Kahawai fishing on light spinning tackle, soft baits, and fly rod

Kahawai Fishing on light spinning tackle, soft baits, and the fly rod – Revised & Updated

Other names for kahawai: Kopapa, Australian Salmon

Scientific Name: Arripis trutta

For Kahawai Profile by Dick Marquand (scroll down)

Kahawai Fishing

Table of Contents

Kahawai was for a very long time seen as a second-rate species not highly regarded as a table fish in New Zealand, especially when compared with more sort-after table fare like snapper, groper and blue cod. Kahawai flesh was considered dry and coarse when cooked. However, this is not true and kahawai are thought of more highly nowadays. Smoked kahawai, in particular, is regarded as a delicacy by many Kiwis.

The kahawai is a streamlined fast-swimming species with large scales. It can usually be easily caught when present in inshore coastal waters either from a boat or by surfcasting, rock fishing and wharves and jetties. Generally, kahawai prefer clear water and will usually go somewhere else when the sea conditions are dirty.

I used a trout fly rod and reel setup to target kahawai at the river mouth. The blue Deceiver pattern worked a treat as did several other of my saltwater fly creations.

When sold in fish shops it is usually one of the least expensive fish. It is for some reason always sold whole in fish shops and supermarkets. Perhaps its ready availability has made us blasé as to the finer qualities of this species. The widespread distribution of kahawai together with their readiness to take both baited hooks and spinners has made them what many consider to be “the people’s fish”.

Kahawai fishing is exciting stuff. Pound for pound the humble kahawai is one of the best fighting fish in the sea. It is such a good fighter on rod and line that it is regarded as a game fish by the International Game Fish Association. The Current IGFA kahawai All-Tackle Record stands at 19 lbs. 4 ounces.

Kahawai school by size. Though a big kahawai might weigh 5kg as you will read below, they can get much bigger too! They eat small fish and crustaceans, particularly krill. I have caught kahawai packed full of red whale feed (krill).

Kahawai is often found in the whitewater adjacent to river mouths. They occur in vast schools over the summer. With binoculars in hand at Goose Bay, Kaikoura, during the summer months, you can almost always see a kahawai school somewhere along the coast. There can be huge schools of kahawai, barracouta, and other fish a kilometre offshore, but the kahawai, in particular, will chase baitfish so close to the beach you can easily see their backs in the waves!

Kahawai are Great Fighters

“Pound for pound a kahawai would tow any trout of a comparable weight backwards through the water.” They really are tremendous fighters and exciting to catch on rod and line. They repeatedly jump clear of the water when hooked and often escape to fight another day. I say kahawai are New Zealand’s greatest fighting fish! They always give a good account of themselves when hooked.

If you really want to have some fun try casting into a school of big kahawai on light spinning gear or try taking them on with the fly fishing gear you normally use for trout. Huge schools of kahawai can “hang around” a river mouth for weeks on end providing exciting sport, and a fish or two for the smoker. They are amazingly strong runners and surprisingly powerful fighters for their size! Sometimes you can hook and lose several kahawai all on the same cast as they will have a go at almost any rapidly retrieved lure!

I have witnessed large schools of kahawai at the mouth of the Waimakariri River that has “camped” there for weeks, even months, at a time. Some years they are there all summer long. Watch for screaming seabirds that often hover above the baitfish and kahawai schools diving and swooping on fleeing baitfish. Kahawai schools can come and go. One minute everyone is hooked up to a fish. A short time later the school has moved off following a school of baitfish. Your best option is to cast out and see what happens. Often you think they aren’t there because you can’t see them.

When big kahawai schools are at the mouth of the Waimakariri, and other rivers, you can often see their backs as dark shapes in the breakers. Kahawai isn’t afraid to come right into very shallow water when chasing baitfish like smelt, which are also called silveries. At the mouth of the Rakaia River, and many other places, I have often seen kahawai chase the silveries right up onto the stones. With a big school of fish “sitting” in the river mouth kahawai spinning can get very exciting indeed.

