A Beginners Guide To Kingfish On Fly

Yellowtail kingfish are an iconic species that occupy a wide range of waters in the lower half of Australia. They are a fish that can be encountered miles from shore to almost as far up stream as the brackish water is found. Kings grow upwards of 50kg and offer fly anglers an incredible challenge. In this article Sydney charter guide Justin Duggan runs through the basics of flyfishing for yellowtail kingfish.

 Big Clousers with heavy eyes are deadly on deepwater kings. Jack Murphy managed countless fish on deep lines this day.

Big Clousers with heavy eyes are deadly on deepwater kings. Jack Murphy managed countless fish on deep lines this day.

I would be a happy man if I could extract a few dollars from every angler who said to me “wow, I’d love to catch a Kingfish on fly”. It seems that for many people the Kingfish is a beyond their reach, especially on the fly rod, there’s usually a few factors at play. Kingfish are at times very fussy feeders, they can be prone to shutting down their bite and they fight so damned hard and dirty that hooking one can become a brief affair.

Where To Look

Now it’s true that if you don’t own a boat then odds of catching a kingfish on fly decrease. It’s not that you cant hook a Kingfish on fly from the shore, it’s just that you are standing on structure and pulling the fish towards you when hooked. This means you are dragging the fish towards the very terrain that makes them so hard to land. Kingfish will run at any structure they can find in a frenzied desperation to rub the hook out of their face. For this reason shore based angling produces extra challenges.
Wash zones near headlands and reefs, sunken wrecks, channel markers and buoys, moored boat hulls, pylons and piers all present classic kingfish habitat.

Tiny eye flies are necessary when kings slurp schools of freshly hatched bait. Hooks need to be strong, this is a real challenge with tiny flies.

Tiny eye flies are necessary when kings slurp schools of freshly hatched bait. Hooks need to be strong, this is a real challenge with tiny flies.

Rule 1, Think Structure

You need to think structure, structure, structure. Any formation that has good current running past it is like a Kingfish sushi train, they’ll sit back and let the conveyor belt of current bring them food. When the sun is high I often find good numbers of kingfish hiding in shade underneath moored boats especially in the Pittwater, Sydney Harbour estuaries.

 Kingfish love structure, the Marker Buoy in the background provided a spectacular kingfish surface hit on an early morning popper session.

Kingfish love structure, the Marker Buoy in the background provided a spectacular kingfish surface hit on an early morning popper session.

Look For The Birds

Some of the deeper inshore waterways play host to large schools of surface feeding Kingfish. These schools will most often be found nearer to shore but don’t neglect scanning out deeper into the bays. The usual giveaway will be diving seabirds like gulls and terns. Even one gull sitting on the water can be a give away that a school is present. Gulls rarely rest on the water for long, preferring to sit on shore or on structure. If a gull is on the water something has usually taken place. It could be a hot chip but then again, it could mean a school of fish was just feeding on top, maybe kings.

Gearing Up For Kings

 Pittwater surface “slurpers”. When kingfish feed this gently you can be sure the bait is small.

Pittwater surface “slurpers”. When kingfish feed this gently you can be sure the bait is small.

When it comes to bottom end torque and power there is possibly no other fish in the world that’s more powerful than a kingfish, or dirtier! You are going to need solid gear to handle them but the size of that gear depends on the size of the fish….of course!
I’m quite happy chasing surface feeding kingfish in the 60-80cm size range on a #6 weight and 4kg line, provided there is a bit of depth and no nasty structure for them to wrap me around. By contrast, the same sized fish swimming around a channel marker may be better chased on a #10 wt with 10kg line so you can put the brakes on them and stop them diving for cover.

Pack A 12 Weight!

Really large Kings in the 10-15kg class and bigger are a handful on any gear but I’ll take a 12wt as my minimum arsenal.
Reels must have seriously strong and smooth drags and it helps to have a larger arbour so you can gain line quickly as you tussle to keep the fish from getting to structure, it can be a game of centimetres and you need to win every bit of line you can.

Take Me To Your Leader

My leaders usually consist of 1-1.5 meters of 25kg line and around 1 meter of 10kg line. I add thinner line to the front of this leader if I’m chasing spooky fish in clearer water. I’ve tended to not bother with shock leaders over the years as I’ve found that once a kingfish finds the structure nothing will hold it from breaking the leader. I actually find kings to be very fussy at times with thicker shock leaders.
Some anglers fish well above 10kg line on bigger kings but just remember that most fly lines break at around 15kg.

Don’t Forget Insurance

 Kingfish Fight very hard, be ready to move with the fish to save broken rods and egos.

Kingfish Fight very hard, be ready to move with the fish to save broken rods and egos.

If you fish 15kg or higher and the fish wraps your leader into the structure you’ll possibly loose a flyline. You just cannot pull more than 10kg through most fly rods so stick nearer to this breaking strain where possible, I’ve had friends land fish to 37kg on 8kg line out of New Zealand, that’s quite an eye opener.
Lines will vary with location. Floating and intermediate lines are best with a bolder weight forward taper that can carry larger flies that are so often needed. Fast sink lines come in many forms but it’s worth looking into shooting heads for Kingfish fishing. I bought a 500foot bulk roll of Rio T-14 shooting head so I could change heads when kingfish destroyed my lines. It’s far cheaper to replace a shooting head than an entire fly line.

