Landbased Kingfish Downunder in NZ – Scott Hollis – Johns Part-1

Landbased Kingfish Downunder in NZ – How to Catch a Yellowtail Kingfish off the Rocks – Including Excellent Advice for South Island Anglers

By Scott Hollis-Johns

Success – the author with 20 kg of landbased kingfish.

Landbased fishing for kingfish is one of the great fishing challenges. The habits of kingfish make them very suitable targets from the rocks. Near and around rocks, reefs and structures are where they like to live and feed. Only during spawning and early in life are they out of reach of land-based anglers when they congregate around deep offshore reefs to procreate and as juveniles live in the surface layers of water well offshore for a time.

We live in the best place in the world to catch kingfish. Unfortunately for South Island anglers, the best concentrations of kingfish are from the Bay of Plenty north, but this is not to say there is not good fishing for kingfish down under. Kingfish have been taken as far south as Fiordland and I am convinced they cover the length and breadth of the Mainland at various times each year. One of the reasons they are not caught all over is a lack of numbers and most definitely a lack of anglers out there fishing for them. So let us get into it.

So where does the Mainlander start if he wants to catch one from the rocks? And how do we go about it? Before I go into this here is a little insight into who is talking.

I was struck with the urge to catch a land-based kingfish around five years ago. A definite greenhorn, I owned only one rod and reel; an all-purpose surf, salmon, wharf and boat rod spooled with 8 kg line. I had caught some big kahawai and was pretty ego inflated. The next step would, of course, be a kingfish, which after all looked a bit like a really big kahawai and should not be too much of a problem. How wrong could I be? Pretty wrong actually! I lived in Auckland at the time and one of the not so far away hot spots for kingfish was Whatipu at the entrance of the Manukau Harbour. This is an awesome place to fish just for the landscape that surrounds you.

A huge rock the size of a couple of city blocks projects out of the sand and into the channel draining the harbour. The western and exposed side faces the wild west Manukau bar and black sand surf swept beaches stretch north, beaches called Kare Kare, Bethels, Muriwai and Piha.

The eastern or “inside” of the rock faces up the vast harbour and big currents surge in and out at the moon’s whim. The water movement here is a spectacle in itself but let us get back to the fishing.

I fished here five days straight; after what I saw on the first day I just could not stop returning. The kahawai were endless, arriving at half tide and thickening as the tide bottomed out. At low tide, they would thin and then disappear.

The reason they came was obvious, the sea was thick with baitfish. The water was black on top with yellow-eyed mullet, close in to the rocks were masses of juvenile trevally and every so often a shoal of grey mullet would pass through. Down deeper were small jack mackerel and slimy mackerel and koheru. What a dinner laid out! The kingfish arrived each day just after the kahawai who went berserk on the surface after the yellow-eyed mullet.

The kingfish were seen cruising deeper just on the edge of your field of vision. They were feeding deeper on the mackerel or just picking up the remains from the kahawai’s feeding frenzy. It was a totally overwhelming scene for a beginning and eyes popping out, blood pressure at dangerous levels I tried to get in on the action.

Here is a good tactic valuable in all fishing situations: if you do not know what you are doing fish next to someone who does.

Each day I fished next to a guy who was catching kingfish; I did as he did and it worked. The current was too strong to keep a balloon tethered livey under control so the tactic was to catch a mackerel live bait, put a hook through it and simply toss it into the melee of feeding fish. I did this and my bait was eaten by a kingfish. Great! What now?

I then, time after time, learnt what it was like to be beaten up and left for dead by a fish. At best I stayed connected for ten seconds. At worst the spool blew off my reel and I was left to landline the fish for a few seconds before I was broken off. Totally embarrassed and ego punctured flat, I crawled around
looking for the parts to my reel (which I never found) before heading home to lick my wounds. These were kingfish of well under 10 kg. I had a lot to learn.

Soon after that episode, I moved to Christchurch. Things were a lot different next time I hit the rocks. I had a new rod and reel for the job and a healthy respect for my quarry. I also knew I was going to have to work a whole lot harder for a landbased kingfish in the cooler waters around the Banks Peninsula.

The road from here on in is many pages long. Four years long and kingfishless despite much learning, much fishing and much cooperation with others of the same breed. Indeed, I could fill the pages of this fine magazine with those trips that were fishless, but no fishing trip is fruitless and you always learn something. Anyway, I will save some trees and get on to the bit where I try to share what I have learnt. Oh yes, I did actually catch a landbased kingfish this time, living in Nelson. Since that first one the flood gates have opened and last summer I caught heaps and was a party to the capture of some

Forgive me if I sound a little like a dogmatic schoolmaster while recounting the lessons and learnt practices outlined below but being focused and deliberate in your actions while fishing is the key to success when targeting a certain species. So where do we go?

Banks Peninsula is as far south as I would fish with a realistic chance of success. Kingfish definitely frequent the area. The height of summer is the time. Exactly when they show up if at all will vary each year; late January to mid-February would be my pick.

I fished Banks Peninsula for three summers running looking for a kingfish and had only one strike. But do not lose heart Cantabrians, sea temperatures are on the rise and at that time I was low on experience and only one fisherman with miles of coast to explore and not enough time to go fishing every day. In-
creased fishing effort will yield landbased captures.

