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Kingfish – the crown jewels of Sydney Harbour
  |  First Published: January 2016



January is the time to start looking for big kings in the harbour. They will begin to move in off the close offshore reefs, and if early season catches are an indicator, we should see some fish as heavy as 15-20kg this year. Hooking one of these big fish is easy but landing one around the heavy structure where they are often found is another matter. It can be linked more to technique than tackle.

King tips

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 distraction of heavy traces. Heavy gelspun lines are a poor defence around barnacle-encrusted structure despite allowing better presentations than mono of the same class. Furthermore, heavy line and drag settings are detrimental to the technique that best suits landing big kings.

Working on the theory ‘the harder you pull the harder the kings pull’, I’ve found it best to go fairly lightly until the fish is clear of the cover. Some fish charge straight into the cover regardless of what you do and I don’t think there’s a thing you can do to stop them. But in general I’ve found that leading fish away from cover gently is a lot more productive than going hammer and tongs.

In rough country a good skipper is an asset. Quite often, for reasons unknown, big kings will run straight away from cover. This is great but you have to know how to handle it. The natural instinct is to chase the fish out but this can prompt the fish to swim against the direction of the pull and back towards the cover. Instead, stay close to the 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 keep the boat near the cover to ensure that the fish will not swim back to it.

Once you are confident that the fish is either tired or too far from the cover to get back, move the boat quickly towards him. From here on, keep the boat directly above the fish. The greater the angle of 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 for him to make any headway toward bottom structure he has to take drag, expending more energy. Low line angles created by the fish being away from the boat mean that the fish needs only to swim sideways to make ground towards cover, without having to take drag.

In the case where you have lead the fish gently away from cover, wait until you feel you are a safe distance from the cover and then go hard. But ensure that, before you get stuck into it, you place the boat between the fish and the cover in an effort to encourage the fish to swim away from the boat and hence away from the cover. All this is much easier if you are drifting but it can be achieved at anchor providing 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 your bait in a way that draws the fish away from the cover has obvious benefits. Cast your bait so it lands very close to the structure and let it sink on a tight line, back towards the boat. This encourages the king to chase the bait out of the structure.

Bait – Get a gutful
Big kingies like whole live squid, but small ones don’t. The big specimens will just as happily take a squid head. Therefore, using a squid head will get you lots of big and small kingies. If you use live squid, you’ll get fewer fish but they will be bigger on average. A whole squid gut is not only exceptionally good bait, but it’s also the best berley that you can use for kings. It’s all about the guts! Use the guts, and especially the ink to entice the fish. You can burst the ink sack before you send the bait down, or you can let the first king burst it for you. Strips of squid cut from the tube are good baits, particularly after the guts and heads have got the school in frenzy. Rub it all in ink. Kingies mostly hold from mid-water down so this is a good place to present your bait.
High tide and the first two hours of the run-out, early morning and late afternoon are when you will find them feeding. These times also present good opportunities to catch squid. You won’t have to worry too much about tides or time of day if you pay close attention to what I said about the bait, guts and ink. Kings are easily turned on and then off again if you know what buttons to push. The worst thing you can do is to keep presenting something that has been rejected, in the same manner. A school of following kings can be turned into a school of taking kings by something as simple as changing the presentation angle, which applies to both lures and bait. If they follow a lure or show interest in bait more than three times without taking it, don’t present it again.

They are the exact opposite to barra in this sense. Barra can be teased into striking where kings can be teased out of striking. The more you shove it in their face the more they’ll reject it. Change lure size, let it sink, change presentation angle or best of all, try another spot and come back in half an hour.

To turn them on, surprise them. Rock up to a spot noisily. Throw your anchor with a big splash and then get all your baits out there quickly. Let the baits sink to the required depth and then rip them back in. Kingies behave like an over-excited golden retriever. As soon as the anchor hits the water they come straight over to see what’s happening. The key is to not give them too much time to think about it. Trick them into an impulse attack. Action excites them, but not for long, so work quickly.

In addition to this it’s better to have five or six baits in the water rather than just a few. More baits should excite them. If you can’t handle six rods, take a few out of action once you have the fish on the bite.

Lastly, fish with your reel in gear and with your normal fighting drag. Don’t feed kingies any line when they take the bait. When you feel a take, lower the rod and move with the fish. Once the rod tip reaches the water it’s time to strike.

• If you are interested in doing a guided fishing trip on Sydney Harbour with Craig McGill please call 0412 918 127 or email --e-mail address hidden--

Author’s opinion

The NSW north coast has seen a dramatic increase in shark attacks and sightings in the last two years. There have been 13 reported attacks, including three fatalities and hundreds of sightings between Forster and Byron Bay. Swimmers and tourist numbers are down, and businesses have felt the impact. While residents, government and scientists scramble for solutions, the answer could be right under their nose: marine parks.

