Kings are aptly named; of the three mackerels common in Florida, they’re by far the biggest and fastest, and the most-admired among anglers. They reach lengths of at least six feet, and the current IGFA all-tackle record is 93 pounds even, for a fish caught off Puerto Rico in 1999
Kings are “green water” fish for the most part, traveling the band of water between the beaches and the indigo depths of the continental shelf. Preferred depths seem to be anything from 20 to 250 feet, with some big ones found at times on the deep edge of the continental shelf and over deepwater wrecks.
They segregate by size, with the largest fish, sometimes known as “smokers” because of what they can do to the drag of a reel, frequently found nearest the beach. The trophy-sized fish often hang around the outfall from large passes, where the brackish bay water meets the green sea water, and where they can whack big mullet, ladyfish and other jumbo mouthfuls. Big kings are thought to reach 40 mph on the first sprint when hooked; their speed is improved by a slippery coating they exude when frightened, and by the fact that their fins fold down into grooves on the body, turning them into streamlined torpedoes.
They usually feed by rushing into a school of baitfish and snapping off the tails of anything slower than they are. They then return to finish the meal. On larger baits, they sometimes “skyrocket,” coming up in an open-jawed rush from below that may carry them 10 feet into the air.
Kings spawn from June through September, according to biologists with the Florida Marine Research Institute, and they spawn repetitively rather than all-at-once, releasing eggs in intervals throughout the summer. The eggs and sperm are broadcast in the open sea, with most of the spawning thought to take place in the northern Gulf of Mexico and off Cape Hatteras. The juveniles that escape predation spend their early lives in open water, growing fast (over 1.5 inches per month) then head back south with the migrations of adults as the water temperature sinks below 68 degrees.
Young kings look a lot like Spanish mackerel, right down to the brownish-yellow dots on the side-these dots disappear with maturity, as the fish becomes an overall silvery steel-gray with shades of green on the back. An easy way to distinguish young kings from Spanish is the dorsal, the front of which is coal black on Spanish, gray on kings. Another indicator is the lateral line, which takes a sharp dip about halfway back along the body of a kingfish; the same line on a Spanish declines more gradually toward the rear.
At the end of their first year, kings are about 20 inches long. Female kings begin to spawn at age four and weights of 8 to 9 pounds, males at age three and weights of 5 to 7 pounds. Females live longer and grow larger than males; most tournament winners are female. The oldest kingfish recorded was age 21, though 13 is thought to be a more typical lifespan. Fish that reach 20 pounds and lengths around 40 inches are likely to be 10 years old.
Kings migrate south in late fall to mix and mingle off the Florida Keys and the waters between Miami and Palm Beach throughout winter. In summer, they split into two stocks, with the Gulf stock heading up the west coast of Florida, the Atlantic stock heading up the east coast. The Gulf fish winter in north Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana waters, while the Atlantic fish migrate as far north as Virginia.
Kings were once the most common “big-fish” species in Florida waters, but overfishing by both commercial and recreational fishermen collapsed the stocks by about 1975. The numbers have slowly rebuilt since then, but are not yet approaching the days when anglers routinely landed 50 to 100 per boat.
As top-level predators, kings eat a lot of baitfish, squid and shrimp for every pound they gain. For that reason, they concentrate heavy metals in their flesh. This spring, the federal government issued a warning against eating kings over 30 inches long from either the Gulf or the Atlantic due to mercury contamination.
(Thanks to scientists at the Florida Marine Research Institute for information used in this report.)
Lure Them In
Rigged natural baits and live baits are highly effective for catching kingfish, but bait supplies aren’t always available. Then there are the trips meant to target other species that get sidetracked by skyrocketing kings in the vicinity. That’s when a kingfish strike is as far off as your tackle box.
Kings aren’t picky about their food sources, but they do prefer to eat what’s most commonly available in a given area. For most of Florida, that means mullet or herring.
Just about any lure that looks like natural kingfish fodder will catch these fish, but the artificials that consistently fool kings can be lumped into three categories: feathers, spoons and deep-diving plugs.
Probably the most productive kingfish lure is a small, unweighted blue-and-white or red-and-white feather, or kingfish “bug” as the commercial hook-and-line fishermen call them. Kingfish bugs are hard to find and even harder to fish without the right gear, but they’re so productive that the commercial sector uses them exclusively when live bait is not available. Bugging for kingfish requires a downrigger or planer to get the feather into the strike zone, and the line has to be rigged loosely through the clips so that it can be constantly jigged or twitched.
For recreational anglers, it’s hard to beat a silver spoon such as the ever-popular No. 3 1/2 Huntington Drone. Spoons have a tendency to flutter and flash, much like a swimming threadfin or scaled sardine. Most anglers fish their spoons below the surface on downriggers, planers or cigar weights. Getting the spoon 10 to 20 feet below the surface will throw flash throughout the entire water column and attract the school kings that like to patrol close to the reefs.
Color counts with spoons, and it seems like silver, pearl and pink work on the brightest days, while gold, orange and red perform best under overcast low-light conditions. Try to match spoon size to the baits the kings are presently after, going smaller to mimic pilchards and larger to look like a menhaden, for example.
Kingfish have a love-hate relationship with swimming lures, but it’s the ones that can go deep over the reefs and rocks that seem to consistently catch fish. Deep-diving plugs have earned more than their share of kingfish bites; sometimes they seem to catch the largest fish. Mark Harding of Sebastian once won a Ducks Unlimited Tournament with a 56-pound king he caught on a Rapala Magnum plug. Harding ran out of ballyhoo early in the day when his son accidentally emptied a bucket of thawing baits overboard. Instead of heading in, he found two deep-diving lures in his tackle box and fished the two-bait spread all the way to a $5,000 check.
Just to show how productive deep-diving plugs can be, the late Stan Blum of Fort Pierce once bet me a dollar he would catch a kingfish each time he trolled up and down the reef using only these lures. Blum favored the Magnum Rapalas, Rebel Jawbreakers and 112MR series MirrOlures. The bet got to $16 at double-or-nothing before we went over the reef without catching a kingfish.
Blue-and-silver or any of the mackerel colors are productive in clean, green water, while black-and-silver or red-and-white seem to work best along a discolored tide line. Firetiger is another popular color that has caught its share of nice kings, particularly when fished deep over reefs.
Don’t underestimate the allure of a jig or jig-and-bait combination. Deep-jigging over natural and artificial reefs is one of the best ways to catch school kings, and a big jig worked along an edge or color change will search the entire water column for a hungry smoker. Add a pair of 7/0 hooks and a ballyhoo or sardine, and you’ve got an offering that not only looks like the natural product, but swims into the current and leaves a scent trail.
White or blue-and-white seem to be the most productive kingfish colors, but just about any color combination has caught these fish. Start with 1/2-ounce jig, and work your way to the heavier lures depending on the current. Jig shapes vary, and determine the action of the lure. A bullethead jig will rise and drop through the water column head-first, while a butterbean jig will flutter side-to-side toward the bottom.