Places to try are Taylors Mistake, Boulder Bay, Tumbledown and Te Oka, Otanirito and Long Bay. Water clarity is going to dictate which side you fish; I think it needs to be good and clear for the kingfish to find those live baits and stray lines.

There is more chance of a kingfish the further north you go. Kaikoura would be my next stop. I have not actually fished from the rocks here but have had a good look around and there are some good ledges south of the Peninsula near the road tunnels. Seals could be a problem here when live baiting and you will probably have to kick a seal off his possie before fishing.

Again, mid-summer will be the time and a nor’ wester your pick for the mind. This flattens out the water on this part of the coast and would be ideal for launching baits.

The Marlborough Sounds are the next stop and the best stop. If you are really serious it will not take long before you find your way here. At times it can seem that there are kingfish everywhere.

I have sat on high hilltops on a clear day and watched shoals of thirty or more kingfish just cruising around the bay. It really is an awe-inspiring sight. Why was I not fishing? I was trying to but every comer we came around in the car another bay full of cruising kingfish came into view and we had to stop and gaze for a while. Eventually, it got dark.

There is so much shoreline in the Sounds it would take ten lifetimes to fish it all. So what makes a good spot for kingfish?

Current is the most important factor; this combined with deep water close in and/or shallow reefs near deep water. A steep climb down and white water around the rocks is a good indication you are in the right place. If you have to drive past or near to the Sounds on the way to any of the other spots I have
mentioned don’t, this is tops.

Your best chance of a landbased kingfish down under is in the Marlborough Sounds. The places to look in Tasman Bay are Pepin Island and the Boulder Bank. The Motueka Wharf is a well-known haunt for kingfish which hang around the offal pipes from the Talley’s factory at high tide. Golden Bay has lots of kingfish but few platforms for landbased fishermen to work from. Tata Beach and Tata Island area look like the best spots and I will be giving them a serious fish this summer. 

I did see a kingfish on the West Coast last summer over the back of Westhaven Inlet but this place is wild and a long way from anywhere unless you live in Collingwood or Takaka. A place for the adventurer or local only. Where you go will depend a lot on personal considerations so let us get on to what you do when you get there.


This is the most incredibly important critical ingredient in successful landbased fishing. Do not leave home without it. It is often impossible or highly impractical to move once you arrive at your chosen ledge so if the kingfish are not lined up waiting when you arrive you will have to bring them to you. Burley is an absolute must, I will not go fishing without it.

The best way to burley for kingfish is the method known as “cubing,” quite simply throwing chunks or cubes of fish into the tide to make a trail leading to you. Onion bags or sacks of mashed fish hung on a string or a bucket brew of mashed fish, oil and bread all help but nothing seems to work as well as tubing.

The best way to do this is with pilchards. Of course, throwing five to ten kilograms of pilchards in the tide will not appeal to everyone’s idea of what is acceptable in terms of financial outlay for a day’s fishing but I am sold on them and until I run out of money that is what I will be using. They are convenient to carry, easy to dispense and they work. It is so simple – just break each pilli into four and toss it in, piece by piece.


This is going to depend on what you already have and how much you want to spend; 15kg line is the minimum and there is nothing stupid about fishing 24kg in fouler than foul areas. Sure, you will get a few sideway glances from the uninitiated but remember what you are fishing for here: kingfish get very big; the all tackle record from the rocks (documented) is 42.5kg and there is reported to be kingfish of 80kg out there somewhere (The Complete Book of New Zealand Fishing 1991 page 86). I will go into more detail on tackle in a later article. Just make sure it is the best gear you can afford or it could end up stuffed gear at the hands of a monster kingfish.


When you mention bait for kingfish most people think “live bait.” This can be the case; sometimes they just will not accept anything that is not alive. Having said that, I have caught almost all of my landbased kingfish except for two on dead baits cast and retrieved or at best just lobbed into the water at my feet where it is eaten. A lot has been written on the subject of live baits and what is best for kingfish and how to fish them.

For the southern situation the slimy mackerel, small kahawai and piper which top the lists of preferred baits up north are just not available most of the time. Any small fish will do. Blue cod, tarakihi, blue moki and yellow-eyed mullet have all caught kingfish. Spotties too have been found in the gut contents of kingfish caught from the rocks.

Do not worry if the live baits available are not that small. A common situation for me is not being able to catch a kahawai under 5 or 6 pounds. Fish it anyway. Kahawai of this size makes perfect bait for kingfish 20kg and up and if you want big boys these are the baits to fish by choice.

The thing to remember about live baits is, any better than none and even if it is too big, small or not the right flavour at least its struggling will attract fish to the area, the burley and then hopefully your stray line.

The landbased fishing system So here is how it goes: I follow much the same routine each time I go out. The first thing I do which is contrary to a lot of what has been written before is set up my gear. Do not start the burley until this is done. Burley is No. 2.

I do this because three times last summer I arrived at a ledge and started throwing a few bits of pilchard into the water; as I turned to set up my gear one or more kingfish appeared and started feeding on the handout. By the time I had a rod assembled they had gone and on all three occasions were the only fish sighted for the day.

