Josh brings us up to date with these remarkable New Zealand flats fisheries.
It’s been a few years since everyone went crazy about the news of kingfish on the flats in New Zealand’s South Island. Yep, that’s right, the cold old troutie South Island had a world-class saltwater flats fishery. Some people are still getting their head around that, although I’m astonished this fishery and others like it, have taken so long to grow. Even in the North Island, where kingfish on the flats have been known about for nearly fifteen years, few flyfishers have taken to this amazing fishery.
Twelve months ago, I was in the Seychelles (considered by many to be the best saltwater flyfishery left on earth) fishing the renowned Cosmoledo Atoll for giant trevally. Yet even here, the guides – many of whom were South African – were quick to turn the conversation to kingies on the flats. Nearly every time I met a guide, they’d say, “Josh, tell me more about these flats kingfish in New Zealand.” There was barely a mention of New Zealand trout. Instead, everyone wanted to know about the ray-riding kingies. It was exciting to realise just how much impact NZ flats kingfish are having in the broader saltwater flyfishing world.
SOUTH ISLAND – GOLDEN BAY
Golden Bay has been at the forefront of kingfish chit-chat the past few years. On our latest visit, a store owner in the bayside town of Collingwood told me that the extra anglers have given a huge injection to the town, with local accommodation, the supermarket and cafes all benefiting.
Golden Bay local and kingfish & trout guide, Anton Donaldson, carried that vision from the beginning. The very first day we met Anton, we found ourselves discussing the pros and cons of airing a new fishery to the world. The thing he kept coming back to, and a central reason for opening the gates on his secret fishery, was to help the surrounding towns and business owners.
On the right day, Golden Bay is stunning. In contrast to the much of the cool, mountainous South Island, Golden Bay can feel like a tropical island, with its white sand, extensive flats and a relatively warmer climate.
The Golden Bay flats are easily accessible with a road following the bay’s entire shoreline. Even in the wind, Golden Bay can perform – as long as it isn’t an easterly, which makes the flats dirty and unfishable. Such unfavourable conditions from time to time help protect the flats and fish from being hounded every day, along with a Marine Reserve towards the western end of the flats. (Having travelled to a number of top saltwater destinations around the world, I can state that very few avoid being at the mercy of the wind!)
So what’s so hard about catching kingfish on the flats? Some days nothing! Mickey Finn and I headed off to the flats one afternoon this February. With thick cloud cover, we could barely see a thing. After covering over two kilometres of flats without a single stingray sighting, we were ready to give up.
Then our luck began to change. Blind casting in a small channel that divided two flats, Mickey picked up a solid kingfish. And then, while the conditions still weren’t perfect – a 25 knot westerly was blowing – the clouds began to clear. Suddenly, there were stingrays visible in every direction, each with between two and five kingfish swimming on the back of them. (Kingies trail short-tailed stingrays for the food they stir up, but more than that, I think they just like following them.)
Mickey and I had a ball catching king after king. Over the space of 90 minutes, it didn’t matter what we threw at them: poppers, Clousers, crab patterns – they all got eaten.
…And Tough Days
That day, the kingfish displayed behaviour we would like to see regularly. Yet it isn’t always like that. On another trip this season, we found the kingies to be much more difficult. Everything seemed right: the fish were there, they were following the stingrays, but they just didn’t have the same enthusiasm. In the case of one particular group of kingfish, I first cast a popper, which they would chase but not eat. I kept following the kingies along the flat while changing my fly. I threw a garfish imitation and once again they chased it without taking.
I continued stalking the fish; this time choosing a much heavier fly, trying to imitate a crab on the bottom. I made a long cast well in front and waited for the kingfish to come closer before I gave the fly a slow strip. A kingie rushed over, tailed vertically on the fly, and ate it immediately. Just goes to show it can really pay to try different flies and presentations.
One thing we’re noticing is that, as more anglers come to chase kingfish, it isn’t so much spooky fish but rather spooky stingrays that can be a problem. As the stingrays cruise along the flats, they react earlier to human interference, often changing direction and taking the kingfish with them.
Overall though, I’ve noticed little change in our catch rates on the South Island trips. Weather permitting, good anglers will catch plenty of kingfish, although those who have a maximum cast of 40 feet will find it difficult. This is a fishery to approach with the expectation that catching a single kingfish is a great day and anything extra is a bonus.
NORTH ISLAND – TAURANGA & BEYOND
North Island, New Zealand is full of shallow water kingfish potential. Last year I decided to catch up with local salt fly guides Lucas Allen and Matt Von Sturmer to see what was on offer.
In particular, Tauranga Harbour is known to be the first place ray-riding kingfish were discovered and caught on fly. Clark Reid brought this to light in early 2007.
My first impression of the Tauranga Harbour was a good one. Lucas Allen and I caught up for a few days and landed 10 kingfish. We witnessed some amazing fish up to 20kg on the flats and even had a 30kg beast follow the fly all the way to the boat from one of the channel markers.
Unlike Golden Bay, not all the flats and fishable areas in Tauranga are easily accessible on foot. While there are plenty of places to fish without a boat, Lucas’ flats boat, rigged with an electric motor, gave us a much wider scope.
