by Karl Sawyer
The Three Kings Islands, located 55km northwest of Cape Reinga is one of New Zealand’s iconic fishing destinations that is legendary for producing enormous fish on a regular basis. After booking our trip two years in advance with the fishing vessel Enchanter skippered by Lance Goodhew, our motley crew arrived in Mangonui on the Tuesday night, eager and fired up for the next five days. Our crew consisted of Three Kings virgins; Nugget, Nui, Bob and Gareth, along with Carl and I who had previously sampled what the Three Kings has to offer. This was to be my third trip to this hallowed fishing ground and I was hoping for better luck weather-wise, after my previous two trips were cut short by Mother Nature. Fortunately for us, the forecast was looking pretty good with winds of no more than 15 knots predicted.
After tucking into some smoked bass and hapuka wings that a previous charter had caught, we set about catching live baits. Fortunately, Mangonui wharf was loaded with bait fish, and soon we had the tanks full of predominately Jack Mackerel with a few yellow-eyed mullet thrown in for good measure. It is a full day’s steam to the Three Kings from Mangonui and to pass the time, gear was rigged, PR knots tied, and food was downed in almost gluttonous regularity. Once we hit the 100m line off Doubtless Bay, lures were deployed with each of us enjoying 20-minute slots on strike. After the stunning game-fishing experienced last year this season has paled in comparison with water temperatures well down, all up and down the coast. We did have two shots over the course of the day and Nui hooked up on one Marlin off North Cape only for the hooks to pull after a couple of searing runs. There was no shortage of skippies around, so the predators had to be there somewhere?
We arrived into South West Bay at the main island just on dusk and after another hearty meal was dispatched we were tasked with loading up on fresh squid that had been abundant at the island. With the transom lights lit it didn’t take long for the squids to turn up. A squid jig on a dropper-style system with a 1-2oz sinker to get down did the trick, and they were good fun to catch on our light, soft plastic setups. Not even a seal and a small pod of dolphins could slow us down, and soon we had over a bin full. We were to find out over the next couple of days how important catching those slimy, water-and-ink-spitting suckers would be.
We set off the next day at daybreak for the King Bank with kingfish on the agenda. The kingies at the Three Kings are truly special, with anglers coming from around the world to target them. They seem to average over 20kg with anything under this deemed as rats. Good numbers of 30kg+ fish have been present with the odd 40kg-plus-freight-train to be sure to test anglers and their gear to the limit! Armed with full tanks of live-baits and plenty of fresh squid we knew we would be in for a good day.
After arriving at the King Bank, Lance did a dummy drift to ensure that we would drift correctly over the packs of kingies below. After Lance had made the call, “Crank the drags all the way up and hang on,” there was a bit of apprehension amongst the boys with a couple happy to sit the first drop out. A mixture of dead squid baits and livies were deployed down to the desired depth and it didn’t take long for the kingies to start dishing out the punishment with plenty of good specimens hitting the deck. Our rigs consisted of PE8–PE10 main lines with 130–150lb leaders, but even this gear couldn’t stop the odd freight train from hitting the reef. Gareth had a heavy duty 11/0 live bait hook partially straightened by a monster after a blistering run. Initially we were using both J- and circle-hooks, but after the first few drops we all changed to circles. In addition to always hooking fish in the corner of the mouth circle hooks take the guesswork out of knowing when to strike and when to allow the fish to hook themselves. It’s not often that dead-baits out-fish live-baits, but this day was certainly one of them, with only a handful of live mackerel getting taken, with the rest (apart from one particularly greedy kingie that downed a whole skippy) falling to squid. We had a couple of jig rods set up and whilst a few rats succumbed, nothing sizeable was interested in the metal. The sheer abundance of bait on the King Bank had meant the kingies were well fed and being lazy. Apart from a brief lunchtime troll, we fished hard on the kingies all day with over thirty landed and released, including half a dozen or so over 30kg.
That night we repeated the previous night’s squid-catching exercise till the wee small hours and loaded up on a couple more bins. The forecast was looking very favourable to stay out on the banks for a night-time drift for broadbill so we would need plenty of squid to get us through the next two days.