Flies For Kings

This could be an Encyclopaedia on it’s own since kingfish are so varied in their diet and location. I’ve caught kingfish on cod and bass flies, dead drifted bread flies and I’ve even seen them take a popper off the surface that was just floating after an angler lost it. Instead of listing countless flies I’ll strip it back to some favourites.
If there were a few preferred menu items for a kingfish restaurant it would be Squid, Garfish, Pike, yellowtail, bonito, frigate mackerel, slimy mackerel and Anchovies. In the case of squid the kingfish will take them over almost anything, most days. In the case of the other species I mentioned, the more movement or the more wounded it looks, the better. You want flies that splash or wriggle and pulse or preferably all of the above.

Flies Need To Move

Poppers are better with pulsing fibers, jointed calamari flies like the Enrico Puglisi flex calamari “dance” seductively. Longer pike and gar flies can have long pulsing tails with the hooks well forward, since kings don’t have teeth they’ll swallow it whole. The humble clouser minnow has a wounded action thanks to its weighted eyes. They can be tied in big sizes up to 30cm long with heavy eyes and lead to bomb the depths or smaller sizes to match micro bait.

A list of Justin’s favourite commercially tied flies.

The Humble closer Minnow. Kingfish can be caught at all depths and sizes by just varying the size and weight of this awesome fly.

The Humble closer Minnow. Kingfish can be caught at all depths and sizes by just varying the size and weight of this awesome fly.

This is just a guide as to styles and is by no means to say countless other brands and styles won’t work either.
-EP flex calamari
-EP offshore pike
-EP branzino eel
-EP boca grande tarpon
– Felty’s cotton candy
– Felty’s offshore warrior popper
– Felty’s polarfibre minnow
– Felty’s psychosquid
– Felty’s eye fly
– Felty’s sprat
– Felty’s mega clouser
– gummie minnow (any brand with a strong hook)

Tying Your Own

Of course, tying your own flies opens up a tonne of options, especially with colours and the addition of lead and other weight so really, there’s no limit to what you can design to fool kings. Keep the hooks strong such as Gamakatsu SL12-SH for example.

From Bite To Fight

I mentioned previously that a wounded and splashy looking fly is more likely to get eaten and to illustrate the point I’ll relay an observation. I’ve seen tailor and kings happily feeding side by side on the same bait. Once a tailor has been hooked and starts struggling the kingfish have turned on it in a heartbeat and devoured it. That wounded fish was giving off “EAT ME” signals. It’s important we do the same with our retrieves. Fast, Jerky retrieves look very wounded and often get devoured by kings. Kings also love a fast chase and learning the double- handed retrieve is sometimes essential, practice to get it super fast.
If kingfish don’t eat your fly and only follow it do not throw it again and retrieve it the same way. Nothing will shut them down faster than the same fly thrown retrieved the same way. If they didn’t eat it the first time they most likely wont.

One Smart Fish

Change the retrieve, the direction of retrieve or better still the fly. Kings are a smart fish and your best hope of a bite is seconds after it hits the water, they are quick to wise up to lifeless offerings. When pitching flies to structure work the surface first by retrieving immediately, don’t let them see the fly just drifting, they get suspicious. The splash of a fly will draw their attention in a heartbeat and if they see it flee they wont wait, they’ll usually pounce.

The give no line technique using a right angle between stripping hand and rod hand. This avoids line slippage and burnt fingers.

The give no line technique using a right angle between stripping hand and rod hand. This avoids line slippage and burnt fingers.

Keep On Stripping

Once you get the bite you should keep stripping until the line is tight, don’t lift the rod till the fish is on. You have the option to either let the fish run or hang on. Large kings are unstoppable so I usually let the line hit the reel and wind the drag up. For this reason I prefer the smallest amount of line on the deck as possible, I want to hit the reel quickly and use the drag to stop the fish. Kings move fast and if you try to grab the line on a big fast king the tippet will pop.

Give No Line

Smaller kings up to around 90-100cm can be fought with a give no line technique. This involves creating a right angle with the line between your stripping hand and the rod hand to jam the line from slipping. Then it’s a matter of maintaining the bend in the rod to prevent the tippet popping.
You see, it’s almost impossible to break 10kg line through a bent fly rod, unless your knots are poor. The bend in the rod protects your tippet. Think of the flyline as a hand line and the fly rod as a shock absorber. Watch for sudden surges that pull the rod straight, the line will pop in a split second and inertia is what really pops knots.

Bare Knuckle Brawling With Kings

Bend at the knees as the fish dives and then straighten up to counter punch. It’s a bare-knuckle brawl that consists of punching and counter punching, winning line, breaking that fish’s spirit and preventing it from finding structure. You can lift their head off the bottom in a vertical tussle if you can get over the top of the fish but once the angle of the line allows the fish to pull against you and using its tail then you are in for a hard fight and a likely loss.

‘I think Kingfish are one of the great Fly rod targets and a species with more challenges than most. Persistence and patience are always rewarded’ – Justin Duggan

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