Flats Boats Fishing
This year I returned to Tauranga with a group of clients to see if we could repeat our success. For most of the group, this was their first saltwater flyfishing experience. Day one on the Tauranga flats was amazing. We spotted 30-40 kingfish, all cruising on the back of stingrays and easily enticed by a good cast and well-presented fly. Even for me, it was the most kingfish I had seen in a day on the North Island.
Lucas Allen and Julian Danby were our guides for the week; they’re the only two guides in the area with Maritime-approved vessels. Fishing from the flats boats made life easy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun running around the South Island flats in knee to waist-deep water chasing kingfish. But having a boat not only gave us a height advantage for spotting fish, but an easier approach when hunting them down.
The visual aspect of flyfishing for kingfish is what keeps you coming back. On one occasion I was in Julian’s boat with clients Alan Rogers and Brad Hassack. The day was just about done, but we decided to slowly cruise a shallow flat heading towards the boat ramp. Mere metres from the end of the flat, we noted a fast moving, bulge in the water creating a huge wake.
“Josh, what is that? A shark?” asked Julian as he repositioned the boat for the chase. “No, it’s about a dozen huge kingfish!” I yelled over the motor.
Julian put the engine into gear and we took off down the flat to get ahead of the kings and plan our attack. “Guys, get ready,” Julian said as we nervously got into position. “I’m going to get in front of the fish, but they’re moving fast so you’ll only get one shot.”
The boat stopped. “I’ve got a tangle!” Brad yelled out frantically. Alan made the cast.
Watching a dozen 10kg-plus kingfish charge his fly at once was a highlight of the trip. He hooked up and after a long battle managed to land his fish, which was 102cm long. A grinning Alan announced that in 15 years chasing kingfish on fly, this was his first over a metre. Not a bad effort for a 70 year old!
Other Flats and Species
The North Island is riddled with harbours and flats worthy of chasing kingfish on fly. I know in future years, the action will spread further and further; in fact it already is. There is so much on offer.
And not only kingfish. The excitement of catching silver trevally, large snapper and of course the humble kahawai on the flats, is already a reality. The explosion of such a young fishery is a great thing to be a part of, so get over there and explore!
These are exciting times on New Zealand’s ever-emerging kingfish flats fisheries. As more people turn their attention to this, more amazing places will be discovered. I have no doubt this will bring even more international visitors to these beautiful locations. Next time you are heading over the ditch to chase a trout or two, think about packing the saltwater gear too.
FlyStream Facts – Catching Flats Kingfish
The gear is simple. I recommend an 8-10 weight fast action rod, floating or F/I line, and a reel with a decent drag and lots of line capacity: 300 metres of backing is a minimum. Most of the time these kingfish have nothing to break you off on, but don’t take your trout reel! Leaders of 20-30lb are the norm, but if you find yourself in the midst of big fish, 40lb is handy.
There is such a big range of flies you could use, but ensure you have three types:
– surface poppers like NYAPs and Double Barrel Poppers;
– some slow-sinking flies like Pipers, Brush flies, Fat Boys and the like;
– Fast-sinking flies like weighted crab flies.
I find when the kings are being difficult, or you can see them tailing, fast-sinking flies retrieved slowly work best. Bring crab and shrimp-style flies in 1/0 and 2/0. Also, the humble Clouser accounts for many fish.
Aside from the crab and shrimp patterns, flies on 4/0 to 6/0 hooks are recommended. Personally, I’m not too worried about fly colour: whites, tans, blues, pinks, chartreuse, yellow, and of course black all work. I have caught kingfish on all combinations. If a colour or combination isn’t working, keep trying different options.
Retrieving a fly for kingfish is another important point. Many believe that the only retrieve as fast as humanly possible! However as touched on above, while this works a lot of the time, when it doesn’t, try different approaches like long slow retrieves or stop/start retrieves. Even with a popper it pays to give a couple of strong ‘pops’ then stop completely. Lucas calls this very successful method the ‘pop & stop’; almost playing cat and mouse with the kingfish until it finally pounces and eats the fly. And of course when they do eat, keep the rod pointed at the fish and apply a firm strip-strike.
With all pelagic species, good bite times can be based around tide shifting the most – often the hour or so before and after the tide changes. This can certainly be true with flats kingfish, although at both North and South Island locations, we’ve enjoyed some excellent fishing right on high and low tides.
Most of the fish you catch are likely to be ray-riders. The kingfish will literally be riding behind, in front of, or swimming laps of moving or stationary stingrays. This makes them easy to spot and gives you a reference point for your casts. Generally, try to predict the movement of the fish and stingray and place a cast at 45 degrees in front of them, so they have time to see the fly coming. Just make sure you cast at least to the stingray or slightly past it. Short casts often go unnoticed, or are noticed by the fish too late and they lose interest.
Free-swimming kingfish are also common on the flats and move very quickly. They can be spotted by carefully scanning the flats, or they’re given away by a bow-wave if swimming close to the surface.
I would like to thank Lucas Allen (Tauranga, North Island), Anton Donaldson (Collingwood, South Island), Matt Von Sturmer (Waiheke, North Island) & Julian Danby (Tauranga, North Island): all professional New Zealand saltwater guides, with whom I’ve spent countless hours on the water – and gratefully shared their wealth of knowledge. There is a great community of saltwater guides building in NZ, and these guys are leading by example. I highly recommend you look them up for a day on the water.