Of all the species inhabiting Florida’s prolific near-shore waters, king mackerel are arguably the most popular. Thanks in part to strict regulations and conservation-minded anglers, these great gamesters can be encountered during any day of the year off every mile of coastline from Pensacola to Key West to Jacksonville. To cash in on the reliable bite, all one typically needs to do is focus their fish-catching efforts on prominent reef lines and sloping terrains in depths ranging from 50 to 150-feet. These vast areas are notorious for holding a steady supply of forage. Complete the scenario with water temperature in the mid-to-high 70s and you’ve found yourself in king mackerel heaven.
Comfortable hunting near-coastal waters, big numbers of king mackerel migrate up and down both coasts of Florida during early spring and late fall. Not unlike their smaller cousins ,the Spanish mackerel, king mackerel are gluttonous hunters constantly on the move in search of their next meal. These sleek speedsters can be temperamental, but the one thing kingfish are not is picky. Mackerel of all sizes attack anything they can clamp their vicious jaws around with an insatiable appetite for a variety of finfish. Depending on where in the state you wet your line, pilchard, goggle-eye, bonito, ballyhoo, blue runners, and pogies make up the bulk of their diet, while bluefish, Spanish mackerel, speedos, sardines, ribbonfish and mullet also entice their fair share of smokers.
These powerful predators strike with vengeance, often leaping 6-feet into the air as they “skyrocket” on unsuspecting victims.
Professional SKA anglers and casual weekend warriors alike routinely target kingfish utilizing a variety of techniques, including drifting with live and/or dead bait, and trolling with either naturals or artificials. While the focus of this editorial is aimed at fishing live bait, true trophies exceeding 40-pounds continue to be fooled by a variety of tactics off every major port of call.
Equipped with powerful jaws and razor sharp dentures, kingfish do not nibble. You’ll rarely overhear an angler say, “I think I have a kingfish bite.” These powerful predators strike with vengeance, often leaping six-feet into the air as they “skyrocket” on unsuspecting victims. The savage strike aimed solely at slicing prey in half is one of many factors contributing to this great game fish’s popularity.
Big kingfish are referred to as “smokers” for a reason. A mature king in the 30-pound plus range reacting to the sting of an unfamiliar tether is capable of dumping 200-yards of 20lb. line quicker than you can say “fish dip.” It’s this impressive ferocity that requires anglers to fish well maintained tackle when targeting these ruthless killers. Any imperfections like a sticky drag or frayed line will quickly end the fight in the fish’s favor. While kings are often subdued by a wide array of tackle ranging from fly rods to heavy duty trolling outfits, consistently successful fishing teams primarily utilize 17 to 30lb. class spinning and conventional outfits. All reels have two things in common—plenty of line capacity, and line that is always fresh and free of nicks and abrasions. Stand firmly and refuse to allow tackle failure to enter the equation.
Large wahoo, sailfish and beefy blackfin tuna routinely crush the same baits, so 7-foot medium-action rods with ample backbone are a perfect match.
THE SWEET SOUND OF SUCCESS
Zinggggggg! It’s that magic sound a reel makes when a serious smoker heads for the horizon that becomes increasingly challenging to find during the summer. Why? Well, the reason is simple. Bait is still prevalent and, of course, the structure these fish are so fond of hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s the water temperature that now plays a role. During the blistering heat of summer, around the state sea surface temps climb towards 90°F—too warm for a king’s liking. The fish do not disappear during July and August, quite the contrary. Kingfish are here in full-force, they just spend a majority of their time hunting further below the surface where the surrounding climate is much more suitable.
To fully take advantage of this scenario it’s time to think deep. Presenting livies deeper in the water column can be accomplished utilizing a variety of methods including planers, wire line outfits, downriggers and heavy egg sinkers. Will you still catch fish on the surface? You certainly will. However, as the sun climbs and temperatures rise, kingfish tend to head to darker depths to regulate body temperature. By 10:00 a.m. during the summer the kingfish bite begins to fizzle out, only reigniting during the late afternoon when air temperatures begin to fall. This is especially true during those not so rare summertime occasions when faced with zero wind and current and everything seems perfectly still. This scenario presents the perfect opportunity to cover some ground by slow-trolling a spread of livies—two flat lines and two live baits fished off the tips of the riggers is all that’s necessary to ignite a hot bite.
As the afternoon finally progresses into early evening, a population of kings will resume feeding near the surface in the cooler low-light conditions until after the sun rises the following morning when the pattern repeats itself.
No kingfish article would be complete without touching base on chumming. Ground menhaden or sardine chum will work, but along with nearby kingfish the oily slick will also catch the attention of every bonito and triggerfish within a mile of your slick. If at all possible, live chum when your supply of bait warrants it. The tactic of creating your very own baitball swimming freely below your boat is so effective that it’s outlawed in most tournaments. An effective alternative is a steady stream of freshly cut ballyhoo or sardine chunks.
Summertime king mackerel fishing is an absolute blast with screaming drags and ear-to-ear smiles common. The blistering heat just means you have to adapt to the situation and cover a greater portion of the water column. Go deep and you’ll certainly come out on top.
Dead Stick Trick
While it is always comforting to hold a fishing rod under your arm, when drifting live baits for kings “dead sticking” is an extremely effective technique. This is especially true when drifting eight lines with stinger rigs. Feed your baits away from the boat at varying intervals. Reels should be locked up with enough drag to make a solid connection, but not much more. Even large king mackerel have extremely soft tissue around their mouths, so lighter rather than tighter is a good drag policy when trying to sabotage smokers.
Rig it Right
While effective live bait kingfish rigs come in as many varieties as there are anglers who target them, when harvesting kings for the smoker or tournament weigh-in, a basic king mackerel stinger rig consists of three key components—wire leader, a J-hook, and a secondary treble hook.
Rig 18-inches of #4 or #5 coffee colored single-strand wire to the eye of an offset, thin wire 4/0-6/0 octopus-style hook with a haywire twist (DUBRO retails a great little hand crank that greatly eases the process when rigging a season’s worth of kingfish rigs). Hook size should be determined by bait size, not the size of the fish you hope to catch.
Attach 6-inches of the same wire to the eye of the same J-hook with another haywire twist before connecting the appropriate size treble hook to the opposite end. We have experienced excellent results with #4 trebles on our pilchard rigs and 1/0 and 2/0 trebles for larger goggle-eye and runners.
Connect the opposite end of the 18-inch wire leader to 8-feet of 40lb. fluorocarbon or monofilament leader with an easy-to-tie Albright knot, and you’re fishing. The mono leader is ultimately connected to a barrel swivel at the end of your running line where you can add a sliding egg-sinker to help cover a greater portion of the water column.
If your intentions are to release fish, a single circle-hook on 18-inches of wire will keep you connected.
Know The Rules
- Bag Limit: Two fish per person per day
- Size Limit: 24″ fork length