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Big Snacks for Smoker Kingfish

If you want to target big king mackerel, trying using bigger baits.

Big Snacks for Smoker Kingfish

Live ladyfish (right) and frozen ribbonfish (lower left), are great baits for the biggest king mackerel. So, for that matter, is the king’s smaller cousin, the Spanish mackerel (above left).

The adage “elephants will eat peanuts” has been used many times when discussing big kingfish, and for good reason. We’ve certainly won our share of tournaments by using hand-size menhaden, small blue runners, bluefish, even a tomtate grunt.

However, if you really want to target big kings, trying using bigger baits. It isn’t much fun wrestling with a writhing blue runner weighing two pounds or more, pinning a couple of hooks in the right spots, but it can pay off. A friend towed one of these strong baits in 200 feet of water over an offshore rock, and came up with a 66-pound king, winning a summer-long tournament by a wide margin. The crowd was shocked and grim, as he drove away with all the money.

Years ago before amberjack were protected with seasons and minimum size, I jigged up a 3-pounder, pinned a single hook in its back near the tail, and lobbed it all off 20 feet from the boat, using a stiff 8-foot Hurricane rod. We were anchored, and instead of scurrying back to the boat to find cover like a blue runner will do, this bold AJ cruised away, sometimes pulling drag, trying to dive, held back by a small balloon (at the time we used them; today fixed floats are preferred). After a half hour, that balloon sped up before disappearing in a big boil of water. Near the boat, that 45-pound king coughed up my AJ in two pieces.

Amberjack are today off-limits as bait, but the common jack crevalle is not. Years ago in Key West, if memory serves, a crevalle was the only “baitfish” our captain could catch on one trip. It weighed two or three pounds. A kingfish weighing in the mid-50s ate that tough crevalle.

Here are a few other smoker baits:

Ladyfish

An experienced kayaker friend was fishing two miles offshore, slow-trolling for kingfish. He’d caught a 20-plus-inch ladyfish inshore, his only fresh bait that was soon dragged behind the kayak. A monster kingfish grabbed the ladyfish. After a long fight the angler peered down and was stunned at its size, thinking 70 pounds, if not more. The huge king rolled on its side, regarded the angler, and then easily chomped through the 58-pound wire leader. Tough keeping ladyfish alive in a baitwell, but if you can get one to the kingfish grounds, it’s money.

Ribbonfish

Ribbonfish are common in late summer, found around deep docks and under pier lights. They’re suckers for gold spoons and watch out, “those monkeys bite.” They can’t be kept alive, but can be slow-trolled or drifted deep. We have won several tournaments with big ribbons that approached 30 inches long. If you can find frozen ones in the bait shop, buy them!

Spanish Mackerel

It’s common to see big kings skyrocket through a school of mackerel, often with a 2- or 3-pound “Spaniard” wiggling in their mouth. Mackerel can’t be kept alive, but are good slow-trolled behind the boat.

We used to yank a couple feet of line above the reel, making the surface mackerel hop, skip and splash, until a big king hammered it.




With big baits, it’s easier for a kingfish to cut it in half, returning for seconds. In that case, it’s better if the boat is stationary instead of plowing along. The legendary Capt. Ralph Delph in Key West, who saw many huge kings and world records too, once told me to be patient, because they will return for that second half. Don’t be hasty to reel up after a strike.


  • This article was featured in the March 2024 issue of Florida Sportsman magazine. Click to subscribe.

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