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Live Baiting for Kingfish

Catching smoker kingfish in the Florida Keys is a blast with these simple techniques.

I used to cringe whenever someone bragged about catching smoker kingfish in the 30- to 40-pound class. As I listened to blow by blow descriptions of their conquests, a smile that was only bending the lips concealed the fact that my career king didn’t even scale 20 pounds.

Last January off Key Largo, however, all that changed. I was drift fishing with old chum Danny “Whacko” Farr in his 24-footer, and the depthsounder read 127 feet when something grabbed my live pilchard with malicious intent. I gave the rod two firm sets and the fight was on.

Line flew off the reel as if an electric line stripper was attached, and I told Danny we may have to make chase. “What a sissy,” he mocked. “I catch ‘em all the time on 12-pound. If it’s a king, just hold on and he’ll end the run. If it’s a sailfish, he’ll jump any second now. If it’s a big wahoo, you’re in deep doo-doo.”

Moments before I was about to be spooled, the run ended and the fish backtracked toward the boat. “It’s a big king for sure,” yelled Danny. He fired up the twin engines and moved away from the fish, allowing me to take up line and avoid a huge amount of slack. As I furiously reeled and caught up to the fish, he cut the engines again. I pumped the rod like an oil derrick for nearly 10 minutes, and then my prize was finally boated: a 39-pound, 10-ounce kingfish!

Ah heck, it was close enough to call a 40-pounder back at the dock.

We re-drifted the area where I hooked up and Danny locked combat with another big king that later weighed just under 33 pounds. We went on that day to release three kingfish in the same class, plus four in the 15- to 25-pound range. It was a banner day and put the kibosh on my kingfish inferiority complex.

My previous difficulties with fishing for kingfish may have stemmed from my strict adherence to traditional methods that my father had taught me: Either troll with planers, downriggers, wire line or add sinkers above the leader to get it deep. Although I caught a decent number of fish, none were in the smoker (25 pounds and above) category. Ditto for deep-jigging a ballyhoo near the reef, during which time I was usually pursuing snapper and grouper, and any kingfish encounters were incidental.

In this era, however, I learned that the prevailing technique in the Keys is simpler and more successful: drift with live bait.

Stephen Woodall also likes to kingfish off Key Largo, particularly near the Elbow and Molasses and Pickles reefs. “The trick is getting a good supply of pilchards or finger mullet that are no larger than five inches in length,” he said. “You can jig for kings too, but livebait drifting is more effective.”

If the wind is from the Atlantic, Woodall starts in about 200 feet of water, which often is close to the edge of the Gulf Stream. “We drift toward the reef to about 120 feet, then go back and re-drift at 200,” said Woodall. “If we get into some fish, we’ll drift the same area; if not, we move north or south of our previous drift to cover different areas.”

Favored conditions are typical of winter months: a north or northeast wind, 3- to 5-foot waves, the air with a bit of a chill. “Smooth, hot days aren’t usually good for smoker kingfish,” Woodall remarked.

His tackle setup usually entails 20-pound spin rigs with six feet of 40-pound monofilament leader. A No. 10 ball bearing swivel connect the leader to a small piece of No. 4 wire. He then ties the wire to a No. 1 treble hook. If there is current to contend with, a 1- or 2-ounce barrel sinker is added atop the leader to get the bait deep.

Woodall takes one of the barbs on the treble and hooks it from under the chin and out the top lip of the bait. There is no second “stinger” hook used. “Since you’re drifting, you don’t get short strikes like you do when trolling,” advised Woodall. “Kings hit small live baits with a vengeance. No dropback is necessary and you don’t have to set up hard–the kings usually hook themselves because they attack the bait, take it in the mouth and then run.”

Most of the time, Woodall likes baits to be fished 60 to 80 feet deep and watches the depthsounder to spot fish. He sets the rods in the holders, and when a king slams it, all that’s necessary is to pick up the rod and fight.

It’s a system that lets even novices have a crack at smoker kings. “Why get fancy with downriggers or planers when you don’t have to?” Woodall asked rhetorically. “This way it’s fun, not work.”

Other captains have adjusted their own favored techniques to accommodate livebaiting. Capt. Mark Byrnes runs out of Caloosa Cove and kingfishes from Islamorada to Marathon. He prefers a breeze and cool water temperatures, especially after a cold front moves through. “The best fishing for kingfish over 20 pounds is from mid-December through March and early April,” says Byrnes. “It’s also best when the water is a bit dirty–kings strike more readily and you can use heavier wire leader and larger hooks.”

Although dead bait rigs work better in murky water, live bait is the best bet all around, especially in clear water. Byrnes has a five-point plan for kingfishing:

1. Find live bait on inshore patch reefs. Pilchards or cigar minnows are his choices.

2. Slow-troll until you get a few strikes, then re-drift the area.

3. If the wind is coming from shore, start in 70 feet of water and work out to 150, and vice versa for wind from the ocean.

