New Zealand salt water fly fishing guide Lucas Allen gives an insight on the previous season. Plus a few tips and pointers to help you get the most out of your next salt fly trip.
The 19/20 flats season here in Tauranga was a script so well written no one really saw the twists and turns right up until the final act.
We started out as any season does with some nice warm water pushing down from the tropics and things kicking off nicely, with the last of the blustery spring westerlies abating to a more manageable breeze in time for the pre Christmas rush. By the time the Pohutukawas were flowering we had ticked off a number of kingfish firsts for clients and seen the first waves of repeat customers. Some of these fish were a class above the previous year and things were shaping up quite nicely, albeit with a few tears from snapped leaders after tangling with some big resident fish around structure. These fish know the harbour better than anybody and it’s as if sometimes the eats were just to mess with you as they promptly destroyed lines on the nearest object. It’s this attitude that I love about them, the take no shit, hold no prisoners approach. Something you need to throw straight back at them in spades to have some kind of dominance over their physicality.
We tend to leave the Christmas period alone on the harbour, it’s not for the fact it fishes hard, it’s the commotion and general mayhem that I prefer to do without, plus a welcome break with our busy family is a must. Once that’s all out of the way we were back to full swing. The long days with optimum sunlight are what flats fisherman dream of, throw in a warm westerly to put a ripple on the water and you have some of the best factors going for you.
This season the flats fired nicely, with some areas far more productive than others. Bigger groups of fish, some of which were well over the magic meter mark (that’s to the inside of the fork for all you Aussies reading). For a few short weeks we followed one group of kingfish around that were hounding mullet in the shallows. The pack so big and black it was hard to miss them and the shadows of tightly packed mullet schools.
Another hot favorite of mine (purely for the chaos that goes down after getting an eat) was the nav marker fishing. With the bow mounted Humminbird Solix 12 MEGA+ Side Imaging providing some inspiration to those upfront fishing a little deeper. Seeing a gang on screen then rocket out of the depths after your fly is sure to get the heart rate up, even for those not on the other end of the line. Split second judgements on how to handle the fish after hook up will either be your undoing or result in a nice new profile picture so it pays to have a battle plan. If fish are rejecting your offering mix up the retrieve on the following cast before changing to a fly with a totally different profile. Think big to small, natural to bright, quiet to loud and if using a popper don’t be afraid to let it sit for a few seconds between big chugs. I find a lot of time it’s not what you’re feeding them it’s HOW you are feeding it to them. If you keep them guessing you may just turn a curious fish into a stupid fish.
With the peak of the season just starting to taper off the unseen announcement of a full blown lockdown loomed rather suddenly. This was a bitter pill to swallow especially for the fact the fish are very obliging and rather active around this time, plus the pristine autumnal conditions that presented themselves were looking very glamour while on our local daily wander with the kids. This was made slightly better knowing I could walk 150m from my front door and watch kingfish do their thing uninterrupted, believe me the temptation sure was there after 40 years of taking any opportunity to go fishing whenever I wanted.
Prior to lockdown I threw local guru Dick Marquand onboard for a bash at the local reefs, we felt it might have been our last fish for a while so armed ourselves to the teeth with all manor of fly gear. After what felt like a few thousand casts I gave up on the kingfish playing friendly. The session that transpired afterward was pure class as Dick and I used a 3wt glass rod with 3lb test on big kahawai, koheru and blue maomao, I didn’t anticipate putting the 12wt away to replace it with a #3 but it was well worth it. Trying to put some hurt on a deep diving fish with a bit of swell makes for some entertainment, especially when you can feel the light line bouncing off the tightly packed school below. It was part luck, a shit load of skill and something Dick has fine tuned to make a fine alternative to hustling kingfish.
