Balloons and floats

Fit for a King

Last updated 16:15 05/06/2008
Todd Michell shows the result of a kahawai live-bait placed under a balloon at Great Barrier Island - a prime 23kg kingfish.
Hold your live kahawai close at the beginning, so it expends the extra energy that can break off the balloon, before letting it swim out
It's usually better to hold live baits within 30-50 metres of the shore, generally near the berley trail or on the edge of active whitewash, as the bulk of the kingfish encountered tend to follow the contours of the coastline.

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What could be better than watching a pack of big kingfish crashing around and shouldering each other out the way as they fight over your live kahawai?

Not much, that's for sure - that's why I love presenting livebaits to kingfish using a balloon or float rig - it's great to get exciting glimpses of my quarry as they charge around after the tethered and franticly skittering live bait.

And judging by the number of balloons out behind boats and in front of land-based anglers, I'm far from alone in favouring this technique. However, it's also very apparent that few practitioners understand the full potential and versatility of this type of rig. Yes, they're good for holding baits up near the surface or away from the sea floor, and yes, they're useful for marking your bait's position, but there are so many other good reasons for using balloons and floats with your live baits. 


Floats are ideal for smaller baits, especially in windy conditions, or if you need to cast out.

By smaller baits, I mean piper, kopapa (juvenile/half grown kahawai) and modest examples of the various mackerel species, including yellowtail, koheru and slimies. Herrings/sprats appear to be perfect candidates too, but I find they rarely attract a bite and only use them as a last resort.

So why not attach such baits to a balloon, as you would with bigger baits? Well, a fully inflated balloon possesses a lot of surface area and flotation, so small baits can be blown right out of the water if the offshore wind is too strong. Or, if it is an onshore wind, these same baits tend to be pushed back inshore or are prevented from swimming out from the rocks at all. And even if you do manage to get a kingfish bite, this same balloon buoyancy and surface-area pressure often causes the relatively lightly hooked baits to rip off the hook.

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Yes, floats are the way to go with small baits, and luckily for us there are many different types and sizes available. I look for quite streamlined designs - usually called ‘turnips' and ‘torpedoes' - the size of a medium-sized lemon.

Floats should have a hole lengthwise through the middle so they can be threaded onto the mainline above a short trace. They need to be able to slide along the mainline until they hit the adjustable ‘stopper knot', which is tied on the line to prevent the float sliding any further. This knot allows anglers to position a bait quite deep down if desired, and when a fish is hooked, the float slides back down the line until it reaches the short trace's swivel, so the angler doesn't have to worry about trying to control the fish on a long trace at the last moment.

I also like the fact that these floats are streamlined and offer only moderate water resistance/floatation. This means they're dragged effortlessly through the water by quite small baits (so you can let them swim the float out for you if preferred), are little affected by wind (so the current or bait determines the float's position, not the breeze), and are easily pulled under the water by strikes, so there's less chance of baits ripping off the hook - or the kingfish feeling suspicious pressure and rejecting the bait. And should you want to cast (sometimes the presence of kingfish deters them from venturing away from the boat stern or rocks), no worries, as the very short trace makes this possible.

Even better, some heavy-duty plastic floats are hollow and filled with rattles, so every bob and jiggle produced by the live bait, or the ripples on the water, make a noise - great for attracting the curious kingfish. Additionally, some models feature reflective tape on their sides, imitating baitfish flashes - another trigger for predatory fish.

That's why Glitterbugs are my favourite floats - they possess all the above attributes and have a brightly coloured top, too, making them relatively easy to spot. Wish I knew who sells them now...

While searching for good-looking floats, you're bound to come across appropriately sized clip-on ball floats in two-toned colours. These do work (on a couple of occasions I have even had kingfish eat them!) and I like the idea of being able to clip such floats anywhere I want along the line. They come in a good selection of sizes, and I often use one of the very small models (the size of a walnut) to accompany my relatively weak-swimming piper baits, especially if they must battle a head-wind.

On the negative side of the ledger, these floats tend to be brittle (so don't drop them) and are prone to leaks, especially the cheap white and red ones (although it's possible to test them for leaks by unhygienically sucking around the joins!).

And, like all floats, they do have limitations - once a bait reaches a certain size it's able to drag floats underwater for long periods of times, defeating the purpose and being very bloody irritating. That's where balloons come in.


Balloons are great; because they can be inflated to different sizes, they are able to cover almost every eventuality and situation. For example, they will keep everything from piper to large kahawai and trevally away from the tackle-eating sea floor; make it much easier to keep track of livebaits; and can harness or compensate for prevailing wind and tidal conditions.

So let's look at these various attributes more closely. As already mentioned, there's nothing better than a balloon for attaching to a large live-bait's trace, especially balloons in garish colours such as pink, orange and red. Not only are these bright balloons easier to keep track of (so avoid white and blue - they're almost impossible to see), I believe they also draw the inquisitive kings in for a closer look. This is possibly because kings have got used to encountering similarly bright buoys marking many nautical and angling devices, including navigation buoys, moorings, nets, long­lines, craypots etc. Some end up acting as mini FADs (fish attracting devices), with small fish sticking close to them for shelter, so kingfish instinctively check them out for potential prey.

The size of the balloon determines its role. A large balloon is generally used with big baits, not just to hold the bait in position away from the bottom, but also because the extra surface area will a) help sink the hook, and b) cause the balloon to snap away cleanly, especially if you're using something strong to attach it to the line/swivel, such as dental floss.