4. When drifting, have a large bait fished at the surface on a kite to create commotion. The best bait for this is a blue runner or speedo. It’s common to find some sailfish action this way, too.

5. Fish several flatlines at various depths to cover the water column.

Byrnes keeps a variety of rigs at the ready: “The great thing about kingfishing is that you’re liable to encounter anything that comes in close to the reef, and that means sailfish, wahoo, grouper, snapper, amberjack, and even occasional dolphin and yellowfin tuna.”

He rigs large baits with a stinger hook embedded near the tail. His tackle setup generally involves a 3/0 or 4/0 shortshank hook in the nose of the pilchard or cigar minnow and 8 to 10 inches of No. 4 wire tied to six feet of 60-pound-mono leader with an Albright knot. About four feet of the 12- to 20-pound running line is doubled and connected to the leader with a swivel. When drifting, Byrnes hooks the pilchard behind the dorsal to allow it to swim deep, and hooks another through the nose because it tends to stay near the surface.

“It’s important to periodically toss out a handful of dazed pilchards for chum, as long as you have enough in the livewell,” says Byrnes. “If sailfish are around, I’ll go with straight mono and risk cutoffs with kingfish, but even so, wire still gets sails occasionally. Strangely, it seems that when I go out looking for kingfish I usually end up with sails, and when after sails, I mostly catch kingfish.”

Everyone loves to see kingfish hit surface baits. They attack hard and sometimes torpedo and jump, which is a thrilling sight. And when kingfish are in the eating mood, they don’t fool around.

“The first run is quite sizzling,” Byrnes added. “They never give up, and a 25- or 30-pound king on 12-pound test is a hot contest. You have to keep the pressure on all the time.”

Tom Calandra and his wife Marcia are captains from North Miami who fish with Byrnes frequently in the Keys. They recommend using deep-jigs rigged with ballyhoo when live bait is scarce. “If seas are a bit wavy, you can drift with the rod in a holder and you’ve got built-in action that keeps the deep-jig looking lively,” says Tom.

“Spoons on downriggers also work. I often do well with a ballyhoo and Sea Witch on one flatline and a spoon on the other.” Marcia added that big-lipped plugs often get their share of action, too.

Key West and the Dry Tortugas are a mecca for kingfishing. Recently I fished the Eastern Dry Rocks with Danny Farr, and while we had a great day, I came to understand why he’s nicknamed Whacko.

We had caught a few kingfish on live baits and were re-drifting our hotspot when I hooked into another one. The fish made a run like a half-drunk monkey–spinning, diving, twisting, blitzing away, doubling back and generally going berserk. I could tell from the mega-bend in the rod that this was the biggest kingfish of the day.

Suddenly Danny called out, “I bet the Katzenjammer Kids never had this much fun. Do you remember them, Doug?” At the moment, a discussion about old comic strip characters wasn’t exactly what I was interested in.

“Just shut up and grab the gaff,” I replied, but Danny wasn’t to be muzzled.

“Know what’s the best bait for catching smoker kingfish?” he continued.

“Please tell me,” I said, still busy trying to maneuver the big fish to the boat.

“Cigar minnows, of course!”

It was a memorable kingfishing trip, and Danny latched into a tailwalking sail and I went toe-to-fin with a couple of tough bonitos on 8-pound test. I can’t wait to go back.

Although trolling lures and dead baits still do okay, and deep-jigging is effective, there’s little doubt in my mind that drifting livies is the key to smoker kings off the Florida Keys.

It’s the Keys for Records

While king mackerel, Scomberomorus cavalla, can be caught off all of Florida’s coastlines, half of the IGFA line class world records were set off the Keys, with most out of Key West and the Dry Tortugas. That includes the all tackle world record of a 90-pound kingfish caught off Key West in 1976 by Norton Thomton. Other spectacular records include the 63-pound, 8-ounce super smoker caught off Key West by James Eckhart in 1985 on 6-pound test, and Elizabeth Hogan’s 28-pound, 8-ounce king in 1992 off Marathon on 2-pound test. In addition, all but one of the flyrod world records were set off Key West.

Even so, smokers are often caught in other regions of Florida, as evidenced by the popular kingfish tournaments each year off Jacksonville, Cape Canaveral, St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Other line class records have been set off Stuart, and Indian Rocks Beach just north of St. Petersburg.

The kingfish run in the Keys starts in the fall with mostly smaller fish of only a few pounds, which are often called “snakes.” As cold fronts begin to cool water temperatures, larger “smoker” kingfish in excess of 30 pounds move in. The regulations on kingfish in state and federal waters are a minimum of 20 inches (measured from fork) and a bag limit of two, but the bag limit can be reduced to one or zero if quotas have already been met. 

FS Classics

  • Sam

    Thanks for the info Key West style.