After what now seems like a short lockdown we had a few weeks of harbour fishing that saw plenty of kahawai caught on 4-6wt set ups, often with tiny anchovy flies or size 2 poppers – the excited school and consequent detonation on the surface ensures a lot of yelling and cheering. We had good shots at ray riders but as with late season flats fishing the sun was often low and spotting conditions tricky. A few adaptations to approaching each situation will give an upper hand but it sure pays to slow right down and hang around in hot spot areas for longer than you think possible. Be super prepared for a quick shot at something that probably isn’t a fish but you wish was and you might just come tight.
I’m not sure what next season holds as far as international guests go, fingers crossed New Zealand is still Covid free and our borders are holding it at bay. This gives a lot of opportunity for domestic guests to line up some of the best dates and tides over the season. One thing I am certain of is that the fish will be there and I’ll be making the most of every opportunity to get into them. Perhaps I might get a few more shots at them for myself this coming season, that’s provided my son doesn’t develop into a full blown kingfish fiend as he’s starting to demonstrate a bit of a knack to them!
Check out NZ Fishing News reviewing a day out with King Tide Salt Fly
John Eichelsheim spent the day with unique salt-water fly charter, King Tide Salt Fly, aboard their FC535cc.
When fishing guide Lucas Allen decided to upgrade his boat, he had no hesitation going to FC Boats, based on his satisfaction with the smaller FC 430 tiller-steer model he was replacing.
Lucas runs a specialist saltwater fly fishing charter business called King Tide Salt Fly. Generally operating in and around Tauranga Harbour, Lucas’ new boat is surveyed to fish New Zealand’s harbours, lakes and inshore waters. Lucas used his previous boat as a starting point when customising King Tide, his new FC 535cc (centre-console). FC Boats in Hamilton were extremely accommodating, says Lucas, working with Lucas and Maritime NZ to meet stringent survey requirements.
Lucas’s business centres on chasing Tauranga Harbour’s population of kingfish, especially those that hang around with stingrays, of which there are hundreds feeding in the shallows over the harbour’s extensive flats.
These ‘ray-riding’ kingfish are the main drawcard for saltwater fly fishers availing themselves of King Tide Salt Fly’s services, but Lucas also targets kingfish around the harbour’s numerous poles and markers buoys, as well as fish resident on reefs outside the harbour. In addition, anglers can expect to catch kahawai and snapper on fly, as well as other species in season.
Interestingly, kingfish only shadow short-tail black rays (stingrays) – we saw lots of eagle rays, but none had any kingfish with them.
King Tide Salt Fly’s guiding season usually extends from November until May, or sometimes longer depending on angler demand and kingfish numbers. As well as guiding, Lucas is a brand ambassador for BLA, which among other products supplies Humminbird marine electronics and Minn Kota trolling motors and associated equipment. When he’s not guiding, Lucas conducts Humminbird and Minn Kota training sessions all over New Zealand and provides customer support for BLA products.
King Tide is a purpose-built fly-fishing vessel. The FC 535cc platform was a great starting point: it’s stable, roomy and a dry runner, which is important in a centre-console. A centre-console was the obvious configuration for a fly fishing boat and Lucas, working closely with FC Boats, maximised the size of the raised casting platform in the bows. Covered in customised U-Dek flooring and incorporating masses of under-deck fishing tackle storage, this platform provides the perfect position to cast a fly through an arc of 270 degrees.
King Tides casting deck is the jewel in the crown of a well laid out fly fishing boat.
Three large deep hatches under the raised casting deck provide room for all gear. Keeping it out of the way of fly line and the elements.
The most obvious feature of the bow is the Minn Kota trolling motor. It’s a marine spec, 80-pound thrust Terrova model with iPilot LINK. Minn Kota’s iPilot features integrated GPS and SpotLock for precision boat positioning and the motor can be controlled either from the handheld remote control, or from the helm using the Humminbird Solix’s Minn-Kota LINK virtual remote.
The trolling motor is a vital piece of equipment for this specialist fishing application. This is a 24-volt system: two dedicated deep-cycle batteries provide enough juice to run the electronics for a full day. Two onboard Pro Mariner chargers plug into mains power at the end of the day, recharging all the vessel’s batteries overnight.