Back in the day to make really long casts at river mouths when fishing for kahawai I’d use my salmon gear consisting of a 13-foot carbon fibre rod matched with an Abu 7000 or Abu 7500C bait caster reel. The best fishing method is to cast out across the surf as far as you can. Point your rod down towards your lure as you wind. Every now and again your ticer should pop out of the water and skim across the top just like a fleeing baitfish! It depends on where the kahawai are; sometimes long casts are required to hook them, while at other times you can catch them with a hand line. Nowadays I would rather be fishing for kahawai on light spinning gear.

A good selection of kahawai lures comprising jigs and ticers. The most common mistake anglers make when kahawai spinning is to select a lure that is too big! The smaller ones at the top will take far more fish.

IGFA World Record Kahawai

The current IGFA All-Tackle World Record for kahawai stands at 19 lbs. 4 ounces ( 8.74 kgs) . That fish was caught by Stephen Muller at Currarong, Australia, on 9 April 1994. The heaviest kahawai I have seen caught in the South Island would have been no more than 6 or 7 pounds at the most, so a kahawai weighing 19 lb 4 oz is an incredibly big specimen. Amazingly kahawai grow to least 3 ft (1 m) and 33 lb (15 kg).

Australian Salmon

In Australia, kahawai are known as “Australian salmon” which is quite wrong as this species is in no way related to the true salmon or their relatives. Salmon has never been successfully introduced into Australian waters. Kahawai is found around New Zealand, Tasmania, and the southern coast of Australia. They are found in waters of the continental shelf, estuaries, bays and inlets. Kahawai schools in shallow, open coastal waters or form large surface aggregations in deeper water.

Kahawai is not as plentiful today – but there are still heaps around!

Kahawai is not as plentiful around New Zealand today as they were prior to the 1970s. Extensive overfishing by commercial fishing boats was to blame. Though there is still plenty of this species around the vast schools that would once “sit” for months at a time, over summer, off river mouths and harbour entrances, are now sadly a thing of the past. In an update to this article written in February 2015, it seems that in some areas kahawai numbers have increased markedly. Big schools have been seen around the coast of the South Island again during the summer of 2014/15.

At the Waimakariri River mouth, and also at the Rakaia and Rangitata Rivers, kahawai have been present almost constantly and in huge numbers. Kahawai have been so plentiful off Canterbury river mouths this summer that many anglers are trying new fishing methods for the first time. Many are experiencing tremendous sport-catching kahawai on light trout spinning gear and fly rods. Long may this trend of increasing fish numbers continue. Don’t forget to quickly release any unwanted kahawai unharmed back into the sea. In this regard, we must all do our bit to look after the kahawai fishery.

The best way to find large concentrations is to look for feeding birds. These often indicate the presence of kahawai, which chase smelt, sprats and anchovies, into tightly packed schools.

This kahawai has taken on 40g Lucky Lure. This hard-bodied lure is bright silver, and the body is flat. It is small and compact and casts a very long distance. Combined with a Mustad 34007 size 2/0 O’Shaughnessy single hook you have a deadly combination for kahawai on spinning gear. The small lure and single hook attract more strikes and hold the fish better than a treble.

Kahawai Fishing Tackle

Kahawai will take baited hooks but are much easier to catch on spinning lures. Kahawai are used to chasing baitfish so chasing a silver ticer would be quite a natural reaction for a kahawai. These fish are very strong and will often bend your treble hooks. I have found the best hooks to use on kahawai lures are 1/0 VMCs. Kahawai will jump clear of the water as they attempt to dislodge the hook. Whilst airborne they also shake their heads from side to side. This often results in lost fish. Shorter lures are harder for the fish to dislodge.

Ideally, you want the lure to slide down the line to give the hooked fish less leverage – in the manner of a Tasmanian Devil trout lure. Mind you the loss of a few kahawai as they jump out of the water is all part of the fun of catching them.

I have always found bright silver ticers to work the best on kahawai. These are about the same size as a silvery that the kahawai schools chase at river mouths. However, I am sure that when they are in feeding mode they will hit just about anything that is moving. The most exciting way to catch kahawai is on fast-moving lures: ticers and small jigs are ideal when casting near the edge of a feeding school.

