The Shallow Water Kings of the Indian Ocean ...

By: Fred Steynberg

Kingfish, fished from the shore and off the shallower reefs of warmer waters are possibly one of the most targetable fishing species on fly.  Kingfish is a generic name given to a group of fish similar in appearance, yet often not bearing the same family name of others under the ‘Kingfish’ banner.  Different Kingfish species can be caught along Africa’s’ Indian coastline, atolls and islands, where their habitat remains intact.  Most Kingfish prefer warmer waters and often become lock jawed with atmospheric pressure changes or when water suddenly cools to below 20-23◦C.   

The Kingfish body shape ranges from elongated to deep and strongly compressed.  The colour and shape can change so much in the process of growth that adult and juvenile of the same species can be very dissimilar. Kingfish are mostly carnivorous fish that use swift attacks when feeding.  Most of the Kingfish species are considered sporting fish and mature fish of all the species, pound for pound, are of the gutsiest fish in the sea.

In other parts of the world, specifically America, the Carangids are called ‘Jacks’ or ‘Trevallies’. The GT’s that anglers refer to is an abbreviation of the name Giant Trevally, known to us as the Giant Ignobilis.
Below is a quick overview of some of the larger Kingfish species that play an important roll in the salt water fly fishers diary.

To me the most important genus of Kingfish and the most spectacular are the caranx genus of which there are 13 different species and 7 are found in Southern African waters. Among these fish which fly fishers will often encounter are the Giant Kingfish (caranx ignobilis), Bluefin Kingfish (caranx melampygus), Bigeye Kingfish (caranx sexfasciatus), Brassy Kingfish (caranx papuenis), Black Kingfish (caranx Lugubris) and Blacktip Kingfish (caranx sem).

The aggressive caranx species have a sharp scaled lateral line. The larger scales that cover the lateral line from the tail to almost halfway to the gill plate often cut the hands of gloveless anglers. The diet of the caranx genus consists mostly of squid, prawns, shrimps, octopus, gray fish (lobster) and a host of different crab species and fish species. Their teeth, if any, are not serrated and are sparsely scattered in 2 rows and hardly posses a thread to appropriate nylon shock tippet.

The Giant Kingfish (G.T.) is the largest and most aggressive of all the Kingfish species. They will hunt and attack just about anything edible in the ocean. Even some turtle hatchlings which manage to reach the water will be eaten. Mature brutes that can grow in excess of 60 kg’s, often hunt on their own but will join in at a feeding frenzy of younger or smaller fish. Around the Seychelles’ atolls and Mozambican islands, large fish, if not solitary will run with another fish of similar size. They assist each other in cornering prey and if one is hooked the other often follows the hooked fish close to the angler.  These fish have an ability to change from their silvery blue colour to a distressed or warning shade of dark black or grey. Younger but mature fish of 5 – 15 kg often hunt in small packs cornering prey and easily falling into an aggressive feeding frenzy (differs from one area to the next). The fish often attack surface flies such as poppers and gurglers, in small numbers, competing wildly for the fly and often breeching. This is a spectacular sight and one that embeds into the mind of fly fishers brave enough to set the hook after the take. GT’s are incredibly powerful and to add to this are dirty fighters, looking for rocks, reefs and crevices to rid themselves of the line. They use their broad flanks as a wall against the water making them harder to lift. I have found that larger GT’s hooked on sandy flats or on long stretches of shallow waters to be less feisty than those that we hook in deeper water and drop-offs. GT’s hooked in the latter will often run for cover even if it means that it is a couple of hundred yards.  12 – 14 Weight fly rods will stop similar size fish on the flats, but these large fish will be unstoppable in deeper waters.

Mature GT’s need to see sub-surface flies in their binocular vision before reacting to it and often fly fishers who battle to place the fly within the fishes path think that the fish is not feeding because it does not react. The sound and movement of Gurglers and Poppers will however be detected by the fish’s ear and/or lateral line as a distress signal to which they spontaneously react. GT’s have sharp abrasive jaws and gill plates that can eventually work through nylon of inferior quality and strength. The sharp scales on the lateral line towards the tail, as I have mentioned, may also cut the line as the fish speeds away or turns to change direction. One of the most important aspects to remember when tackling monster GT’s on fly is not to give them time to revive. A ‘Mexican stand-off’ (you pull then I pull) can only result in a lengthy and tedious fight and this can cause concentration loss on the anglers part and ultimately tackle failure.  

Anglers often break rods when fighting GT’s at close range because they allow the rod to bend unnaturally. If a large fish is fought off a boat then the angler should back away from the edge of the boat as the fish becomes ready to land. This will allow the length of the rod to take the weight and shock instead of just the tip on its own. Landing a mature GT on-shore can also be a tricky business and should be handled by a fishing partner or guide. Rods often break when inexperience allows for incorrect rod handling.

The GT is the only Kingfish species to consider using a flouro carbon shock tippet that is heavier than 50lbs and often as thick as 120lbs. Large # 4/0 to 8/0 Whistlers, Deceivers, Flashy Profiles, Mega Clousers, Gurglers and Poppers are flies of choice. It is believed that some estuaries along the Southern African coast are used as breeding grounds.  Large shoaling fish are spotted high up to where the tide pushes the salt water into the estuary. Juvenile GT’s often use these estuaries as a sanctuary and feed on mullet, shrimp, prawn and other small food sources within the system.

