In the waters of the Hauraki Gulf, kingfish appear to have made a strong comeback in recent years. Every summer they seem to be present in greater numbers than the year before.

This is, of course, good news, since kingfish became something of an exceptional catch for quite some time, with fish numbers nationwide taking a dive as a result of certain commercial fishing practices, most of which are no longer allowed or severely curtailed. The worst was the use of box nets in open water, now banned, but gill nets deployed in reefy territory still take plenty of kingfish and this method is still widely used.

Thankfully, kingfish was never a heavily targeted commercial species, but there was always (and still is) a healthy market for it. Unfortunately, as a large top-end predator, kingfish are vulnerable to over-fishing. Like other predators at the top of the food chain, kingfish numbers were never high in the first place. Over-fishing quickly triggers a steep decline in numbers and average size. The largest fish disappear first.

Kingfish is currently more popular than ever, having moved up-market to become a premium, restaurant-grade fish. It is very popular served raw as sashimi, ceviche or carpaccio, or cooked in a variety of ways. It’s certainly one of my favourite eating fish. Consumer demand is growing, which may lead to increasing commercial harvest in the future.

Recreational fishing pressure on kingfish has certainly increased in the last 10 or 15 years, possibly due to the lift in kingfish numbers noted above, along with the development of new lure fishing techniques such as jigging and top water lure casting, fishing styles that have exploded in popularity.


Kingfish has always been a sought-after sport fish, prized for its fighting qualities, relative abundance and large size, but it’s now a primary target for many anglers rather than an occasional capture or accidental bycatch.

The phenomenal rise in the popularity of spearfishing is another problem for kingfish: large and inquisitive around divers, kingfish are a top target for many spear-fishers. And unlike line fishers, spearos can’t practise catch-and-release: speared fish are dead fish, there’s no letting them go.

Just as happened during the last spearfishing boom in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s likely large kingfish will quickly become rare in popular spear-fishing locales. By all accounts it’s already happening.

I’m a little fearful for kingfish in my local waters too, because while they seem to be more abundant than ever, far more anglers are chasing them. Quite a few of those fish seem to be going home with anglers, too. I don’t have a problem with taking fish for the table – I regularly do the same – but some folk seem to get carried away with their own success, keeping two, three or more kingfish at a time. That’s a lot of meat!

Human nature being what it is, I completely understand someone keeping their first kingfish or perhaps their biggest, but I can’t see any reason to keep more than one large fish in a session. Kingfish have a legal size limit of 75cm, below which they must be returned to the water. A 75cm fish is quite large – clearly larger than some anglers realise, judging by some of the kingfish I have seen people take home!

My neighbour, a retired cook and seafood lover, recently displayed a kingfish, proudly caught by his son’s friend. My neighbour was excited by its large size and the meals it represented, but that kingfish was barely 60cm long. I didn’t want to dent his enthusiasm by pointing out it was actually undersize, and anyway it was already too late for that fish, but the angler who caught and kept it clearly didn’t know (or chose to disregard) the minimum size regulations for recreational fishers.


Many of the kingfish caught recreationally in the Gulf are less than the minimum legal length. Fortunately, kingfish withstand handling and subsequent release very well, so undersize fish can be returned to the water with every chance of survival. They’re tough, resilient fish, so they release well, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t exercise care when handling them.

Gaffing a fish destined for release is never good practice, but it happens quite a lot. Sometimes large kingfish are carefully gaffed through the lower jaw so they can be boated and subsequently released. Done skilfully, lip gaffing causes minimal damage, but it’s still punches a hole in the lower jaw which the fish has to live with post release. Poorly-gaffed fish can be fatally injured.

It’s far better to avoid lip gaffing whenever possible. Even very large kingfish can be boated by grasping the jaw (watch out for hooks) and tail, or lifting them by the lure – provided it and the hooks are strong enough – and tail. Best of all is using a really large landing net.

Most kingfish we catch don’t weigh 40kg – a legal length kingfish probably weighs only 6-8kg and a 20kg fish is large by any standard. While big fish are difficult to lift into a boat, a large landing net (the larger the better) used to land snapper copes with kingfish weighing up to 10kg, sometimes larger.

A standard size snapper net will land bigger kings too with a bit of clever net-work. We try to jam the heads of larger kingfish into the net and grab the fish’s tail before lifting net and fish into the boat together. This works well even on 20kg fish.

Big kingfish release just as well as smaller ones. But kingfish are powerful fish, so handling them in the boat is not always easy. Take care removing hooks, especially treble hooks or multiple hook rigs, and avoid lying the fish on a hot, dry deck. Getting the fish to stay still enough for the obligatory skite photo can be difficult and it’s important not to take too long about photos and measurements. If you wish to weigh a fish, use a sling, wetting it down first, or weigh smaller fish in the net.


Sometimes it’s better for the fish’s health to forgo photos or weighing, especially when they are particularly active (some are); the sooner a fish goes back into the water the better its long-term survival chances.

There are lots of kingfish in a range of sizes around right now (March) and lots of people are catching them. I love fishing for kingfish, but as a matter of course, most are released. The odd one comes aboard for a quick photo, but fish are generally back in the briny a minute or so after capture, regardless of their size. Many are unhooked in the water beside the boat; small fish can be unhooked in the net.

My fishing mates and I take the odd kingfish for the smoker or to make sashimi, but it’s seldom a large one, never a small one, and one kingfish shared between mates every few trips is enough. I reckon if all recreational anglers behaved this way, exercising a little restraint and practising catch-and-release, kingfish numbers would continue to build and fishing for them, whether with jigs, live bait or topwater lures (super-exciting) would continue to improve. Wouldn’t that be great? BNZ