Smoker Specialist

Summertime Strategies for Finding and Fooling Big Kings

Capt. Steve Dougherty May 18, 2009

Smokers. You’ve surely heard the word tossed around before and no, I’m not talking about the population that can no longer inhale their nicotine fix in local restaurants. The smokers I’m referring to are king mackerel that pull the scale past the 30-pound mark. With aggressive attacks and mind-boggling aerial assaults, monster king mackerel are among the most exciting coastal pelagic species to target. When a smoker king grabs your bait, the ensuing moments are sure to excite even the most seasoned veterans.

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Photo: Steve Dougherty

Many anglers believe that “smokers” are aptly named because they’re best suited for smoked fish dip. Some claim these brutes will leave your drag smoldering after their initial run, while others will tell you stories of seared flesh from thumbing the spool. Whatever the case, targeting these thrilling game fish requires you stay on your toes and on top of your game.

It should come as no surprise that kingfish can be targeted with relative consistency anytime of the year and from nearly any port of call, but if you want to battle with a legitimate smoker you need to keep a close eye on baitfish migrations, water clarity and water temperature – three key factors that play an integral role in your king mackerel efforts. While you will surely catch “snakes” in the five to 12-pound range trolling X-raps or Drone Spoons, to consistently bag the biggest fish you need to employ large, healthy, live offerings. While kingfish aren’t the pickiest of eaters, the baits that entice the most brutal strikes from mature fish include blue-runner, goggle-eye, pogies, mullet, Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, bullet bonito and big threadfin herring.

It’s an undeniable fact that trophy individuals can be caught along the entire coast of Florida, however, the largest concentrations of tournament winning kings reside in the northern Gulf of Mexico, the Lower Keys and Key West, and along the Gold and Treasure Coasts. While toothy kingfish generally frequent depths from 60 to 200-feet, the fattest torpedoes are often taken much closer to shore. Sometimes even only a stones throw from the sand!

Mackerel Migration
King mackerel are highly nomadic game fish that closely follow migrating schools of baitfish. While there are distinct Gulf and Atlantic stocks, the two groups mingle in the Keys during the winter to feast on the bounty of baitfish and savor the warm tropical waters. Sometime between the late fall/early spring, stocks split and head north along their respected coasts. The Gulf population resides in the northern Gulf during the summer, while the Atlantic population may move as far north as Virginia. If you missed the spring run of kings don’t fret, as they will move south again in early fall. Because kingfish prefer water temperatures between 68 to 75 degrees, early or late frontal boundaries may affect their timing and precise location.

Rig It Right!
Like most predatory game fish kingfish have excellent eyesight. With that being said, if your offering doesn’t swim with lifelike attributes, you can be sure it will go untouched. While allowing your baits to swim with greater ease, scaling down your tackle also facilitates a stealthy approach. Many of the best kingfish anglers rely on 20lb. conventional tackle and sometimes even resort to 12lb. gear if the fish are acting super finicky. Another reason you should rig with light tackle is due to the fact that kingfish grow at an extremely slow rate. A 50-pound fish has likely seen it all and if you continue to fish heavy tackle with bulky connections, you may never get the opportunity to battle a true behemoth.

Because kingfish strike with reckless abandon and often approach their prey at breakneck speeds, many king mackerel become foul hooked when savagely attacking their next meal. Due to their sloppy eating habits, light tackle outfits that provide a sensitive platform decrease the chance of pulling hooks. Once hooked, handle your trophies patiently, as too much pressure will certainly result in a lost fish. Light drag, steady pressure and a high rod tip are three factors that will help bring your king to the boat.

Many anglers routinely employ 20lb. conventional reels spooled with 20lb. test topped off with a 10-foot section of 25lb. fluorocarbon leader. The short section of fluorocarbon helps eliminate cut-offs from tail-whips, which have been known to kink and break longer lengths of wire. Match a high-performance reel with a 7-foot medium action rod with a fast taper and you’re ready to go. Regardless of which reel you select, be sure it holds plenty of line, and service your equipment on a regular basis to make sure it will withstand the pressure from a tough adversary. While the rod you select is not as crucial as your reel, you should regularly inspect the guides for nicks or abrasions that could spell disaster.

