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How to catch kahawai, a top New Zealand sportfish - Part 2

Jigging and Soft Plastics For Kahawai

Kahawai illustration

Kahawai love lures and this method can be the best way of catching them. There is an added bonus. Kahawai caught on light tackle are one of the best sportfish in the ocean.

Light tackle is more effective too. The lighter the tackle, the smaller the jig/soft bait used, and lure size, as discussed previously can be important.

The technique is simple.

Motor up towards the head of the school, and just before you reach it put the boat out of gear and drift towards the school, jigging as you drift. The usual jigging techniques work, although very often the jig only needs dropping to five or six metres below the boat.

Both metal jigs and soft-plastic baits fished on a lead-head jig work well.

Once hooked, avoid playing kahawai too hard; they have a soft mouth and ‘bulldogging’ the fish can pull the hook.

If the fish jumps, and they very often do, ‘bow to it’; this means lean forward while dropping the rod tip, this puts slack in the line and helps to prevent the fish throwing the hook.

It is essential to put slack in the line if the fish jumps for an additional reason; kahawai will shake their head vigorously to try and dislodge the hook, they often succeed if the line is tight.

A Kahawai Jigging, Lead-head Lures, Warning

Kahawai usually fight right to the boat. Pulling hard on a fish near the boat is dangerous; the hook can pull out and the lure can fly back towards the angler or the crew at near warp speed.

Take care when the fish nears the boat, and never pull the fish out of the water on a jig.

If a kahawai jumps near the boat, immediately lower the rod tip, as described above. The small amount of slack in the line will help avoid the jig flying out, and back towards the angler or crew.

ban treble hooks

Kahawai continue to struggle even when in the boat. Using single hooks helps extraction. In fact treble hooks are a positive menace anytime, especially when fishing for kahawai

Bait-fishing For Kahawai

Kahawai can be voracious bait takers. Sometimes they will take just about any dead bait dropped in the water. The bait that really seems to turn them on, however, is a whole or half pilchard.

If you are using cut baits, try using strip-baits, instead of chunks.

Kahawai seem to find some movement of the bait as extra enticement. Movement really seems a key element in inducing kahawai to bite.

Many of us will have experienced a kahawai racing in to grab at a dagg-end of bait hanging off a hook under retrieval for re-baiting.

If your bait does not get hit on the way down, rather than leave it lying there until something happens, try bringing it to the surface with an irregular retrieve.

Spinning For Kahawai

Using light spinning tackle, say 2 or 4kg (4 to 8lb) gear, casting out and retrieving lures to working kahawai is heart-stopping stuff.

Motor slowly up to the edge of the school, not into it, and cast toward the working fish. For shore-bound fishers, light spinning gear can provide great sport.

If fishing off the rocks, ground baiting will often bring kahawai in range.


Spinning with poppers is for me the most exciting form of fishing for any saltwater fish, and kahawai love poppers. Cast out the popper and retrieve it across the surface with an irregular retrieve.

Keep the rod tip high at the start of the retrieve to keep the face of the lure "popping" and gurgling on the surface. Then as the lure nears the boat, lower the rod tip, so the lure does not skate across the surface.

Sometimes "chuggers" rather than poppers work best for kahawai. Chuggers have a more pronounced scoop in the face, and are fished much more slowly than poppers.

Be Quiet!

Holding a kahawai upside down often seems to quieten them down.

Try giving the chuggers a couple of pulls with the rod tip, and then leave the lure dead in the water for a few seconds and then repeat.

Done well this can make the lure look like a crippled bait-fish in its last death throes on the surface. The trick is to leave the chugger on the surface until it stops producing ripples. Sometimes after leaving the chugger dead in the water the slightest movement, only a centimetre or less, will provoke a strike.

Another trick that can produce results, especially if the water is choppy and the popper or chugger is bouncing out of the water, is to take the rear hook off the lure, and tie off the line to the rear hook mount. The rounder shape of the rear of the lure will often work better in choppy conditions.

'Walking The Dog'

There is a technique used by USA bass fishermen called ‘walking the dog’. Retrieve a popper or chugger in short jerks of the rod, with the jerk of the rod tip going from side to side, parallel to the water. The lure stutters and splutters its way back across the surface, looking for all-the-world like a dog on a leash darting from one side of the footpath to the other.

Kahawai on Lures

Kahawai will take just about any lure, as long as it is the right size, when fished on light spinning tackle.

Standard metal jigs will work, as will soft-plastic baits. A ‘yo-yo’ retrieve is good. Cast out and let the lure sink. Wind in for three or four turns of the reel handle, and lift the rod tip as you do so. Then stop winding and lower the rod tip, allowing the lure to sink once more. Repeat this process back to the boat.

Bibbed and bibless minnows all work. Bibless minnows with rattles inside work too.

Toby Lure

A particular favourite lure of mine is the ‘Toby’ type trout lures. Re-rigged with saltwater rings and hooks, they have a unique wobbling action that kahawai seem to love.

I used silver Toby lures exclusively, but one day, having run out, I found a black one with a pink lightning slash down the side, worked well too. Like so much in life, action is more effective than appearance.

Before fishing new lures that you have not used before, I find it useful to make a short cast near your casting position, and to where the lure is visible. You will soon see the best retrieval speed, to gain the best action.

Toby type lures are a case in point. These lures work best at a slow retrieve. Too fast and the lure will loose its entire enticing wobble.

Many lures are called ‘spinners’ and it sums up perfectly what you do not want to happen with virtually all lures. Lures should wobble from side to side, or ‘shimmy’ but never spin: if the lure is spinning you are retrieving or trolling too fast.

And the paragraph above does bring up an important point about lures, whether trolled or retrieved. Trolling or retrieval speed should be the speed that makes the lure work best, not some notion of what speed the fish might like.

White Water Tactics

White water around offshore or inshore rocks or headlands attracts kahawai. The high plankton content around these areas attracts bait-fish, and the bait-fish attract kahawai.

A strip-bait, fly or lure pulled through, or close to the edge of white water, is a proven method of taking kahawai.

Saltwater Fly for Kahawai

Kahawai are a tremendous fish to catch on saltwater fly-fishing gear; in fact I like to think they were invented for this purpose. Many of the basic techniques outlined above for lures, work when fly-fishing. Here is more information.

Too Easy, Too Many

Sometimes kahawai can be almost suicidal in their rush to impale themselves on any hook dropped into the water.

I have watched in utter disgust at times like these, some boatloads of fishermen pulling fish after fish into the boat. Far more fish than they could hope to eat.

I have watched these boats with even more disgust when the blood-lust has died, tossing dead kahawai over the side when the realisation that they have way too many fish takes hold.

Kahawai are too good a sportfish to treat in this way. If you carry on fishing after you have taken a few fish for immediate eating needs, why not crush down the barbs on your hooks? And please if you have lures with treble hooks change them to single hooks. Fish are then easily and quickly released, and you can fish on, enjoying one of the truly great sportfish.

fish illustration by Bish

Article written by Tony Bishop

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