Kahawai is powerful light tackle fighter. A kahawai hooked on a 6 lb monofilament or braid is a real handful, and quite a challenge when hooked from shore. As kahawai often come right in close to the beach they make ideal targets for those anglers up to the challenge of landing a kahawai on saltwater fly fishing tackle. I suggest you pack plenty of backing onto your fly reel!

The rods I prefer are either Kilwell Enticers or my English Harrison. These are long rods designed to cast ticers over 100 metres for salmon when fishing the surf. Although this is fairly heavy gear for kahawai, in Canterbury over summer, salmon are the target species, so most anglers will fish for both species on the same long rods. Much depends on how far out the kahawai school is. Sometimes they are very close right in the breakers. Long casting distance affords more options and is always a big advantage. Although I must admit in recent years I have become a firm convert to kahawai fishing with lighter tackle – see below.

Hooks and lures for kahawai spin fishing

You will find that size 1/0 single hooks on smaller (18g) casting jigs are by far the most effective lures to use for spin fishing for kahawai. This is particularly the case when spin fishing for kahawai at river mouths. The smaller lures and single hooks will attract far more bites. The kahawai will also stay on the single hooks better.

After many years of kahawai spin fishing at the mouth of Canterbury’s Waimakariri River, I am convinced that smaller silver jigs around 18g fished on braided line with a leader of approximately two-rod lengths of monofilament will outfish the typical older-style heavier ticers weighing 55g – 68g that is also used for fishing for salmon in the surf. See Light Tackle Kahawai Spinning – Exciting Low-Cost Game Fishing Video.   

Kahawai on Light Tackle and Soft Plastics

In recent years, more anglers have begun to fish for kahawai at river mouths on light trout spinning gear. Fine diameter braided line is strong enough to hold kahawai while at the same time is better suited to casting lighter weight soft plastic lures or smaller metal fish-shaped jigs. This combination makes for tremendously exciting fishing. When the kahawai are in close fishing for them on trout tackle is great fun and well worth the effort of carrying an extra rod and reel.

After experimenting myself and questioning many successful and expert anglers I am convinced that your hook-up rate on kahawai is greatly improved by fishing small fish-shaped metal jigs that resemble a sprat or smelt. These small silver coloured fish are the favourite prey of kahawai and a lure that closely resembles them in size and shape is the most readily taken. In a similar vein, these small metal lures are more effective both at hooking and holding kahawai if they are fished with a single hook instead of a treble.

The lighter metal jigs (lures) are best fished on a small diameter braided line equivalent to 6 lb mono, or lighter. Lighter lures have more action and don’t sink too quickly in shallow water. This type of lure has more weight near the hook end enabling longer casting distances. When fishing in the shallow water at the mouth of the Waimakariri River, which has a sandy bottom, I recommend fishing with light braid and silver-coloured metal jigs weighing under 20g. The lighter lures will have more action when retrieved.

If using your long salmon rod, particularly when fishing with a monofilament line, a heavier jig around 40g will cast much better than a lighter one that doesn’t load your rod efficiently.

Smaller lures definitely work better. You will get more hits on a smaller-sized lure.

Soft baits are excellent for kahawai. especially the smaller 5cm paddle tails. The only downside is that kahawai chomps them to pieces fairly quickly.

For light tackle kahawai spin fishing, I recommend you try a Shimano Catana 792. It is a light trout rod in the 3 -6 kg line class. This light rod is almost 8 feet long and allows kahawai to fight like kingfish.

This Kahawai has taken on a simple shrimp fly. The weighted eyes help it sink on a floating line at river mouths. The eyes make the fly swim barb-up.

Kahawai on the Fly Rod

Kahawai will readily take a fly. The key to catching them on a fly rod is to get into a position where you can present your fly to schooling fish in sufficiently deep water. When conditions are optimum you can have a lot of fun catching kahawai on a fly rod.

Kahawai taken on ultra-light fly fishing tackle by Dick Marquand in the Otumoetai Channel, Tauranga Harbour, Bay of Plenty.

You can get a saltwater fly rod and reel outfit if you think you will enjoy this style of fishing, or as many do, you can start out with a simple trout fly rod and reel and weight forward line.

Fly fishing for kahawai in the early morning mist at the mouth of Canterbury’s Waimakariri River.

