Nowhere else in the world does it grow as big as here, writes Clarke Gayford.
We need to talk about our kingfish. A fish that despite swimming in Australian colours is New Zealand's most consistently accessible green and yellow champion sportfish.
Formally known as Yellowtail Kingfish, and informally depending on size, as Kingies or Rats, they are found mainly around the North Island, but, increasingly, also in the South in summer. It's a fish so synonymous with NZ fishers that our oldest club started life as The Bay of Islands Kingfish Club, in 1918.
Some Kiwis are surprised to learn that kingfish not only exist beyond NZ, but are renown throughout the world for their incredible relentless strength. More specifically the IGFA (International Game Fish Association), which keeps all records fishy, has broken kingfish into three groups. Whereas the Californian kingfish and Southern kingfish (ours) are exactly the same fish (just living in different areas), the Asian kingfish is different in appearance only to a super trained eye.
From Argentina to Australia, California to Asia, kingfish have spread themselves through temperate waters everywhere.
But the special thing about kingfish here, is that nowhere else in the world do they get as big. In fact, we have 23 of the 24 world records (because we have to let Australia win something.) This includes the all tackle record of two absolute horse-sized specimens, both at 51.4kg, caught in 1984 and 1987 off Tauranga. But we know they go even bigger because commercial boats have reported catches of the odd one closer to 65kg, and one unverifiable report of a kingfish once landed weighing 96kg, although in this case I suspect they mistook the fish for an actual horse.
Anglers come to NZ from all over the world to chase kingfish and make up a large part of the 39,000 fishing charters hired by foreign tourists each year. Carl Muir, who set up Epic Fishing Charters out of Tairua in 2005, quickly refined his operation to give anglers what they wanted, that being mostly Australians wanting to catch our kingfish. More than 60 per cent of his booked days were our neighbours coming here in groups to chase them, 95 per cent of which were then released. Carl estimates that each group spent at least $10,000 over a week, pumping significant revenue back into the small Coromandel town, especially over the quiet winter months.
Back in 2001, charter operator Dean Savage also specialised in taking Japanese visitors to chase kingfish off Gisborne. The near 100 per cent Japanese clients were absolutely laser-focused to catch them on speed-jig, a fishing practice developed and mastered for kingfish in Japan.
But they weren't the first overseas anglers to be tempted by our kingfish, not by a long shot. Prior to this we had significant numbers of Americans on the hunt through the 1980s in the Bay of Islands. But even earlier than this, the original kingfish tourist was the most published writer in the world of his time, and arguably the world's greatest angling writer, Zane Grey. He was invited here by the New Zealand government to test our waters.
Here he discovered such a bounty that he titled his book Tales of the Angler's El Dorado.
Grey wrote, "The New Zealand coast is destined to become the most famous of all fishing waters. It will bring the best anglers from all over the world."
Although Grey's conquests of our marlin and shark fishery have been well recorded, one of his long-standing world records was a 111lb (50.34kg) yellowtail kingfish caught here in 1926. This is the exact year he wrote and released the acclaimed book that put NZ on the world-fishing map.
The experience clearly left a strong impression on the travelling angler and
it's a great shame we didn't better seize Grey's words to properly manage certain fisheries now diminished. Fishing tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide and our kingfish have the proven firepower to draw in anglers and their dollars.
Which begs the question, which town in Aotearoa gets to claim being the kingfish capital and by rights put up a shimmering green and gold monument to our esteemed water weightlifter?
Clarke Gayford hosts Fish of the Day, returning to Three this summer.