The benefits of marine parks (MPs) have been well documented worldwide. Researchers and conservationists regularly praise the benefits of marine protected areas. A recent study commissioned by the Australian Marine Conservation Society showed that MPs have up to twice as many large fish species and five times more fish biomass. But the report goes on to reveal that they shark numbers also increase by up to 14 times. It stands to reason that if we increase the biomass of lower end species, top end predators will increase as well.

The North Coast was the site for some of NSW’s first MPs. Are we now experiencing some of the unforeseen downsides of MPs in the form of increasing human fatalities?

The Cape Byron Marine Park, created in 2002, is at the epicentre of the recent spate of attacks and sightings. It’s a large park, and the study highlights that it has been established for long enough to show significant benefits for size and abundance of marine life. In other words, it’s a mature MP.

Other significant MPs in the attack zone include Solitary Islands (created 1998) and Port Stephens (2005).

Of the three recent fatalities, two were in MPs and the other less than 10km from a MP. Of the 17 attacks, fatal and non-fatal since 2010, 12 have been in or very near MPs and only five have been outside parks. The recent fatality sites include Campbells Beach at Coffs Harbour, Shelly Beach at Ballina and Clarkes Beach at Byron Bay. The most recent attack on surfer Sam Morgan occurred only a few kms from Cape Byron Marine Park on 10 November.

It’s also worth considering the situation in the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, where there have been 18 attacks including seven fatalities since 2011. In 2013 the situation deteriorated to the point that the government banned all swimming and surfing, and their tourism industry has been devastated. In 2007 shark fishing was banned and a MP established along the island coast.

Another example occurred in Cabo Pulmo Marine Park in Mexico, where shark numbers have increased 10 times according to a paper published in Nature Journal.

When conservationists pitch MPs to small local communities, they extol the benefits of increased tourism. I fail to see how increased shark numbers can benefit coastal towns, where watersports are their major drawcard. I do not believe that a few ‘eco-divers’ will compensate for the loss of tourist dollars generated from families, surfers and backpackers travelling from overseas.

While the same rate of attacks have not occurred in MPs further south, the three northern NSW parks in question represent the cross-over point of the three larger aggressive sharks: the tiger and bull sharks of the sub-tropics and the great white from the temperate south. These three sharks are not found together in abundance further south. They do however occur off Sydney during the warm flush of the east Australian current in summer.

One of the theories put forward for the increased attacks is that there are more people in the water. This theory carries little weight when we consider that there have been 40 fatalities recorded in Sydney Harbour between 1892 and 1963. There have been no fatalities since 1963 and only a few attacks. There are many more people swimming in the unprotected waters of Sydney harbour today when compared to 1963. This doesn’t fit the “bigger population equals more attacks” theory. There were simply more sharks. Removal of shark nets at many harbour beaches including Manly Harbour Pool (replaced with one not even a quarter the size of the original), Camp Cove, Balmoral and Roseville Baths is testimony to the current situation.

There is also some evidence to suggest that large groups of people in the water actually deter shark attacks, with the majority of attacks occurring on isolated swimmers or surfers, well away from condensed groups of swimmers. Whether it be seals or schools of fish, sharks are renowned for ‘picking off’ the straggler. With this in mind, it matters little whether there are 50 people in the water or 500 – a hungry shark will pick off only one. Multiple attacks are rare.

It’s curious that some of the people who say “more people in the water equals more shark attacks” seem unable to grasp that more sharks in the water could also equal more shark attacks!

A recent study, the ‘Reef Life Survey conducted by the Underwater Research Group,’ shows a significant increase in warm water fish in Sydney. If that’s accurate we can expect to see more sub-tropical shark species like tigers. Activity levels of bulls and whites are also known to increase in warmer waters.

In January 2016, the Marine Estate Management Authority will finalise a draft proposal for managing the Hawkesbury bio-region. This region includes most of Sydney, including Sydney harbour. The draft is expected to include marine sanctuary zones. With protected zones proven to increase shark numbers up to 14 times, is this good for a city with a population of 4.5 million?

Sydney Harbour’s potential as a shark attack hot-spot should not be underestimated. Middle Harbour holds the trophy for the highest number of shark fatalities of any Australian waterway. The Baird government is scrambling to find ways to combat increasing shark numbers and attacks, but by implementing more MPs for Sydney they could be making the problem worse.

Can Mike Baird assure the people of Sydney if he brings in MPs, that in 10 years, we are not going to see a repeat of what is happening in northern NSW at the moment – or go back to the carnage of the pre-1960s? – Craig McGill

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the opinion of this publication.

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