Tassie Kingfish

Finally a window of calm weather was about to open a doorway to access waters off the remote and ruggedly beautiful northwest tip of Tasmania in our quest to catch a yellowtail kingfish on fly. The seasonal influx of this species has been gaining momentum in recent years, with kingfish showing up all along the north, east and southeast coasts of Tasmania during the summer months, presumably as a result of warming sea temperatures. Several planned trips had already been abandoned due to strong winds and big westerly swells making the far North West a treacherous place to take a trailer boat. Lives have been lost in the past, so a great deal of planning is always needed to safely access places such as this. As always, my good friend Simon Hedditch was up for an early start to undertake the short road trip to Smithton with his 6-metre Ocean River centre-console. To take advantage of an anticipated late evening and early morning bite we decided to pack our swags for an overnight stay on his boat. I love camping on board as it takes away the stress of having to get back to the boat ramp before nightfall or when the tide dictates. Finding Kingfish Having launched the boat we set off in search of exposed rocks and reefs with fast tidal water pushing over and around them. This combination of structure and flow makes a great place for predatory fish to ambush baitfish, and suitable habitat is not hard to find among the groups of islands off the far North West Coast. Having pulled in behind an exposed reef and set the anchor in the bull kelp we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task to find kingfish, so we both started with conventional spin tackle to cover a lot of water very quickly. Large soft plastics weren’t working for me, so I switched to a big popper lure. A small Australian salmon grabbed it first, and then, after a few more probing casts, a big dark shape came up from nowhere and ate the popper. A good-sized kingfish was fought back to the boat, confirming our hopes. That was all the incentive I needed to quickly grab a foam popper head from my fly box and slide it up the 20 kg leader; I then tied on one of my 6/0 Flashy Profile popper tails. Wasting no time, I cast the big 6-inch popper-fly down and across the tidal rapids on my 11-weight Meridian. I tucked the rod under my arm to pop and skip it back across the surface as fast as I could, using a double handed retrieve. The sink-tip fly line was really holding the big popper head in the water on the fast retrieve, giving it a very strong presence in the water. After several casts I was beginning to rethink my rapid change from lure to fly when another kingfish loomed up behind and engulfed it with a sudden burst of speed. I was connected in a big way! With loose fly line beginning to spring up off the deck as the fish gained speed, I looked down to see that the remaining line had suddenly looped around the hydraulic steering arm on the outboard. This wasn’t going to end well, so I quickly reached down and pulled it free, just as the fish stripped the last of the loose fly line from the deck. Simon clipped a buoy onto the anchor rope and threw it overboard to set the boat free. We led the fish away from the rocks and after a strong stubborn fight I finally had a good-sized kingfish to the surface. It was no monster as far as kingfish go, but for a Tassie king, it was a real prize for me on fly. We returned to the anchor rope to stake out the area again. Simon wasted no time in putting his fly rod together and followed suit by tying on one of my popper heads in combination with his largest white Deceiver. The Switch Wanting to improve Simon’s chances I put my fly rod away, removed the hooks from the lure popper and cast it out on the spin rod. Feeling a sudden powerful tug on my line I looked out to see a big spray of water and more than one kingfish hot on the trail of my popper. Unfortunately they dropped away just before Simon could cover them with his fly, but what a rush that was. I made another long probing cast while Simon fished a shorter cast down and across with his fly. Suddenly I heard an explosive take towards the back of the boat, and Simon yelling, “I’m on!” Hastily winding in the lure, I released the boat from the anchor. Simon managed to fight the fish on a short line among the submerged rocks and kelp to land his first kingfish on any tackle. That was job done as far as we were concerned — anything beyond this was going to be a bonus. The use of a hookless popper to find fish isn’t the most glamorous method, but it proved an invaluable tool for us to quickly learn where the kingfish were congregating during different stages of the tide. It also took away many hours of blind flogging the water with a 10 or 11 weight fly rod, turning it into a very exciting and fun way to catch a relatively new species for us both. Casting a fly to fish following a hookless popper may seem easy, but believe me, it’s much harder than it sounds, especially when casting a 6-inch fly while combatting swell, tide and wind on a moving boat. Whatever can go wrong usually does go wrong, and getting the fly hooked up on the line from the lure or mistiming the interception is almost guaranteed. This can be very frustrating at times, with lines crossed up and fish at the boat ready for the taking. Game Changer By now we were fast approaching the much-anticipated late evening session with the light beginning to fade. But instead of the kingfish becoming more aggressive towards the popper fly, they were merely following the fly then dropping away. It was time for a fly change. Long before this trip I had tied up a 6-inch articulated ‘Game Changer’ fly (originally developed by Blaine Chocklett) for the large trout in Lake Crescent. I had deliberately packed this fly to try on the kingfish, just in case things got tough, so it was now or never. With only an hour of light left, Simon raised a couple of kings on the lure and I managed to make the interception with the new fly just as the kings were falling away. To my amazement the line came up tight and I set the hook into something very big. The fish took me straight into the tidal rapids and headed out towards the Southern Ocean. Seeing my ever-diminishing backing and hearing the words expressing my anxiety about the very urgent need to chase this fish, Simon promptly released the anchor. I could already feel that the backing was running through kelp or around a rock somewhere in the middle of the fast tidal flow, but with some clever boat handling Simon managed to get above the wrapped line, allowing me to pull it free. The colour change in my backing from 50 to 30 pounds clearly showed I had lost at least 150 metres to this fish already. A long hard wind followed, before finally getting the fly line back onto the reel. Inch by inch, with my rod partially submerged, I slowly gained line on the reel to get the fish to within a metre of my rod tip. As I slowly lifted the fish up, Simon managed to slide the suddenly inadequate net over it. We were both amazed at the size of this monster, and we certainly weren’t expecting to find kingfish of this size in Tasmania. Kingfish on top Returning the following weekend, armed with the knowledge and experience of our first trip, the hookless popper lure found them again and we caught fish on fly poppers, Deceivers and freshly tied Game Changers that resembled the small barracouta they were feeding on. Simon even managed to get a late evening surface take while dead drifting his Deceiver combo popper fly down the seam of the current. Who would have thought that could happen! We also experienced short periods with kingfish busting up baitfish on top. The boat had put them down very quickly on our first trip and we’d only managed a couple of tail grabs on the fly, but on the return trip we stopped the boat and drifted down onto them from much further away and even managed a double hook-up on more than one occasion. Of course, they have to be there to be able to catch them, and when you get multiple chances like this you can learn a great deal about a new species in a very short time. With reports of large kingfish being caught at St Helens on the East Coast and no doubt all the way down to Hobart, the fishing in the Island State is only going to get better.

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