King Tide carries 160kg of batteries: two 130-amp deep-cycle AGMs for the Minn Kota, one cranking battery, another 130A AGM house battery and a battery to power the auxiliaries. Auxiliaries include the VHF and nav lights for survey requirements, and the transom-mounted Talon anchoring system.
Using the Minn Kota, Lucas moves quietly over the shallow flats stalking black stingrays. Almost silent and able to operate in a metre of water or less, the Minn Kota lets Lucas get his clients close enough to sight-cast at any kingfish travelling with rays. The Talon allows him to stop the boat dead in the water and hold it in place, effectively ‘staking out’ any areas of interest.
This was the first time I’d seen a Talon in use. It’s an electrically operated, extendable pole with a composite end section that penetrates the bottom substrate to hold the boat in place. The 8ft model allows a maximum depth of just on two metres. It works really well, allowing Lucas to hold the boat in place at the push of a button. The Talon is also linked to the Solix 12 interface.
Tauranga Harbour is vast – over 200 square kilometres in area – and much of it is made up of shallow tidal flats covered in eel grass and shellfish beds. We fished an area reasonably close to town, and there was no need to travel any further, but Lucas is spoiled for choice when it comes to fishing locations.
Although the sky was at times overcast which made spotting fish difficult, we were fortunate enough to find a few rays with kingfish in attendance. One ray in particular was flanked by three nice kingfish. They were unusually green in colour, making them hard to see over the eel grass.
Every time Lucas got the boat into a good position, I cast my fly close to the ray, which elicited a few kingfish follows but no bites. We followed the ray for perhaps 10 minutes, changing flies a couple of times, and just when it looked like we might have to find another ray, a surface popper did the business. The smallest of the three kingfish sucked it off the surface like a brown trout eating a dry fly.
John playing the kingfish expertly over the vast sandy flats
John holds his prized flats kingfish, taken on a small popper after a few stubborn refusals.
Lucas supplies good quality fly fishing tackle for his clients. I was using a Scott #8 saltwater fly rod and a Hatch reel with an Airflo Intertip fly line. He also carries #10 and #12 outfits with floating, intermediate and fast-sink lines. The flies are all hand-tied by Lucas.
Assembled fly rods are stored in racks under the gunwale either side of the cockpit, the tips sliding up into a custom compartment under the raised foredeck. King Tide can accommodate three assembled outfits per side, plus three more stored vertically against the side of the console. Additional gear is stored under the foredeck, accessible via three large deck hatches. Four through-coaming rod holders cater for traditional rod and reel combos.
The Scott Tidal #8 outfit handled my kingfish just fine, though the fight was as tough as one would expect from any kingfish. Over a clean bottom like this, you can take your time bringing the fish to the boat, and with 14-pound leader, it doesn’t pay to be too heavy-handed. The fish was boated, photographed and released.
Mission accomplished, we squeezed over a fast-drying flat on the electric to a channel where we could fish through the bottom of the tide. King Tide draws only 400mm of water with the outboard tilted up and the Minn Kota set as high up on its pole as it can go.
The FC 535’s console offers a decent storage locker, grab rails and enough room on the fascia for a variety of instruments and gauges, including volt meters (two), USB chargers, a 4” Mercury VesselView display, battery isolation switches (two) and a Cobra VHF. The stainless steel wheel looks very smart and a big Icey-Tek chilly bin behind the console also serves as a seat. A clever tie-down system facilitates its easy removal, leaving a snag-free rear deck with nothing to grab a fly line or stub your toes on.
We used the Talon to anchor King Tide on the side of a channel while we waited to ambush any rays moving into the deeper water off the flat. While we waited, I caught a succession of feisty little kahawai, which passed the time very nicely.