I take at least four rods. This may sound excessive but each has its purpose in the system. Of course, if there are a few of you they can be shared around and you will not need four each. They are live bait rod, stray line rod, bait rod and popper rod. So you set up the gear and start breaking up your pilchards or spooning in your burley stew.

Baitfish will hopefully materialise at this point and one of the team can begin catching them for live baits and the surplus used for stray lines and to supplement the burley. Be prepared for a strike as soon as the first bait goes out, have the gaff close at hand and if you intend to release your fish it is super important that tags, cameras etc. are laid out ready as every second you have a fish out of the water the chance of successful release is decreased.

Being prepared and having a plan amongst the team may sound overly serious but things can happen pretty fast once that hookup is made. I even go so far as having baited rods lying next to me as l burley or catch bait in case the hooked fish is shadowed by another.

The makeup of the group will depend on who does what but there is plenty to do. Keep a constant burley trail going at all times. You may only see one kingfish all day and if they happen to cruise past your ledge when there is no burley to take their interest it is likely they will do just that and cruise
right on past.

Keep some kind of live bait in the water at all times. Keep a hyper-vigilant eye on the burley trail and surrounding water at all times. Scattering baitfish out wide or the sudden disappearance of bait from the burley could mean kingfish! Polaroids aid this greatly. My brother claims he can see just as well
into the water without polaroids. Okay Matt, why is it then that whenever I shout “king” you reply, “Where?”

Even if you have not seen a sign of a fish all day, keep the burley going and those live baits a ’swimmin’ and keep working those stray lines and tossing the odd popper or lure out wide.

Okay, the scene is set, you have got all the ingredients mixing to make the kingfish cake rise. Burley is the message in the water and within that, there is a shoal of baitfish feeding; every now and then a popper skitters across the water inviting a chase or strike and a crippled baitfish is stray lined, cast out and retrieved across the surface or allowed to sink a wound in with slow jerks down deep. A live bait is struggling away under a balloon, sending out those distress signals that a predator fish just loves to home in on.

On the dream days (which can and do happen), a pack of ten giant kingfish will rise from the blue and monster everything that hits the water till everyone is hooked up, busted-off, or landing fish at the same time. May this happen to you every time you go fishing.

Unfortunately what makes kingfish such a challenge and joy to fish for is their habit of being fussy to the extreme one minute and eating any old rotten bit of pilchard guts the next minute. Okay, a kingfish is finally sighted but ignores the live bait and sniffs at the stray lines, everyone, with a rod throws at him. Do not stop the burley. This is a common mistake as everyone mans a rod in a panic to hook up.

Beef up the burley; this will buy you time to try different baits and variations of retrieve. If the live bait plays dead, as they often do at the crucial moment, wake it up by dragging it around or if it tries to hide in the kelp or climb out of the water I usually pop the balloon and start casting it around.

The Strike and Hook-up

When to strike is a tough question to answer in a matter of fact way. It will depend on the size of bait, hook placement, tackle, terrain and of course how big the kingfish is.

I have had plenty of baits spat back at me because I waited too long and plenty of missed hookups because I struck too soon. Experience is the best teacher.

I would strike sooner rather than later as I prefer to release my kingfish and waiting too long can cause gut hooking. Of course, if you want to play dirty you could try to gut hook your fish as this will hurt it more and may take the sting out of its fight. I do not advocate this because if you lose the fish during the fight at least if it is lip hooked it will have a better chance of ridding itself of the hook and trace and surviving. This is also a subject of great debate and many variables. I have a kind of dual philosophy which goes like this: if you can hold them, hold them, if you can’t let them go.

I lock up and apply maximum pressure and try to hold the fish without giving an inch but if an inch slips off the reel this can very quickly turn into a mile and a bust off as the fish finds bottom. Once line starts melting off the spool a good trick is to flick into free spool. This, of course, is a pretty skilled manoeuvre and reels do not like it much but it has worked magic for me when I can avoid the possible overrun that tries to occur as a heavily loaded drag is set free.

When the pressure comes off the kingfish thinks it has come free and stops its express trip to Rocksville. The reel is then engaged and the fish, now off balance, can hopefully be brought under a little control before the next unstoppable run. Of course, if you do not like the sound of that plan you could wait until the fish hits the bricks and starts trying to shred your leader and then hit free-spool.

A slack line is very hard to cut whereas a tight line will pop with sometimes only the slightest touch on a sharp rock, so if the kingfish you are fighting does make it to the bottom hit that free-spool as fast as you can. Nine times out of ten they will swim free.

Then again, you might like to formulate your own plan when I mention that I was busted about ten times before I landed my first kingfish. To balance the equation my brother landed the very first one he hooked.

Enough said for now. Next time I will go into more detail on terminal tackle, rods, reels and lines and how to rig those baits and tie those knots that need to hold 14kg of drag on 15kg line. The prime months for a landbased kingfish down under are just around the corner so get out there and do not leave home without that burley.

Landbased Kingfish Downunder in NZ Part II

This post was last modified on 14/03/2024 2:11 pm

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