King Mack Attack

Take Down the Toothy Missiles with Proper Baits and Tactics

Story and photos by David A. Brown

Photo of a Kingfish

Target sighted. Range: 30 yards and closing. Missile lock – fire!

Sound like cockpit communication; maybe a battleship bridge? It's neither. We're talking about king mackerel – those sleek, speedy and oh so efficient predators that roam the Gulf of Mexico in search of baitfish schools. Built like finned missiles, feeding kings unleash an explosive fury that makes them a challenging, yet highly rewarding quarry for coastal and offshore anglers.

Along the Eastern Gulf, kings migrate north and south with the year's warming and cooling water temperatures, but within those patterns the fish are deeply motivated by food location. Just about any hard bottom site, such as wrecks, reefs, ledges and rock piles present likely targets. Coastal inlets and navigational channels are also popular, as tidal flushing pushes forage through predictable "food funnels," so fish with the tidal direction so you stay with the natural chow line.

Feast For A King

To shoot down the mighty king mackerel, you'll need an effective arsenal of baits. Spoons, plugs and various trolling lures will produce steady action with juvenile "schoolie" fish, but nabbing the big "smoker kings" of 30-plus pounds, slow trolling live baits is the way to go.

Now, if anyone gives you that elephants-and-peanuts line, note that while a 40-pound king may indeed gobble a 4-inch sardine if it wanders into range, these wily predators grow heavy by applying the principle of maximum intake with minimal effort. “Big fish, big baits,” says Ryan Farner, President of KingfishConnection.com.

Common options include large threadfin herring (“greenbacks”) and scaled sardines (“whitebait”) as long as your hand, mullet, ladyfish, Spanish sardines, cigar minnows and blue runners. Greenbacks, whitebait and menhaden can be collected in cast nets, but such mass capture tends to squeeze baitfish, weaken their endurance and thereby decrease their effectiveness in a spread.

Running out of the John's Pass area – a hotbed of kingfish tournament activity located west of St. Petersburg between Madeira Beach and Treasure Island – Farner notes that jigging with gold hook "sabiki" rigs generally yields better ammo, as baits hit the livewell in relatively pristine condition. Long handle hook pluckers are helpful here, as they enable you to grab the bend of the sabiki hook and flip the bait into the livewell.

“You want to catch bait without touching it with the human hand before rigging it,” Farner said. “The worst thing you can do is touch your bait prior to fishing it.”

To ensure maximum fishing time, teams often load up on livies the day before a tournament and hold them in dockside bait pens made of mesh siding fastened to PVC frames with weighted bottoms and top hatches. Hanging bait pens in areas of good water flow helps ensure bait health, but the more delicate baits like greenbacks, whitebait and Spanish sardines may end up bruised and diminished. Blue runners usually fare well in bait pens, but use this as your backup and catch fresh baits on tournament morning whenever possible.

On the water, keeping baits fresh is intrinsic to the operation, so don’t skimp on the livewell. Modern tournament boats have wells with 50-plus gallon capacity and smart anglers will keep backup pumps handy. For bait health, a round or oval shape well keeps them moving smoothly around the interior without bumping their noses on the side.

John's Pass charter guide/tournament veteran Capt. Sam Maisano believes in showing the kingfish indigenous bait, but he won't hesitate to mix it up to coax a tough bite. For nearshore and coastal waters, he prefers ladyfish, menhaden, mullet and mackerel. Offshore, he'll use blue runners, Spanish sardines, "horse minnows" (large whitebait) and big threadfin herring.

"The inshore and offshore baits are interchangeable," Maisano said. "You can use mullet offshore or a threadfin inshore and have very good results."

Essential to any kingfish operation is the scent trail and appetizers of a steady chumming operation. Hanging a frozen chum block from a mesh bag is the standard for dispersing a tempting aroma, along with bits of ground fish. Maisano likes to bolster this plan with a few hors d'oeuvres

"I like to use a good quality chum block with menhaden oil – single or double grind – that puts off a good slick on top of the water," he said. "I will also chunk chum with small pieces of cut, scaled bait, for example Spanish sardines, greenbacks, threadfins or horse minnows."

Photo of a frozen chum block   Photo of trailing chum bait in the water  Photo of live bait pens in the water
A frozen chum block in a mesh bag hanging the water releases the incentive to come check out your spread(left); You want a good oil slick and bits of fish in your trail(center); Ensure the liveliness of your live baits by putting bait pens in areas of good water flow (right).

Rigs That Repel

North Carolina’s coastal waters spawned contemporary live bait slow-trolling tactics. Here, anglers looking for a better way to engage toothy kings invented the standard stinger rig comprising a lead hook set through the nose, mouth or forehead of a baitfish and a treble hook connected to the eye of the lead with a 3- to 5-inch piece of wire. Essentially, the lead hook just tethers the baitfish, while the trailing stinger usually ends up snaring the king.

Rigs occasionally hook kings in the mouth; other times trebles grab kings in the face, gill covers or head area. Either way, stingers beat kingfish at their own game by ensuring that a bait bites back from practically any attack angle. Considering a smoker king's intense biting power, No. 4 leader wire and No. 5 wire on the stinger segments is a good bet for local waters.

Flexible titanium leaders allow anglers to rig with traditional knots, however the more common rigging wire requires a different approach. Passing a couple inches of leader wire through the eye of a hook, cross the tag end over the standing end to form a small loop that allows the hook to dangle. Grip the crossover point and form 3-4 haywire twists with the tag end and standing end.

