The starlings were the first to start their morning chatter, then followed by the unmistakable song of a tui. The oystercatchers could also be heard as they headed out towards the exposed sand flats, and the elderly snoring shag that slept in the tree right next to my tent was also up and decided to get going as well. It was early in the morning and the sun was just making its way up on the horizon. There was no need to rush since the tide wasn’t good for fishing until later in the afternoon, but after a while I got up to start my morning routine. Priority number one, coffee of the good quality Italian kind, boiled on the Bialetti espresso maker. 2 or 4 cups, depending on what ever had happened the night before. Then some breakfast, preferably with fresh bread when available. The campground was almost deserted, and I was the only one up and about. My friend Mark had left a day earlier. We had met a week before and had fished together, both for trout in the nearby rivers, but also out on the sand flats hunting for kingfish. We had caught both trout and kawhai, but the kingfish had proved more elusive. I had hooked one, but the fly fell out after a blistering run in very shallow water. Mark had to move on to visit friends on the North Island, but I decided to stay near the coast and continue my quest for Kingfish. We had a bit of a farewell party together with our Dutch campervan neighbours. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be drinking any alcohol again for some time…
After 2,5 months of fly-fishing for trout on the North Island, it felt good to spend some time on the beaches around the north tip of the South Island. It became somewhat of a late summer beach holiday for me, a holiday within the holiday so to speak. The tempo was lower here at the coast and the people who lived there were of the highly friendly variety. I stayed in various campgrounds along the coast, having access to facilities and fresh water to cleanse my gear after fishing the salty flats. Since it was off season, the campgrounds were never full and had a good mix of both Kiwi and international visitors, making for some interesting breakfast and evening conversations about everything from nature, politics or life in general.
There were not a lot of other fishermen out on the flats at that time of year. I did meet a few and they told me the fishing was best in January-February, when the water temperature was at its highest. Now it was March and it was getting colder. After a week of exploring the flats, at various times of day and tide levels, I had not seen many kingfish where I had been told they were supposed to be. Some friends had fished the area before and had given me some tips on where to fish. “Follow the rays” they said. But the rays were not there, at least not in any numbers. I decided to explore other areas and not only the recommended spots. And as it turned out, there were rays and kingfish all along the coastline, but they were not plentiful. One evening I spotted a lot of gannets dive bombing for baitfish. They were quite far out, much further out that I had been before. I decided to get out there, and it turned out it was possible to wade out much further than I had dared to go before. That’s when I first saw several rays cruising along the exposed sand bar far out on low tide. And then I saw yellow fins sticking up into the air. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It looked like the kingfish were trying to steal whatever food the rays were after, almost standing on their heads in quite shallow water. I got within casting range and threw my minnow fly on top of the ray and stripped it like a mad man. There was no reaction at first, but then I fish followed my fly almost to my feet and finally ate my fly. Unfortunately, it was no kingfish, but a nice Kawhai that fought hard and jumped all over the place. While fighting the kawhai, several kingfish circled it. But after releasing the kawhai, both the kingfish and rays were nowhere to be seen. The spectacle had lasted only about 1 hour and now the tide was rising again, forcing me to make my way back to the shore.
There was no action at all on the high tides, so I focused my fishing around the low tide period, a couple of hours before and after. Light and visibility was also another important factor. Preferably you will want to have the sun in your back to spot the rays, otherwise they can be almost impossible to see. Wind is also important. If no wind, the fish were spooky and not that interested in moving into the shallow water. Too much wind and the casting was more difficult, but that’s when the kingfish seemed to move closest to the exposed sand bars. All of these factors and more had to align to have a good chance of spotting, let alone hook a kingfish. I didn’t get many shots during my 3 weeks of trying, but during this period I hooked a total of 5 kingfish. One day I waded straight out as far as I could on low tide, together with my other American friend Chuck. The weather was overcast, and it was quite windy. I immediately spotted a large stingray cruising a bit further out. I quickly waded out to waist deep water and made my cast, which put my fly almost on top of the ray. A fish grabbed it at once and took off, pulling line and backing off my Nautilus CCFX2 #8 fly-reel. At first, I thought I might have hooked the ray, but the fish just continued even though I had the drag set very hard. After an insane 150 m run the fish started to turn towards me and then I saw a big yellow tailfin in the waves. I had a 30 lbs Rio Saltwater tippet tied directly to the fly line, so I decided to fight the fish hard. I got it close to the beach, but then it took off again and pulled another 100 m of backing straight off my reel. I got in to the beach for the 2nd time and we decided we would try to beach it. The fish was now very close, and I could see it was a very decent sized kingfish, probably around 30-40 lbs. It looked finished and ready for landing, but then it took off for a 3rd time. Then suddenly the fly-line shot back towards me. The hook had broken… My reel had gotten a proper workout from the epic runs and started to make some squeaking noises when pulling line. Whatever lubricants inside the reel had simply burned off and I had to clean and oil it up a bit before trying again. Those kingfish are very strong, so make sure you have your equipment in order if you want to land one!
On other days I would get some chances, but the kingfish would refuse my flies. I therefore went down to 20 lbs tippet and then hooked more fish. But on a couple of occasions, the 20 lbs tippet gave in and the kingfish broke off. Other times the fly simply fell out. I hooked several nice kawhai in the 5-8 lbs range, and a quite nice white trevally. Not very impressive after 3 weeks of fishing for 4-6 hours almost daily, but I was not complaining. As the weather started to turn sour and the water colder, I decided to give up my kingfish adventure and get back to catching trout. My first kingfish would have to wait, hopefully not any longer than to next season!
Although I didn’t land a kingfish, I had really enjoyed my time at the coast. I had explored different areas and gotten myself familiar with the various sand flats and its inhabitants. The ecosystem had intrigued me a lot, as everything was connected. The sand flats got its nutrients from the rivers and estuaries. The energy from the sun provided life to the algae, food for shellfish, crustaceans and baitfish. This in turn offered plenty of food for the different kinds of birds, rays and fish. The rays eat shellfish and crustaceans, and the baitfish don’t see them as hostile. The kingfish have learned to use the rays as cover for ambushing baitfish, and as I had seen on several occasions, also had developed a taste for whatever else the rays were feeding on as well, stealing their food in a similar way the bonefish of Los Roques steal minnows from the pelicans. It was just very enjoyable to be in that environment, to experience the vast sandflats and to get some shots at those elusive and highly coveted kingfish. I also got to get to know and spend time with some great people, a welcoming bonus to my fishing adventure.
I will be back next season, then a bit earlier when the water is warmer and with flies tied myself on proper hooks.