Kontiki Fishing: Catching a Feast the Kiwi Way
Mar 12, 2021 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

People have developed some pretty ingenious ways to catch fish over the years. From bite alarms to robotic lures, new tech turns up every day in the angler’s toolkit. Some of it’s just for fun, while most promises easier angling and increased catch rates. Kontiki fishing is a bit of both.

An aerial view of a pair of anglers kontiki fishing using a beach longline system

Kontiki fishing has been popular in New Zealand for years now and is slowly making its way to other countries, too. Safe to say, this is a pretty unique way to fish. How does it work? What can you catch? And importantly, is it a sustainable way to fish? These are the questions we’re answering today.

What is kontiki fishing?

An infographic explaining how kontiki fishing works. Text reads "Kontiki torpedo pulls line out. Hooked traces catch fish. Winch pulls everything back in."

Kontiki fishing is essentially beach longlining, using a small raft or float to pull your hooks out to deeper water. In the past, people would use logs and even balloons – anything that the wind would blow offshore. The problem with these basic setups is that you’re at the mercy of the wind. That’s where technology stepped in.

These days, all manner of high-tech ‘fishing torpedoes’ have been developed to get anglers’ hooks past the surf. These motorised tubes are designed to run far offshore, stopping after a certain distance or even honing in on GPS coordinates. They’re essentially ocean-going drones.

As the kontiki speeds offshore, it pulls 20 or more hooks all attached to individual trace lines. These settle to the bottom and (hopefully) hook some fish. After a while, you winch your line back in and head home with a load of tasty fish.

What can you catch?

A chilly bin full of Snapper and other fish

Kontikis are mainly designed for bottom fish, but their multiple hooks can land you a huge mix of species. That’s not to say that you have no control over what you catch, though. Tailoring your bait and depth will give you a better chance of a specific species.

So, what’s on the menu? On New Zealand’s North Island, the main catches are Snapper and Gurnard, as well as Kahawai, Trevally, Kingfish, Cod, and various Sharks. South Islanders usually land a mix of Greyboy (Tope), Rig (Smooth-Hound), Cod, Elephant Fish, and the occasional Salmon.

Fishing outside New Zealand? You can expect a wide variety of different bottom fish. Snappers, Groupers, Flatfish, Groundfish… If it lives on or near the bottom there’s a good chance of hooking it.

Kontiki Fishing Gear

A complete kontiki fishing setup on a trolley on a beach
Image Source: Seahorse Kontikis

Kontiki fishing involves more equipment than you could fit in your average tackle box. In fact, you can think of it more as a replacement for a boat than a rod, with dozens of accessories and add-ons for different conditions. To get started, here are the basic parts of a kontiki fishing system:

  • Torpedo: There are two types of fishing torpedo: manual and self-steering. Manual ones need guiding through the surf with the line, while self-steer ones have a GPS or a compass built in.
  • Winch: With thousands of dollars of equipment out there, you want a reliable winch to bring it all back in. These are usually electric, but you can use a manual winch if your arms are up to it.
  • Trace board: A metal frame that holds the baited trace lines in place during transport. The board also makes it easier to rig the traces onto the main line as the torpedo speeds offshore.
  • Bait: However you fish, you need something to tempt the fish to bite. Large strips of mullet, kahawai, or squid work best with kontikis as they stay on the hooks during their journey out.
  • Weights: If you want to reach the bottom, you’ll need to add weight in the form of clip-on sinkers. Attach them to the front of the main line, and again every few traces, depending on the current.
  • Transport: All of that kit adds up to quite a lot of weight, so many anglers use quad bikes or four-wheelers to haul it all onto the beach. A simple trolley will also do the job on a budget, though.

Kontiki Fishing Basics

Each make and model of kontiki is a little different, so make sure you read up on how yours works. That being said, the basic technique is always the same. Here are the fundamental principles of a successful kontiki fishing set.

Scouting a Spot

A pair of kontiki anglers with quad bikes on a beach in New Zealand

Research the area you’re planning to fish before you head out. Look for rips and offshore currents that could lead your kontiki off course, as well as reefs and sandbars you might run aground on. Tides are important, too. Launch at the wrong time, and you could be dragging your catch over a lot of sand – or worse, your winch might be underwater!

When you hit the beach, the first thing you should do is scan the area for surfers, boats, and other kontikis. Keep well clear of all of these, as your torpedo won’t make a straight course offshore. While you’ve got your binoculars out, look for winches and trolleys on the beach. Kontikis can be hard to spot when they’re a couple of kilometres offshore.