Or, if preferred, a well-inflated balloon can be used as a sail, so that the wind (or current) can take smaller baits further out to a better looking location or deeper water, and then hold it there.

Conversely, a smaller balloon, with its reduced surface area, allows baits to battle out against headwinds and currents more easily, and can be pulled under the water without bursting or breaking off - useful if you're low on balloons and floats. Slightly inflated balloons can also be used with smaller baits if you lack a suitable float.

The fact that balloons often alert us to the presence of predators by perhaps erratically zigzagging across the surface at high speed or burrowing half under the surface and trailing a foaming wake is another plus. Sometimes it's more like Custer's Last Stand all over again, with our colourful inflatable friend standing firm in the midst of hostilities, with hungry kingfish charging around it in foaming, crashing boils, while the desperately skittering kahawai tries to stay just in front.

On other occasions however, the take is almost a disappointment, with the first sign of a strike being the sight of your balloon gently wafting away in the grip of the breeze. If you see that, get over to your outfit quick - that ratchet's likely to burst into song at any second!

Whatever size balloon you use, much of its effectiveness is determined by the way it's attached to the live-bait rig. The most common method is to tie the inflated balloon to the trace's ball-bearing swivel (which is essential to the rig, otherwise anglers will suffer a twisted trace) - and it must be the ring connected to the mainline (or more trace), otherwise the swivel will not be able to turn, rendering it useless.

The materials and methods used to tie the balloon are many, but I stick to the tried and true, usually attaching my balloon via a short strand of dental floss. Don't make it too long or it will tangle around the swivel or the line. Three strands of cotton will also do the trick, but first test it for strength, since cotton can vary greatly.

I also like to use rod-binding thread, as it doesn't rot like cotton can - but again, test it first for strength, as the various brands and thicknesses have different breaking strains.

Once the balloon is attached and the bait's in the water, it pays to hold your kahawai tightly to begin with, as most try to charge away at a million miles an hour, often breaking the thread in their frenzy. And let me tell you, holding a thrashing kahawai at the water's edge with your gear way back up the rocks as your balloon sails merrily away is a very frustrating experience.

So let the fish reach the water and then hang on for a minute or so; the bait's initial burst of adrenalin soon dissipates, and you can then safely let the fish swim out.

Ironically, this same strand (or strands) of delicate thread is often indestructible when a kingfish tries to make off with your live-bait. Even large, well-inflated balloons are sometimes pulled underwater before reluctantly popping off, and with this amount of pressure occurring, I believe most kings are hooked at this point. Consequently, I have started using circle/re-curve hooks more regularly, as the reasonably steady pressure exerted by the balloon is perfect for setting them nicely into the corner of the fish's mouth.

My fishing buddy, Adam Clancey, likes them for this purpose, too, as well as for trolling, and doesn't do anything fancy when placing these hooks in the baits, simply scooping them through the bait's upper shoulder. He does alright, too.

However, I prefer a slightly more complex method, after seeing many more marlin caught using bridle-rigged baits attached to re-curve hooks by rubber bands. (This method was adopted when anglers realised that unless there is a little space between the bait and the hook, the bulk of the attached bait tends to interfere with how the circle hook naturally slides back around the jaw hinge.)

You might be put off by needing an open-eyed needle to do this. While bait needles are available at good fishing shops, I use a section of bike spoke, sharpened at one end with a file and given a long, slow taper at the other, so it can be bent over to form an ‘open eye'.

To bridle-rig the bait, first attach one end of a rubber band (#8 is generally about right) firmly to the hook. Next, place the other end of the rubber band into the needle's open eye and use the needle to pull it through the cartilaginous area just in front of the baitfish's eyes. At this point you will find out if you have tapered the needle's eye sufficiently and made the gap in the open eye small enough - if you haven't, you'll find yourself trying to drag part of the bait's skull through with it!

Take the needle off and spin the free end of the rubber band around until it is shorter and just able to be placed over the point and barb of the hook, so it holds the bait snugly to the base of the hook. Be careful not to make it too tight though, as you still want it to stretch a bit after the strike, divorcing it from the bulk of the bait and allowing it to ‘do its thing'.

So why bother? Well, apart from being extremely effective, this type of hook is also more responsible long-term, as standard J-type hooks often end up in the fish's gills, throat or gut. So even if the kingfish manages to escape or is cut free at the end of the fight, it may end up dying due to hook damage.

Circle hooks, on the other hand, have relatively little impact on a kingfish's ability to survive if it breaks free, and are also easily removed from the mouth by successful anglers for release if desired.

Whatever rig you settle on, keep in mind that kingfish are attracted by structure, so concentrate your efforts around them. And although spots deeper than 25-30 metres may occasionally have fish busting up above them, balloons and floats generally work better in shallower areas - around five to 20 metres is good.

Also, as kingfish tend to follow the contours of the coast, like to use active white water to help conceal their presence, and are attracted by the oily promise of berley trails, as well as by the vibrations of baitfish feeding in them, position your live bait to take advantage of these tendencies.

This means not allowing your bait to swim too far out from shore (20-40 metres is generally sufficient), while two baits - one set at 20 metres and the other at 40-50 metres - is a sensible tactic when fishing from anchored boats. And remember that the further the bait is allowed to swim away from you, the greater the distance between you and any kingfish you hook. Our yellow-tailed friends will use every metre of distance to look for something on which to bust the line! A short line is always better.â€Â

- Fishing News

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