Secure the twists with 3-4 barrel wraps. Do this by bending the wire’s tag end perpendicular and making tight wraps around the standing end. Gripping the latter with pliers provides optimal leverage. Just be sure to break off the excess tag end cleanly to avoid sharp burrs that will poke and cut your fingers.

For large live baitfish like jumbo blue runners, ladyfish and mullet, a rig with more than one stinger segment covers everything a king may bite. Big baits intimidate smaller kingfish, so live baits large enough to wear multiple stingers usually attract the king you came to catch.

Photo of a blue runner bait fish with a duster
Using dusters to dress up live baits like the blue runner can help attract attention.

Starting with a single 2/0 lead hook, add trailing segments wired to No. 4 treble hooks. Convert standard stingers into multiple rigs by attaching additional trailing segments. Conversely, lengthy rigs are shortened to suit bait needs by clipping off unneeded stingers.

Some anglers let the stinger (or the last segment in a big bait rig) dangle because this provides more mobility for the hook to snag kings that may miss the bait on an awkward pass. Farner insists on “pegging” all stingers, as this keeps the hooks right near the strike zone.

Maisano offers these rigging tips: "Generally, if you use heavier wire it will be less likely to be bitten through. But with lighter the tackle, scaling down your wire size, leader length and hook size, you will get more bites. Also, I use about 12 feet of 30- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader (to avoid tail whipping). Tying your kingfish rig directly from the wire to the fluorocarbon leader (with an Albright knot) without a swivel can increase your bites."

Anglers can also increase their bite by dressing up baits with flashy skirts called "dusters." Most will run some of their baits with and some without these accents until they determine the day's preference.

"I use them when fishing dirty water in the bays and along the beaches to help attract bites," Farner said. "That extra little bit of flash sometimes is all it takes to catch the eye of that big king on the hunt. I use dusters and skirts when fishing the offshore stock of fish, especially down on the downriggers." 

Precision Presentation

Photo of Capt. Dan Hayes with his king mackerel catch

Slow trolling at just above idle speed is the key to making those rigged live baits swim naturally. If you have trouble getting the boat to troll slowly enough (windy days and heavy current can complicate the operation), try this old-school trick: Hang buckets with ½-inch holes drilled in their bottoms from amidships. The buckets allow water to flow through, but they create enough resistance to decrease your speed.

Trolling spreads vary by boat size and experience level. It's really cool when four out of six rods suddenly scream with multiple strikes, but handling a quartet of big kings is no cake walk. Crossing lines, tangling downriggers, dodging nearby boats – "hectic" doesn't even come close.

Maisano's basic routine offers a good starting point from which anglers can modify the elements to fit their scenario:

In shallow water up to 40 feet:

  • Downrigger bait 10-15 feet off the bottom
  • Prop wash bait approximately 15-20 feet behind the motors (rod in the rod holder in the back of the boat)
  • Outrigger bait 50-60 feet back
  • Outrigger bait 100-120 feet back

In water 50 feet or deeper:

  • Downrigger bait 10-15 feet off the bottom
  • Downrigger bait 10-15 feet above the lower bait
  • Long flat lines 100-150 feet back
  • Medium flat line 50-75 back (larger bait shoulder hooked so it swims down)
  • Prop wash bait will be 15-20 feet behind the motors.

"If the weather is windy and rough I would go from a 5-line spread to four lines and even a 3-line spread to make things more manageable, if the weather and conditions are more extreme,” Maisano said.

Bait appearance bears great impact on this game, so Farner stresses frequent checks. Reeling up each bait is time consuming and counterproductive, so start by watching the rods.

Photo of a man reeling in a king mackerel
When fighting a kingfish, maintain a good bend in the rod tip and let the fish run, until he tires out.

"When slow trolling live big baits your rod tip is your best friend," Farner said. "You can watch the rod tip while holding the rod and feel the bait to see if it's trolling correctly. A bait that is pulling too much and bouncing the rod tip is most likely fouled from a treble hook not being pinned to the bait properly, or the bait was hit and cut in half or the bait has grass or weeds on it."

Considering that king mackerel will seldom make things easy on you, maintaining situational awareness and operational readiness stand intrinsic to your success. Stay sharp and make the most of every shot you get at these toothy missiles.

 



Fight Right

Photo of two men fishing for King Mackerel

You can fight kings on spinning gear, but most slow trollers fare best with conventional outfits. Standard is a 7- to 7 ½-foot rod with sufficient backbone and a soft tip paired with a high-speed reel holding at least 350 yards of line. Florida Gulf Coast angler Ryan Farner uses 16-pound mono in clear water and 20 in lower visibility. Farner said he used to like long wire leaders but recent years have seen him switching to 8- to 10-inch wire backed up with 25- to 30-pound fluorocarbon leaders the length of his kingfish rod plus two wraps on the reel.

"When a fish strikes and starts peeling off line, you want your best angler to grab the rod and work his way to the front of the boat pointing the rod at the fish so the captain can steer the boat in the direction of the fish to pursue it," said Treasure Island, Fla., charter captain Sam Maisano. "The rest of the crew should clear all the remaining lines that are out as quickly as possible and bring up the downriggers. The gaff man needs to be ready with the gaff and stay near the angler until the fish is boat side."

Maisano and other tournament types use long-handled gaffs in the 12-foot range to reach and secure their catch as quickly as possible. Just don't get over-anxious and end up making a costly mistake in the last seconds of a fight. Long gaffs have their moments, but a disciplined approach is always your best tool. For starters, Maisano said, the gaff should never touch the line.

"The best place to gaff the fish is behind the line and behind the head so you don't cut the fish off with the gaff," he said. "Sometimes you may only have one shot at the fish so you need to make it count to get him in the boat."