Setup and Launch

A group of people operating a kontiki fishing winch and attaching traces to the line as it goes offshore
Image source: Seahorse Kontikis

If you haven’t done so already, bait your traces. Strip baits and long cuts of squid tend to work well. Hook each piece through once to give it movement in the water, then secure the baited trace back in the board. This will make them easier to attach once your line is running. Get your weights ready if you’re using them, then it’s time to launch.

Launching works a little differently based on the make and model you use. Self-steer kontikis are a ‘fire and forget’ sort of deal as long as you set them properly. Manual kontikis need a little help through the surf, though. Keep tension on the line to make sure they’re running true. If there’s a current, angle the rudder before you launch to compensate.

Once the torpedo is running, set some drag on your winch to stop it backlashing. This will also give you more time to attach the traces. Your line should have easily-visible stoppers to space out the traces and weights. Make sure you know how many there are, then divide that by the number of traces and weights you’re using to keep your baits spread evenly.

Winching In, Packing Up

a pair of anglers packing up their kontiki fishing gear on a beach

After enough time has passed, it’s time to reel in some dinner. The most important thing to be aware of is any snagged traces – or worse still, a snagged main line. Pulling the line one way then the other along the beach should dislodge it. If not, you may need to get a boater or kayaker to grab your kontiki before you try more forceful methods of freeing it.

No snags? Fantastic! Slow your winch when the first traces show up on the sand, then stop it altogether as you remove each one. This stops them from getting tangled up and hooked on each other – or you. Unclip the trace, unhook the fish, and pack both away safely.

When all your lines are unclipped and stowed, slowly winch your kontiki into shallow water, then paddle out and retrieve it. Clear up everything from your set and wash down any blood on the sand with a bucket of water. Nobody likes stepping on fish guts during a romantic walk on the beach!

Kontiki Concerns

Is kontiki fishing safe?

An orange warning flag on a beach

Fishing with a couple of dozen hooks can be dangerous if you don’t do it right. To avoid any unnecessary drama, here are some golden rules for fishing safely:

  • Always carry a knife. This is the number one rule of kontiki fishing. You’re sending a lot of very sharp hooks offshore, the last thing you want is to be hauled out with them!
  • Time your launch. Wait for a lull in the surf (the ‘seventh wave’ rule isn’t fool-proof, but it’s a good estimate) and then launch between waves so that your kontiki is pulled out.
  • Wear a PFD. Or at least, wear one in rough surf. You don’t need to have it on the whole set, but it can be a literal lifesaver when launching into rough west coast waves.
  • Mark your line. Set flags along your line from your winch to the surf. Other beach-goers might not see it otherwise. This will also keep your line safe from quads and 4WDs.
  • Don’t fish alone. This makes things much easier, and much more fun to boot. If nobody else is free, let them know where you’ll be fishing and when you’re planning to be home.

Is kontiki fishing sustainable?

A Snapper fish washed up on a beach in New Zealand

When people hear ‘beach longlining’ all sorts of terrible images probably come to mind. Hundreds of fish dragged out of the sea. By-catch littered all over the beach. The truth is much less dramatic. Of course, it’s up to us as anglers to fish responsibly, but a kontiki is essentially a replacement for a boat, only with a rechargeable battery instead of a big diesel engine.

So, how can we keep our kontiki sets sustainable? For starters, only use as many lines as you want fish. Catch and release isn’t really an option half the time, so if you can’t take 25 fish, don’t set 25 traces. If you don’t want a fish and it is healthy enough to release, don’t wait. Release it right away a good distance down the beach.

Is kontiki fishing legal?

That really depends on where you live. In New Zealand, it’s legal to fish with up to 25 hooks. In other countries, it may be much less. Some places, such as Queensland, ban fishing with remote or powered devices completely. It’s best to check with the local authorities before investing in all the equipment. 

Wherever you’re fishing, always write your name and number on your torpedo and winch. This is a legal requirement in NZ, and it could also save the day if your kontiki breaks off offshore. You should also register your purchase with the manufacturer, just to be extra safe.

Lastly, remember that regular fishing limits still apply. Read up on your limits and immediately release the healthiest fish if you exceed them. You can always come back and catch them again tomorrow.

Kontiki Fishing: Great Fun, Great Results

A selection of kontiki and surf fishing equipment on a beach in New Zealand

To recap, kontiki fishing is a fun, relaxing way to fill your chilly bin (or ‘esky’ or ‘cooler’ depending where you live). You send out your torpedo, hook on your traces, then winch in some dinner. Some people say that it takes the sport out of fishing, but if you just want to kick back and catch fish, you can’t beat it. Besides, you can always bring a surf rod to keep you busy while you wait!

Have you ever tried kontiki fishing? What are the rules in your area? Drop us your stories or ask a question in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you!

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