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Kingfish Basics
written by Ron Brooks

With the right bait, the right tackle and the right place, you can catch a smoker of your own.
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Because kingfish fight so hard, and big ones are more difficult to catch than most fish.

Mackerel — king mackerel that is. They call them kings for a reason. Largest of the pure mackerel family (wahoo are an offshoot part of the family that grow larger), they can run and jump with the best of them.

Kings can be caught all summer long along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, and at times they are even caught from some of the many fishing piers that jut beyond the surf. They are somewhat migratory, and they move south to Florida in the winter. But in the summer, it is kingfish time on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts!

Kingfish relate to baitfish. Usually, if you find a pod of baitfish, you will find some kingfish. Since the baitfish relate to structure in the water, kings will usually be found holding on that same structure.

Depending on the water temperatures and currents, kings will move very close to shore in the summer, and some very big kings — we call them smokers — can be caught within a mile from the beach. The term smoker relates both to the effect one of their long runs has on a reel and to the fact that anglers often put the larger kings on a smoker. Good grits!

This migration to the beach usually happens in mid-summer and many anglers think it relates to some spawning habits. Whatever the reason, kings can be found close-in and are readily available to even the small boater at this time.

Because kingfish fight so hard, and big ones are more difficult to catch than most fish, an entire industry has come of age around tournaments for them. Professional kingfish anglers are almost as common as professional bass anglers today. The major difference is the size and price tags on their tournament boats!

Catching a kingfish can be relatively easy for even a newcomer if a few basic steps are taken. Tackle, bait and fishing location are equally important for the pursuit.

Tackle, Bait

Rod manufacturers now specialize in "kingfish rods". These are trolling rods that are longer than an ordinary trolling rod — sometimes 7 feet in length — with a fast taper. That fast taper provides give and flexibility, both of which are needed when fighting a fish. The length provides some leverage ability and allows an angler to keep more line out of the water when the fish decides to run broadside with the boat. Line drag in the water causes many fish to be lost.

Reels — in this case the conventional variety — are usually spooled with 20- or25-pound test monofilament. Several hundred yards are needed, so a reel with a high line capacity is required. Most anglers choose a reel with a lever drag — one that has a strike position and a fighting position. The reason will become clear when we talk about trolling.

What about terminal tackle? Kingfish "rigs" can be purchased in most tackle shops. They consist of a No. 4 or 5 wire leader from 1 to 3 feet in length tied to a hook. In most cases, this is a  No. 4 or 5 treble hook. An additional 6-inch piece of leader runs from the eye of that treble hook to another treble. This "stinger" hook is an important piece of the terminal tackle puzzle.

There are a variety of lures that can be used for kings, but the vast majority of anglers utilize live bait. Kings come equipped with a set of razor sharp teeth, and they can ruin any plug or lure in short order.

The live bait of choice depends on availability. First choice for most anglers is a live pogey. Pogies — the term given to menhaden shad — are prevalent in large schools along the beaches in the summer. Usually found just behind the breakers in the surf, they can be netted with a cast net and placed in a live well. A 10-foot radius cast net, if properly thrown, can bring over a hundred baits to the boat. The larger ones are picked out and placed in the live well. All the others go into an ice chest to be used as chum during the day. Pogies need lots of aeration and fresh seawater, so make sure your live well can handle them.

Google-eyes, blue runners and ballyhoo are also good baits, depending on their availability. On tournament mornings, commercial bait catchers will be at the boat ramp selling these baits from live tanks on their trailer or truck bed.

If pogies are scarce on the beach, chances are the kingfish will be scarce there as well. Close in artificial reefs and wrecks will hold Spanish sardines and cigar minnows. These baits are in water far too deep for a cast net and must be caught using a Sabiki rig.

Some anglers prefer a ribbonfish to all other baits. They make great baits, but sometimes they become cost prohibitive. Bait suppliers who specialize in catching ribbonfish will charge what the market will bear, and in peak kingfish season, that market can be pretty stiff!

Rigging a bait is quite simple. The first treble hook goes through the nose of the live bait. The stinger hook is either left dangling or is thinly hooked into the back of the bait. This method works on all the live baits except the ribbonfish.

For a ribbonfish bait, there are up to three or four stingers, tied at about 4-inch intervals. This allows the longer ribbonfish to "swim" in the water and will provide a hookup on even a short strike.

Most kingfish rigs come equipped with a nose skirt. This small nose-cone affair accomplishes two tasks. First, the color or flash (chartreuse, silver, gold, white, pink) will attract fish. Second, the cone acts to protect the nose of the bait, keeping it alive longer. It can also help prevent spinning.

It takes a light drag when trolling -- kingfish hit and run at amazing speeds.


With baits rigged and hooked, it's time to start trolling. Actually this troll is a movement of the boat that simply keeps the baits behind the boat and prevents them from tangling. It is a slow idle — as slow as the boat can go — that is often accompanied by a drag chute or bucket. Some of today's powerful outboards move the boat too fast, even at idle speed. The idea is to allow the bait to swim naturally, yet in a direction dictated by the movement of the boat.

Most boats put out four lines. Two of them are freelined up on the surface, and two of them are on downriggers to get baits down in the water column. A fifth line is often placed right in the prop wash within 20 feet of the boat. It is amazing how many kings are caught on that prop wash bait!

It takes a light drag when trolling. Kingfish hit and run at amazing speeds. The small treble will pull out on a heavy drag, so even after the fish is hooked and running, pay particular attention to the drag. A 30-pound kingfish should take at least 30 minutes to bring alongside. That's one minute per pound, and that's a pretty good measure for the drag setting.

Horsing a king on these small treble hooks will invariably lead to a lost fish. Patience, boat maneuvering and fish-fighting ability all play together to successfully land a big king.

There are some nuances that anglers play with to have an edge over others. Some will shorten their wire leaders, making them only 3 or 4 inches long. The thinking is that the fish can see the longer wire leaders and are spooked. Some will use a smaller diameter wire for the same reason. Some use a dripping arrangement of menhaden oil as a chum slick. Some anglers even toss several live menhaden into the water behind the boat as chum.

Preparing for a kingfish is relatively easy. Perhaps the hardest part of all is catching those pogies with a cast net! But with the right bait, the right tackle and the right place, you can catch a smoker of your own. Great fight — great food!

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