More kingies were caught before lunch on the third day and, with the seas flattening out further, we went in search of some puka and bass for the afternoon. Despite trying multiple spots that showed good sign, the bottom-dwellers proved hard to tempt with only a couple little specimens coming on board. I had purchased some 800 and 1200g jigs for a previous trip, so it was good to give them a swim, albeit retrieving the 1200g jig from 300m of water wasn’t too much fun. With the Three Kings Islands in the distance as darkness slowly descended upon us, two rigs were set up for broadbill; one was a floating-bait on a balloon and the other set deep. To ensure that the two lines didn’t tangle we would stay up in pairs and do three-hour shifts each. Nugget and I got the first shift and after two-and-three-quarter hours of watching the clock, we had a strike and it was fish-on. It was my turn on the rod and I transformed from being half asleep into battling my first sword. I had witnessed Carl fight a sword for 13.5 hours on a previous trip and I was soon experiencing the unmistakable, steady but at times surging runs synonymous with broadbills.
As the fight wore on the sea flattened right off and, despite it being early March, there was a real chill in the air. After more than four hours on the rod I had nudged the pre-set drag setting up a couple of times and we felt like we were winning with more line being gained than lost and the runs were getting shorter. Then, inexplicably, the hooks pulled with the fish less than 100m from the boat. Everyone had stayed up during the fight so it was a big anti-climax for all of us. We deployed the remaining squid bait for the last couple of hours of darkness but no further takes ensued. Whilst our battle with the gladiator of the ocean ended in tears, the crew on Pacific Envader landed a broadbill in the 200kg vicinity.
After a much needed couple of hours sleep, Lance fired up the twin diesel engines and we were soon making our way back to the King Bank for more punishment by the kingies. I followed on from my overnight form and dropped a couple more good fish. The last kingie I was hooked up to was a real freight train and had me buckled over the rails pulling line at full drag. I managed to stop it just short of the bottom and was working it towards the surface, when another powerful run resulted in another lost fish. Once the expletives had subsided and I had got my rig back, I saw that the fluorocarbon trace had broken just above the hook. A couple of lessons learned from this were to replace the trace daily, and to back off the drag a tad once the fish is under control and away from the bottom.
We left the King Bank around midday with a few more bottom-bouncing spots lined up before we would need to make the long haul back towards Tom Bowling Bay inside North Cape. A couple more bass and hapuka succumbed to bait but I was still searching for one on the jig and was ready to call it a day but some good sign on the sounder and a slightly more jig-friendly depth of 190m, convinced me to give it one last crack. Two bass fell to the 1200g Jigmaster jig, and whilst at 12kg and 22kg weren’t monsters I was stoked to have ticked off a pre-trip goal. As the last bass popped to the surface, it dawned on me that the trip was coming to a close, but after four full-on days we were all pretty spent and looking forward to being back on terra firma.
For those anglers who are planning a trip to the Three Kings, one piece of advice that Lance gave and which should be heeded is, don’t take a knife to a gunfight. I wouldn’t fish below PE8 and I’ve caught a number of good kingies on a Shimano Talica 12 loaded with PE10 braid. While this sounds heavy, most of the fish we hooked were within 20m of the bottom and stopping the fish was the priority following hook up. For bottom bouncing setups a minimum of 300m of line is needed with more being preferable especially if bluenose are being targeted as well. Being clipped into a harness makes winching the fish (and puka bombs) from the depths a lot more manageable too. Of course, the Three Kings isn’t exclusively the domain of monster fish and heavy tackle. The banks are thick with king tarakihi and we loaded up on these quality-eating fish using lighter tackle and snapper flashers. In addition there are big trevally at the banks and the islands themselves where they can be targeted on lighter tackle and they are great sport.
Getting to the Three Kings and fishing it effectively is largely the domain of the charter fishing vessels. The sheer distance of the Three Kings from the nearest ports makes it hard for private vessels to reach, let alone fish effectively. There are a number of good charter boats that operate at the Three Kings but I can’t talk highly enough of the Enchanter fleet of boats. Lance and Michelle Goodhew run a crack operation and consistently put anglers onto big fish. But it’s not just the fishing which makes a charter operator stand out and for me; the interaction between crew and the clients is equally important. Lance certainly gave the boys plenty of laughs and none of us escaped from his sharp-witted humour.
For good reason the Three Kings is at the top of many anglers bucket list destinations. After experiencing what it can offer, I would urge keen anglers to visit this great location at least once in their lifetime. After losing that broadbill and some freight-train kingfish, I will be back, as I have a score that needs to be settled!