Bluefin Kingfish (melampygus) often hunt on shallow reefs in small schools. These must be the most spectacular looking Kingfish with their luminous blue fins and spots that are scattered all over the body. All these blues light up when the fish is hooked and although the average fish caught on fly tackle is 3 - 4 kg’s, they really are a  prize, giving a gutsy fight on light 9 – 10 weight outfits. Bluefin Kingfish will eagerly take poppers and gurglers off the surface and accept a range of subsurface flies of which chartreuse/white and fire Clouseres are of the most effective. Bluefin Kingfish can attain lengths of 100cm and weigh more than 7 kg’s.

Bigeye Kingfish are the most abundant species of Kingfish in our waters and can grow to lengths of 80cm and weigh over 5 kg’s. Mature Bigeye Kingfish can put up a strong fight on 9- 10 weight outfits and are often caught on and off-shore. They will accept a wide selection of deep swimming flies, especially small Clousers and Deceivers. They almost always run in schools that have fish of similar size and anglers often have a feast hooking one after the other if a shoal has been located. Bigeyes get their name from their big eyes which are proportionately larger than the other Kingfish species.

Brassy Kingfish are often found in large schools of similar size fish and often aggressively grab almost any fly that is not too large when in a feeding frenzy. They can however, like all other Kings, become quite selective if a specific food source is in abundance. They are generally caught on fly off sand spits in shallow water reefs and are rarely found far offshore. Juveniles are often found in estuaries and could be confused with juvenile Giant Kingfish. The adults can reach lengths of 80cm and weigh more than 4,5 kg’s which makes them excellent 8 – 10 weight contenders.

The Black Kingfish also referred to as the ‘Black Jack’ is a lesser known species and not often caught on fly. These fish are mostly black to grey in color and have a longer dorsal fin than the other mentioned Caranx species.  This species has a slightly protruding mouth, making it distinctive from the others. They are apparently confined to clear off-shore waters, averaging depths of between 20 and 60m. The average fish caught that can be handled with fly rods 9 – 10 weight are 4 – 6 kg’s. Heaver rods and lines are however often used to get flies to the depth at which they feed. One of my favorite flies for Black Kingfish is the Black Whistler but they will accept a large variety of deep swimming flies such as Clousers and Deceivers. 

Blacktip Kingfish are dark bronze to yellow-green on top and silvery bronze to yellowish below in their adult stage with a distinct black tip on the upper tail fin.

Juvenile fish are often caught on lighter tackle but large fish that can grow up to 8kg’s are rare and a good prize. Adults prefer open coastal waters and small pods are often found on shallow rocky reefs. These fish can be targeted on 9 – 10 weight rods but be sure that a specimen of over 6 kg will put up a worthy tussle.

The second group of Kingfish genus that are important to fly fishers are the genus Carangoides of which 21 species exist and 12 our found in our waters. Many would consider only the Bludger Kingfish (carangoides gymnostethus) and Yellow Spotted Kingfish (carangoides fulvoguttatus) of value as a sport fish, occurring most commonly off-shore around slightly deeper reefs.

The Bludgers are known to school when in their juvenile stage but larger fish form small groups or even run solitarily. Bludger Kingfish have no teeth to speak of but have incredible stamina that can test both tackle and angler. The shape of these powerful fish is more barrel shape, almost a rounder tuna shape, and they can attain lengths of 90cm and weigh more than 14.5kg’s. A good average size Bludger on fly could weigh in at between 6 - 10 kg’s and should be tackled with 10 – 12 weight outfits. They will accept a host of deep swimming flies, but we have found that smaller #2/0 clouser-type flies work the best.

Yellow spotted Kingfish have bright brassy-yellow spots on their sides and adults often have 3 black blotches on each flank. They are not as thickly set as the Bludgers but can reach 100cm in length and can weigh over 18kg’s. These fish are often found in schools and once the shoal is located, anglers often manage to take more than one from the group.

They should be targeted with 10 – 12 weight rods and fast sinking lines. We often find large specimens on relatively shallow reefs at between 10- 20m and the Mega Clouser has proven one of the better flies to use when targeting them.

The third genus of Kingfish has only one species and this is the Golden Kingfish (gnathanodon speciosus). This beautiful fish has a toothless mouthpiece that can extend and retract and this distinguishes them from all the other larger kingfish species. This mouthpiece curves slightly downwards when extended and it is believed that it is used to suck in crustaceans off the ocean floor. The smaller and younger Golden Kingfish are bright yellow/gold to silver in color and have 7-11 black bands on their flanks. These bands fade as the fish grow larger and older and a few black blotches start appearing on the fish. These fish can attain a weight of 15kg and good specimens of 8 – 12 kg’s are often landed off- shore on fly fishing tackle. Although Golden Kingfish do feed on smaller fish species they prefer a variety of crabs, shrimps and prawn species. Golden Kingfish should be targeted with 10 – 12 weight outfits as lighter tackle could result in the fish being over-played and often die after a lengthy tussle. These fish hardly ever run more than 50m during the fight but constantly remain deep and at the same distance using their broad flanks to put strain on the line.  Larger specimens are often solitary hunters or hunt in small groups and are mostly hooked on the bottom of the ocean bed.   

  Kingfish are one of the greatest sporting fish targetable on fly in the Indian Ocean and we as fly fishers should constantly be aware of its fragile environment. It is great to be able to take a picture of these trophies and then release them, but it is most important to also play a part in the preservation of their habitat and the eco systems within it.