Kingfish are a staple around the entire state, with as many ways to catch these hard fighting speedsters as there are anglers who fish for them. While most associate king mackerel fishing with live bait, my favorite method for connecting with these voracious feeders is trolling deep diving plugs. The approach doesn’t require advanced rigging techniques, nor do anglers have to catch and keep live bait. Sadly, while trolling with flashy spoons is one of the oldest and most effective means of fooling fat kings, artificial lures are still highly overlooked by tournament competitors looking for that one big fish. Yet trolling with diving plugs is the way I’ve caught giant kings since I was a kid and it is still one of the most effective tactics for scoring big!
Anytime we head offshore we manage to catch our limit of grouper in relatively short order, so we often switch it up and target kingfish once we’ve got some meat in the box. I fish out of a lot of different ports across the Gulf including Crystal River, Homosassa, Yankeetown, Cedar Key and Sarasota, but they all have something in common. From any of these ports we can pursue kings in the channels practically a stone’s throw from shore, or upwards of 80 miles off the beach. While everyone knows there are some true giants roaming the rich Middle Grounds, I typically target kingfish closer to shore and employ this effective technique anywhere from 20-to 40-miles off the coast, which puts us in around 60-feet of water.
Once we locate a concentration of bait or mark a few fish we troll in a figure-8 pattern around the target area until we score.
Highly competitive kingfish tournaments have persuaded many anglers to think that slow trolling big blue runners is the only method for fooling serious smokers, but this is far from accurate. Unlike East Coast king hunters looking for current and green water, here in the Gulf we often head straight to rockpiles, wrecks, or fertile areas of live bottom. We fish structure regardless of current or water clarity, although this far out the water is usually pretty clear. Once we locate a concentration of bait or mark a few fish we troll in a figure-8 pattern around the target area until we score. Additionally, because out here in the Gulf we typically cover plenty of ground moving from spot to spot, trolling deep diving plugs is a great way to maximize our time with baits in the water. By keeping one eye glued to the sounder, it is also an effective means of discovering bottom facets that we never knew existed.
Another great thing about Big Bend king mackerel fishing is that we catch kings on both sides of their migration. We see great action in the spring as kingfish head north and again in the fall as big numbers of fish move south, but what most don’t know is that there’s also a resident population of smokers hanging out offshore during the summertime. This is where another benefit to trolling deep diving plugs enters the equation. During the blazing summer it’s often too hot to sit around and soak live baits, so keeping the boat moving helps break the heat.
When trolling a deep diving plug, the depth the lure dives at is in direct correlation to the lure’s design, the distance behind the boat it is presented, and the boat’s trolling speed. Because kingfish roam in hunting packs and we often hook multiple fish simultaneously, I only find it necessary to fish two plugs at a time. Anymore than that and you are asking for trouble. Trolling speeds vary between four and seven-knots, with lures staggered from 60- to 120-feet behind the boat. This not only keeps the two plugs from getting tangled, but it also enables them to swim at varying depths in the water column. As a pattern emerges, we adjust our presentation accordingly.
There are numerous lure manufacturers that produce killer deep diving plugs with realistic color patterns and natural swimming actions including Rapala, L&S Bait Co. and Bomber. I happen to be loyal to Yo-Zuri. Keep in mind that “deep diver” is actually a relative term because most of these plugs only swim to a maximum of 20-feet. As a rule, the bigger the plug and larger the lip the deeper the lure will dive and faster it can be trolled.
My go-to lure is the Crystal Minnow Deep Diver. Available in 10 patterns, the largest Crystal Minnow measures 5 ¼-inches and dives just over 20-feet. It has a tight swimming action and can be pulled to eight knots. When there are an abundance of Spanish mackerel around I prefer the 4 3/8-inch Crystal Minnow that smoker kings find equally enticing. For even greater action, the jointed Crystal Minnow has also proved its worth.
Yo-Zuri’s Crystal 3D Minnow Deep Diver measures 6-inches overall and also dives to 20-feet. With a hard polycarbonate body, thru-wire construction and internal BBs for extra rattling appeal, the Crystal 3D Minnow Deep Diver is a perfect offering for ravenous kingfish.
Finally, the new Sashimi lures from Yo-Zuri are outfitted with oversize 3D eyes and a metallic finish that changes color depending on viewing angle and available light. The Magnum Deep Diver measures 7-inches and in addition to its unique color-changing pattern, the ribbed polycarbonate body emits intense vibration.
I don’t think color selection makes a huge difference, but anglers do have their favorites. I prefer plugs that match the local forage. Herring and blue runner are common kills for kings in the Gulf, but sardines are also a favorite. No matter the color, I like to fish lures with a metallic finish. The longstanding traditional red head plug that mimics bleeding baitfish is highly effective as well, and I’ve also fooled smoker kings on bright green plugs.
Most anglers prefer to troll with conventional outfits, but I like using Canyon Gear spinning reels. They hold plenty of line and if I see a concentration of bait on the surface I can quickly make a long cast in that direction. Whether you choose to troll with spinning or conventional gear, ultra-thin braid will enable your plugs to dive to their true potential. From the braid attach a length of monofilament leader with an Albright knot. From the mono a small power swivel should be attached to a 12-inch trace of #6 single strand wire. Most anglers who live bait kingfish rig with upwards of 36-inches of wire because voracious kings are notorious for chewing their way up the leader. On the troll, smokers smack baits with ferocity and typically stick to the treble hooks. Because they don’t get the chance to come back to finish off the meal, it’s often one and done.
While a light drag is typical for kingfish, you want to apply enough heat on the initial strike for the hooks to really dig in. From there you can certainly back off if need be, especially when a serious smoker nears the boat where it will likely burn off one more blistering run.
Join the minority of kingfish anglers who prefer deep diving plugs over live bait and you’ll soon be a believer. While this exciting and easy approach is a great way to get connected, trolling for kings is also an effective means of covering ground so you can find concentrations of forage and predator fish more easily. Good luck and see you out there!
Offshore kayak fishing is quickly gaining momentum and is perhaps the fastest growing segment of our sport. Regardless if you splash your ‘yak from shore along an East Coast beach and paddle your way out to prominent reef lines or wrecks, or if you dump your kayak in the drink from a mothership-type operation way out in the Gulf around prolific structure, don’t discount man-powered craft when targeting big kings. With pleasant conditions, a paddle provides enough forward propulsion to keep tantalizing deep diving plugs swimming erratically in the strike zone. When you do connect with a serious smoker you can expect an epic battle!