Ideally, you want the sea to be calm and the water clear. Kahawai doesn’t like dirty water. You also need a cooperative school of kahawai to be close to shore. A fast line stripping technique will trigger more strikes.

Many kahawai are caught at river mouths by anglers fishing for sea-run brown trout. The kahawai will just as readily go for a Grey Ghost or Yellow Rabbit on a size 2 hook as a trout will. If you tie your own flies you might like to make up a few Deceiver patterns in a blue/white and silver combination. Add some pearl Mylar Flashabou and the kahawai are sure to go for it.

Kahawai fishing at river mouths is a very exciting form of fishing and something I look forward to every year.

Blue Deceiver Saltwater Flies are excellent for kahawai fishing at river mouths.

Here is a great video about how to fish for kahawai on light gear with Malcolm Bell from The Complete Angler. There are heaps of great tips in this video for the spin and fly angler. Highly recommended.

More Kahawai Tips and Ideas
Even More Kahawai Tips and Ideas

Malcolm Bell Light Tackle Spin Fishing at the Waimakariri River mouth VIDEO.

Malcolm Bell from The Complete Angler really got me started on fishing for kahawai with braid on light trout spinning gear. Once you’ve tried it you’ll never go back. With lighter gear jigs cast further, you catch way more fish, and the kahawai feel like monsters on the line. Single hooks are also the way to go.

Kahawai line drawing reproduced by kind permission of the Auckland Museum.

South Island Game Fish Profile No. 2 – The kahawai

By Dick Marquand

Common Name: Kahawai.
Other Names: Sea Salmon (Australia)
Scientific Name: Arripis trutta.

Identifying Characteristics:

The kahawai has a streamlined body that is covered in large scales. The first dorsal fin is spiny and extends back into a second softer dorsal. The eyes are large and the tail is deeply forked. There is no caudal keel stabiliser on the caudal peduncle. The upper surface is green or greenish-blue with grey, brown or golden spots and the lower sides are silvery white.

Temperature Range:

12deg. C to 25deg C.


The kahawai is found year-round throughout New Zealand‘s coastal waters.


The kahawai is a pelagic inshore fish that is often seen in large surface schools. Particularly during the summer and autumn months. It is a fast-swimming species that feeds on small schooling fish such as yellow-eyed mullet, pilchards, sprats, anchovies, garfish, whitebait and on occasions, swimming crabs and krill.

Concentrations of white-fronted terns (also known as kahawai birds) will generally indicate the presence as well as pinpoint schools of feeding kahawai. Schools often congregate around river mouths and kahawai will enter waters of low salinity.

Fishing Methods:

Kahawai are amongst the easiest fish to catch, either on bait or on lures. Successful fishing methods include using cut baits, dead baits or live baits (either drifted or trolled) – and lures such as poppers, plugs, jigs, spoons and saltwater flies.

Fighting Characteristics:

When hooked. a kahawai will give a good account of itself with long sizzling runs and head shaking leaps, a tactic that it often uses to regain its freedom. For the best sport, a light fly rod or a threadline outfit with 2kg line is recommended. The kahawai is an exceptional light tackle game fish that is available to both shore-based and boat anglers.


The kahawai grows to a weight of over 10kg, although a fish of this size is usually an exception rather than the rule. A 5kg fish is considered to be large.

The 1992 International Game Fish Association‘s publication ‘World Record Game Fishes‘ lists the All-Tackle World Record tor kahawai as 8.46kg (18lb 10oz) taken at Spirits Bay in Northland, New Zealand on 6kg tackle by Oliver S. Kapotanakos on 19 March 1990.


In recent years, there has been concern expressed by recreational anglers that the kahawai is being overfished commercially, principally by being targeted by purse seine vessels. A few decades ago, the kahawai fishery in southern Australia all but collapsed due to overfishing by commercial interests.

The kahawai is recognised as a game fish by both the New Zealand Big Game Fishing Council and the International Game Fish Association. Both organisations keep records for saltwater fly fishing in tippet classes up to and including 10kg, and in the case of saltwater line class records, the N.Z.B.G.F.C. collects data on national records up to and including the 10kg class, while l.G.F.A. world records go up to and include 15kg tackle.