A 115hp Mercury Command Thrust provides the primary motive power for King Tide. This is a high-thrust variant with a heavy-duty gear case running a larger-diameter propeller. The Mercury easily copes with King Tide’s usual operating load and gives a top speed of 34 knots. A 65-litre underfloor tank easily allows three days guiding on the harbour between fills.
Occupying the full width of the console, a bracket-mounted Humminbird Solix 12 features Humminbird’s MEGA Imaging high-definition display. As well as GPS chart-plotter functions and Minn Kota trolling motor and Talon integration, the Solix’s fish-finding tools include Side-imaging, Down-imaging and conventional sonar.
A stop at one of the harbour’s many navigational marker poles graphically demonstrated the Solix’s Side-Imaging capabilities, clearly showing a group of kingfish hanging behind and to one side of the marker. The Solix identified not only individual fish, but how far they were from the boat and from the bottom.
Humminbird’s MEGA Side-imaging scans 30m to each side of the boat, down to a depth of 30 metres, displaying structure and fish with remarkable clarity and definition. A simple change to lower frequencies provides even greater depth and range capability.
Fishing the poles with #10 outfits, including a couple of markers outside the harbour, raised a few lookers but no takers. I was quickly reminded how physical fly fishing big flies with heavy gear can be, especially if it’s been a while (years!) since you’ve done it. My arms wearied long before Lucas got tired!
Lucas working one of many markers with a popper fly. A highly exciting way of targeting the kingfish that reside on them at times.
The tuna require fast boat manoeuvring and long casts onto the leading edge to score a bite when the conditions are this calm.
Our final hurrah involved a run of several miles out to sea, the FC 535 proving a dry and comfortable traveller, despite a slightly messy sea. Our destination was a reef offshore where we hoped to target kingfish on deep-sinking fly lines. However, the sight of skipjack tuna splashing on the surface changed the game plan and we spent the next couple of hours chasing them.
Chasing skipjack on fly demands a fair bit of patience, since they move very fast. Intercepting them is not easy and often you only get in one cast before they’ve moved past. We did plenty of moving, but managed to hook several fish, landing a couple. Kingfish pull hard and are a great opponent on fly fishing tackle, but skipjack tuna make an 8-weight reel scream like no other fish!
With the autumn afternoon drawing to a close, we finished our day close to the Mount where we encountered mixed schools of skipjack and kahawai. The skippies eluded capture, though we each hooked a couple, but the kahawai were easier to fool. Much bigger than the ones I’d caught earlier inside the harbour, they pulled like trains, leapt and ran. The deep line burn on my index finger is testament that they strike hard too!
I had enjoyed an interesting and exciting day aboard a superbly set-up fly fishing vessel with an engaging guide who really understands his stuff. Lucas knows Tauranga Harbour like the back of his hand but can also be engaged to fish other waters around New Zealand. He works closely with selected charter/guiding operations, freshwater and salt, to organise fishing itineraries for local and visiting anglers.
And while many of Lucas’ clients are from overseas, the fishing experience he offers is something every Kiwi fly fisher should try. Fly fishing for ray-riders is highly visual, making it very exciting, and the quality of the kingfish available may also surprise. Some of them top 15kg or more – quite a catch on an #8 fly rod.
For more information on guided fishing for ray-riding kingfish, or to contact King Tide Salt Fly, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Recently King Tide got onboard the Scott roster alongside some bloody great fly fishos. I love a good bit of kit and these rods are no exception, constantly delivering cast upon cast and making most of our clients look good! Check the link below for the line up and a sweet range of fly sticks.
If you want some info on what we use in Tauranga Harbour chasing Ray rider kingfish on salt water fly gear then peep the video below. Our season here is nearly done, don’t forget to secure your space for next year by flicking a message to the link here.
We recently teamed up with the good buggers at Manic Tackle Project for a weekend of fishing. In-between all that I sat down and went over some basic set ups and preferred knots. Take a quick look at one of the strongest salt water fly fishing loop knots and a few tips to tie it crispy clean every time.
For a few other loop knot options jump back to a test we ran a few years back here.