When fishing large offerings it’s imperative you rig with the proper technique. Start with a 12-inch section of #3 copper wire and attach a ball bearing swivel with a haywire twist. One the other end attach a 3/0 J-hook. Next, cut a length of #4 copper wire for your stinger and attach a 4/0 3x treble hook with another haywire twist. Because kingfish often slash the tail-end of their adversaries, and the full-load of your fight may rely solely on your treble, it’s best to use a heavier gauge wire for the stinger component. Attach the stinger rig to the lead hook-eye and you are ready for business. The length of your stinger rig will vary greatly depending on the offering you’ve selected. For really long baits such as ribbonfish and Spanish mackerel, some anglers add three or even four additional stinger hooks. Remember that when rigging your offerings it’s very important you bury the stinger(s). While you may feel that an aggressive kingfish will surely get tangled in your free-swinging trebles, these masters of mischief have been known to perform the impossible, often resulting in dumbfounded responses of “What the heck?” or “How in the world?”

Most captains prefer the stealthy lifelike attributes of naked baits, however when slow-trolling some anglers utilize duster rigs or Turbo Rattlers to attract even more attention. Whatever method you prefer, it’s important you use only the strongest and highest quality terminal tackle available. When a quality fish collides with your offering, everything needs to be in perfect working order. If your hooks are super sharp, the initial strike should be enough to provide a solid hook set.

Tasteful Tactics
When it comes to tactics, most SKA veterans agree that slow-trolling live baits is the most effective approach to enticing large kingfish. This is not to be said that many a large kingfish haven’t been coerced while drifting or kite fishing, because they have. The latter of which is an extremely exciting and rewarding way to target kings as it enables you to witness skyrocketing strikes as your offerings flutter helplessly on the surface.

When fishing big-money kingfish tournaments the most successful anglers routinely slow-troll with downriggers to facilitate wicked strikes. It’s relatively simple to spot a boat that’s slow-trolling for kings. They’ll be barely making headway with either one or two downriggers deployed and a couple of flat lines free-lined on the surface. The idea is to troll at a speed that will enable your baits to swim with little to no resistance, while still covering ground.

To cover the entire water column and increase their odds of an encounter, most anglers deploy two downriggers and several flat lines. Your first downrigger bait should be set just a few feet off the bottom, with the second downrigger set in the middle of the water column. Stagger two flat lines and deploy another live bait in an elevated shotgun position. If you think you can handle a sixth line, deploy a final frisky offering just past the prop wash.

When fishing downriggers, one trick many SKA anglers employ is the use of a monofilament top-shot. Downriggers are typically spooled with multi-strand cable, but by adding a mono top-shot you can decrease the hum and vibration that’s associated with trolling heavy-duty cable, while also reducing your chances of being cut-off.

With the top-shot, your lighter line, which is keeping you connected to your quarry, will almost always slice through the heavier mono if the two were to connect. While this situation will definitely result in the loss of your terminal tackle, the top-shot just might save your trophy. If money isn’t on the line, you may not be willing to lose a downrigger ball over a fish, however, a $25 downrigger ball could be the difference between losing and landing a $50,000 tournament winning smoker. If you plan on fishing depths less than 50-feet, a 100-foot top-shot will suffice, but when scouting depths in the 100-foot plus range, 200 to 300-feet of mono is suggested.

Take Notes
Kingfish are creatures of habit and you can expect them to frequent the same locations year after year as they contour the coastline on their annual migration. Having a record of what conditions you found success in seasons past is a trade secret among smoker specialists. Factors to take note of include depth, location, water clarity, water and air temperatures, type of bait and lunar phases. While this all sounds good on paper, if you’ve spent enough time on the water you’re well aware of the fact that the only guarantee is that there are no guarantees and that to be successful you must be able to adapt to the prevailing conditions. Good luck and hope to see you on the water.

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