This Kahawai is rigged as a trolling bait for big game fish like marlin, swordfish and tuna.

Kahawai makes ideal baits, either dead or alive, for a wide variety of game fish, especially the marlin, sharks and the yellowtail kingfish.

If the angler proposes to eat kahawai, the fish should be bled immediately upon being landed. Cutting through the narrow section at the underside of the gills and holding the head back will allow most of the blood to be drained. While smaller fish make tasty fillets, large kahawai tend to be coarse fleshed and are better smoked, bottled, canned or made into fish pies.

Light Tackle Kahawai Spinning makes for Exciting Low-Cost Game Fishing at River Mouths by Allan Burgess

Light tackle Kahawai Spinning VIDEO

Video: You can catch kahawai on heavier gear but it just doesn’t compare to the excitement of light tackle spinning! Fishing for kahawai at the mouth of Canterbury’s Waimakariri River using what is essentially lightweight trout fishing tackle.

Spin fishing for kahawai at river mouths plays a big part in the overall recreational fishing scene in New Zealand. Often under-rated, the humble kahawai is one of the few sea fish species that are readily available to shore-based anglers. They can be caught on baited hooks but are much more fun to target with light tackle kahawai spinning. 

The best time to fish for them at the Waimakariri River mouth is during the bottom half of the outgoing tide. If this coincides with falling light later in the day so much the better. Kahawai don’t like dirty water so aim to fish for them when the water has had a chance to clear following a flood. 

Juvenile kahawai are fair game for adults of the same species, especially around river mouths.
At just 18g this jig is small and compact. It is the one used in the video.

River-mouths throughout New Zealand are the temporary home of many juvenile fishes. During spring and summer, huge schools of baitfish gather around river mouths as they move between estuarine nursery areas and the open sea. These include smelt, whitebait, kahawai, yellow-eyed mullet, sprats, and numerous others. Some species such as mullet and little kahawai join together in big mixed schools which are also the target of terns and gulls. On shingle beaches, adult kahawai often chase baitfish schools so close to shore many of the little fish become stranded on the beach where they are quickly consumed by gulls.

It is these little fishes and at times whale-feed or krill, that the kahawai are after at river-mouths. They find any sort of moving baitfish fair game hence their readiness to go after cast and retrieved spinners. I guess they don’t have a lot of time to spend examining the lure to decide if it is a real baitfish or a metal imitation. The best lures for kahawai match the baitfish that are present, at least as far as size and colour are concerned.

You don’t need much in the way of gear to get started kahawai spinning. Just about any old spinning or surfcasting rod can be pressed into service. In my hometown of Christchurch, where salmon fishing is also popular, many anglers target kahawai using the exact same rods and reels they use for salmon fishing. Kahawai can be caught in the surf off Canterbury river-mouths in the same places that salmon are taken. The kahawai will also readily take the exact same ticers used for salmon fishing. So why carry around a separate outfit just for the kahawai spinning?

Light Tackle Kahawai Spinning

So why carry around a separate outfit just for the kahawai spinning? The answer is simple! Once you have tried kahawai fishing with the lightweight gear you will be hooked! It is a very exciting style of fishing. Fishing a 6lb spinning rod and reel combo, you’ll get more hook-ups, catch a lot more fish, and have an amazing amount of fun. Kahawai are powerful fighters for their size, often jumping clear of the water, and pulling hard as they try to escape.

The lighter gear also enables you to fish smaller and lighter lures that more accurately resemble the baitfish that kahawai are feeding on. It also means you get more hits and generally catch more fish than you would on bigger, heavier ticers. Provided you have a good well-balanced lightweight rod and reel set you won’t be giving up much casting distance either.

In the accompanying video, I am fishing with a Shimano Sienna 2500FD reel, spooled with braid and a 3m fluorocarbon leader of 10lb breaking strain, paired with a Shimano Catana 792 two-piece rod. I join the leader to the braid with an FG knot which passes effortlessly through the rod’s line guides. The Shimano Catana 792 is a graphite trout spin fishing rod with a medium to fast action designed to fish 3-6 kg line. The lure weight range isn’t marked on the blank but would be around the 7 – 20-gram mark. The rod measures 2.37 metres (7 foot 8 inches).

