Micah Adams checks out Sydney’s kingfish and salmon, and compares notes with Justin Duggan
Australian salmon and kingfish are two of the east coast’s most sought-after pelagics. They are among the toughest fighters in the sea, conveniently lack spikes and sharp teeth, and are distributed widely enough to be accessible to most saltwater fly fishers.
Recently I spent some time fishing with friend and fellow guide Justin Duggan, who operates in Sydney waters. This gave me an opportunity to compare the feeding behaviour, diet and habitats of the salmon and kingfish around Sydney with those of my home base at Merimbula on the far south coast of New South Wales.
On my first day Justin took me to the popular Pittwater area and we were on the water around daybreak. The boat ride lasted merely minutes before we encountered our first schools of kingfish, bait and birds. We didn’t have to move off this school all day! The kingies had pushed the bait right up hard inside a cove and were feeding in a way I’d never seen before. I was interested to watch them just ‘push’ across the surface without any real urgency. They had the baitfish where they wanted them and were feeding so gently it was like they were sipping large mayflies off the surface.
Justin handed me a fly tied to imitate micro-bait around 25 mm long, which I tied to the 6 kg point of my 12 foot leader. I was sure a result would be almost instantaneous, but repeatedly cast the fly into the frenzy without success. Then Justin showed me the retrieve that works best when fishing to micro-bait feeders. Basically it was long, slow and steady, but the real key was to pinch the line as it landed and commence the retrieve the instant the fly hit the water. Justin said nearly all hook-ups occur in the first three strips, with the first giving the greatest chance. He was right, and once I got the hang of the pinch and slow retrieve technique I had some success.
Like all kingfish, the first I hooked went straight down to do battle well below the surface. We were using both 8 and 9-weight outfits and my 9 seemed perfect; great to cast a long line all day and with enough wood to turn a big kingie if need be. Once I had beaten my first Pittwater king and he was circling boatside, Justin took a purchase around his tail-wrist and hoisted him on board. A modest king of around 70–75 cm, but long enough to develop a bit of muscle and shoulder, and in any case I was delighted with our first fish of the day. Shortly after my first fish there was another brief encounter that lasted only a second before the hook pulled.
Well into the morning, the kingfish kept feeding off the surface and were unfazed by the three boats that were present. The baitfish must have been super-abundant, because although we were constantly getting our flies into the right place, there were fish gulping and splashing all around with only a handful of takes. Justin hooked a king at least 30 metres from a mooring buoy. The fish seemed to be clear of trouble and halfway to the boat, but in one very powerful and stubborn attempt, he made it back to the cover that would grant his freedom—kingfish never cease to amaze.
We had our flies in the feeding frenzy throughout the morning and early afternoon for just half a dozen hook-ups. Yet even though they were hard to deceive, casting to surface feeding kingfish in perfectly flat calm water all day long was absolutely brilliant. What really surprised me was the way the kingfish fed on the surface, so freely and for so long.
SOUTH COAST KINGFISH
At home, on the south coast of NSW, the kings feed totally differently. I basically have two approaches that produce results. The first is to target large marker buoys in the bays with either intermediate or fast sinking fly lines. I find that typically smaller ‘rat’ kingfish live under these buoys, and the most effective technique I’ve found so far is to cast a hookless popper around the buoy whilst fly fishers cast ‘Thing’ flies or Deceivers to fish originally attracted to the popper. Fish on these buoys are usually very consistent and more than willing to eat a fly but rarely exceed 60 cm. I know that many fly fishers, including Justin, target the buoys throughout Sydney Harbour too.
The other technique that has really come along for me over recent years is fly fishing a patch of reef in 20 to 60 metres of water off a local point. Here the kings are much larger and are typically between 60 and 80 cm, with many fish up around the metre mark. Anglers using conventional tackle often jig for them. However, I have had lots of success by counting down a fast sinking fly line to around 10 metres and commencing a fast retrieve. Berley trails are another way to get the kings up, but I prefer a daisy chain of 10 reflector floats spaced 30 cm apart. I can troll this daisy chain, then cast to following fish, or I can tie a brick on the end and let it hang below the boat whilst drifting over the area. Either way, kingfish seem to go crazy about any reflection and will most times come up to the boat.
Every now and then on this patch of reef, currents and bait unite and kingfish come up and feed on the surface. Unlike Sydney’s gentle sippers, these kings are going hell-for-leather on top and will eat anything that is cast into the foaming water. However, this frenzied surface action occurs very infrequently.
On my second day fly fishing with Justin, we decided to target salmon in Sydney Harbour.
At sunrise we approached what looked like a massive school of busting salmon between North and South Head, silhouetted by the crimson morning sky. I was armed with a 9-weight rod and a tiny Gummy Minnow fly, and my first cast was nailed as soon as I pinched the line and began the slow retrieve. As I fought the fish, commuters watched from a Manly fast-cat. To my right were the Centrepoint Tower and other city landmarks, the Opera House and the big ‘coat hanger’—a lot to take in whilst fighting a well-proportioned Aussie salmon!
Like the kingfish of the day before, this enormous salmon school fed on micro-bait on the surface for hours on end. Even thoughtless anglers trolling lures through the middle of the school couldn’t dampen the action for too long. Like the kingies in Pittwater, the Harbour salmon were sticklers for the right fly and the right retrieve, with strikes coming on the first to third strips. But they were much more willing to feed on our flies and we had a field day catching and releasing countless salmon between three and six pounds. I personally thought that these salmon fought harder than their kingfish neighbours, and each battle would last between five and ten minutes. Like giant trevally, the harder you pull on salmon, the harder they resist.
SOUTH COAST SALMON
The salmon fishing at home on the south coast, and in most other places I have experienced, is a little different. Here salmon are found in a variety of locations, but they feed on top only 10% of the time. Instead, I have to search wash zones, bomboras, productive bays and current lines.
At some times of year I find salmon in a local estuary system schooled in huge numbers, in only three metres of crystal clear water. These are suckers for the fly and provide a great sight fishing opportunity. Whenever I do find salmon here, I never have a problem hooking up, even with the large flies I mostly use.
All things considered, I believe the Sydney and Pittwater fisheries are in fantastic shape considering the surrounding population density. There is no doubt that this area offers some of the best fly fishing for inshore pelagics in the country—particularly for kingfish and salmon.
From my experience and from what I’m told by many Sydney anglers, it is more often than not a surface-feeding affair. This is a huge advantage as finding the fish on the day is a simple task. However, they are much harder to convince to eat flies than those in my home waters on the south coast.
Probably the most notable difference between the two fisheries is the bait on which the fish are feeding. Inside a school of millions, a fly an inch long is going to be less obvious, though I still can’t explain why we got so few hits after the third strip.
To successfully target kingfish and salmon you could easily get away with just the one fly outfit. I would choose either an 8 or 9-weight rod, preferably a 9, with a good quality reel and an intermediate line.
I used a Loomis Crosscurrent GLX rod and Scientific Anglers Bonefish Taper line. If I were to enlarge this arsenal, I would add a Type IV fast sinking line like a Uniform Sink or Wet Tip Express.
Flies are simple—a collection of Deceivers, Pink Things, Blue Things, Clousers, poppers and of course some micro-flies. And I would carry spools of 6, 10 and 15 kg fluorocarbon tippet.