angler’s ability to match the bait size. It’s frustrating to say the least!

When they are feeding on big prey, tie on a big chrome lure (50-100mm) and the strike rate will be high.

When they are feeding on small prey, tie on a small chrome lure (30-50mm), but the strike rate will be low. Sooner or later, some dumb salmon usually gives in and eats it. It might be on your 10th cast, but more than likely it will be on your 100th.

The good news is that the bait will have grown substantially by the time you read this in January, to the point where small chrome lures will fit the bill nicely.


Marc and Barb with a lovely Sydney metrey. Are bigger fish likely to be on the cards in coming years?


Salmon have been frustrating, albeit abundant this season. As the bait grows, they should become easier to tempt.


Massive kings are becoming more common every year. Fresh squid is the key to getting yourself hooked up to one in the harbour.

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