Shimano Catana 792 custom rod butt extension.
Shimano Catana 792 with original rod butt. The extra 100mm makes a big difference to its handling. Perfect for light tackle kahawai spinning.

I have extended the blank at the butt of this rod by carefully inserting and glueing in place a short section of old spin rod to increase the overall length to 2.47 metres (8 foot 1 inch). Although only an extra 100mm longer it gives even better casting distance with less effort and makes it more comfortable to use – for me at least. The total cost of the rod and reel is around $150.00. I have also caught quite a few big trout down at the canals with this same outfit. The black Hyperlon bottom grip looks a little out of place with the cork grips further up the rod, but I like it. It sits nicely under my arm while retrieving too.

Pound-for-pound kahawai are very strong fighters recognised by the International Game Fish Association as a game fish species. When hooked on lighter tackle they give the angler a thrilling battle often jumping clear of the water as they attempt to dislodge the hook. Light Tackle Kahawai Spinning.

I also have an even lighter Berkley Drop Shot rod that I’ve been meaning to try out on the kahawai as well. It is a 1-3kg rod designed to cast 3-9g lures. Should be a lot of fun. It’s 6’6″ long and really a rod built for single-handed use which I don’t like so I’m going to extend the butt section on that too! I’ll let you know how this ultra-light setup goes.

Kahawai prefer clean water and make themselves scarce when the sea and river are dirty and milky.

There are some really good lures available nowadays. You can use soft baits but they don’t cast as far as small jigs and are soon wrecked. I really like the Saltwater Pro Series jigs from Gillies. The 15g Pilchard is a cracker. The kahawai just love these. They are hard-bodied lures with a bright chrome finish that really makes them pop. They come in plain silver and a blue-backed model. I like lures that look like small baitfish and measure about the same length as my little finger.

I always remove the trebles and replace them with single hooks for kahawai spinning. It seems counter-productive. You would think that with three barbs you would have more chance of hooking and landing a fish than you would with just a single hook. However, this isn’t the case at all. The singles are way better resulting in more positive hookups and fewer kahawai tossing the lure.

I use Mustad 34007 stainless steel hooks in sizes 1/0 and 2/0 because I have plenty of them. There are better hook choices available that have a bigger eye like the VMC Inline hook. The single hooks also make the fish easier to release and inflict less damage.

Kahawai put up a really strong fight on the light line coupled with smaller lures. If you have only ever caught them on the salmon tackle you are in for a real treat. It is easy to see why the International Game Fish Association regards the kahawai as a true game fish!

Coat fillets of kahawai with beaten egg and then cover with Gregg’s Lemon Pepper Crusting Blend before cooking in the frying pan. It is delicious.

Kahawai are a good-eating fish

Kahawai is very good to eat if you remember to bleed straight away. Remove any red meat left on the fillet. They are deliciously coated with Greg’s Lemon Pepper Crusting Blend before pan-frying. This gives them a delightful crunchy coating. Gregg’s also produces an equally good Tuscan Herb Crusting Blend which I recommend you try too.

Kahawai have large, hard, easily removed scales Therefore if you intend to leave the skin on when, for example, cutting them into streaks you will have to remove the scales first. This is easily done with a knife held at a ninety-degree angle to the fish and run up the body from the tail towards the head. 

Kahawai steaks are good when cooked on the barbeque. Just wrap in foil along with a knob of butter, pepper, lemon juice, chopped parsley or whatever you prefer.

Treat kahawai with the respect they deserve

Most importantly if you don’t intend to keep your kahawai to eat be sure to return them to the water as quickly as possible. They are hardy fish and usually survive being caught and released quite well. Do not kick them across the stones when returning them alive to the sea.

If you haven’t tried this style of fishing before I seriously suggest you give it a try. The lightweight tackle similar to that I have suggested is a must. Sure you can catch kahawai on heavier gear but it just doesn’t compare to the endless enjoyment you’ll get from light tackle kahawai spinning!

This post was last modified on 15/07/2023 11:07 am

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