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Kayaking for Summertime Smoker Kingfish

For chasing those big, beachfront kingfish, a kayak is just about the perfect vehicle.

Zac Colton shows off a smoker kingfish caught off Vero Beach, in East Central Florida. Early summer is prime time for this fishery.

On mornings in May and June, the ocean may be a beautiful glass sheet, with baitfish visible off the beach: pilchards, threadfins, blue runners. It’s forage like this which draws large kingfish close to shore. The great thing about the kayak is, you can decide where you want to launch and simply go for it.

To catch the beach-busters, you’ll want to slow-troll live baits along the outskirts of the bait schools. In a pedal kayak, that means just tap the pedals forward occasionally keeping your live bait positioned behind you.

bait for kingfish

One key to successful kingfishing is using light drag to keep hooks pinned to the fish; the way kingfish slash and swipe at baits, it’s common for hooks to find purchase in the tissue outside the mouth. But even a hook which engages the jaw is apt to wear a hole and fall out. One great option is a lightweight leverdrag conventional reel; you can back the drag off with the lever. Another option for those who prefer the spinning reel is a bait-run style, such as the Penn Spinfisher Live Liner or Daiwa Emcast BR model. A reel like this will allow you to troll with light drag and then flip the switch to put more heat on once the bait has been taken. Reel capacity should provide for about 300 yards of 20- to 40-pound braided line and still have space for 20 or 30 yards of monofilament topshot of the same strength. The mono topshot, stretchy, is another principal factor for keeping the hooks snug. Using all monofilament fishing line is also a good bet; you needn’t use more than 16-pound test for kings.

The basic rig is a small swivel such as the Spro Power Swivel (80 lbs.) with about 6 to 10 inches of singlestrand (61 lbs) wire twisted to it and a number 2 treble hook. One of the points of the treble goes through the nose of a live pilchard, threadfin or comparable bait. For larger baits such as 8- to 12-inch mullet, another treble can be attached to the first with another few inches of wire. This option can equal a more guaranteed hookup however isn’t necessary when targeting kingfish of this size. If you expect tarpon in the same area, leave the trebles at home and use a 7/0 circle hook.

Once your bait is taken and the scream of the reel fills the air, let it run for 3-6 seconds allowing you to turn the kayak towards the aggressor and allowing it to get the bait fully in its mouth. As mentioned before, light drag is needed when fishing for kingfish; make sure to double check your preset drags before getting on the water. No more than 3 pounds of drag is about right. Big fish might require you to pedal or paddle to chase to avoid being dumped. It’s fun, though, and if you pull a hook no big deal—simply catch another bait and start over.

fighting kingfish from kayak

Kingfish will often make three or four of these screaming runs, but they’ll tire relatively quickly if fought efficiently. Even though the kayak brings you to almost eye level with the fish, a gaff is helpful if you wish to bring the fish into the kayak. Many experienced kayak fishermen have lightweight, short gaffs up to about 4 feet which is all you need when that close to the water. Alternately, you can use that short gaff to catch the bend of the hook and pull it free.

The easiest way to release a king from a kayak is to cut the line at the end of the leader as close to your steel leader as possible. For those who don't want to lose your leader or would like a quick photo, my suggestion is to reel up as much slack in the line as you can (still with light drag pressure) and hold your rod up in the air to bring the head up to the surface. Keep the fish moving and hen slide your hand under a gill plate and lift it out headfirst.

Many anglers choose to release the bigger kingfish. State health officials recommend doing so, as kingfish over 31 inches regularly test high in methylmercury, a neurotoxic compound which can build up over time (also found in sharks, tunas and other large, predatory fish). Kingfish meat is good, especially fresh-grilled or smoked, but regularly consuming kings outside the recommended allowances, at this point, would be unwise. Small children and women either pregnant, nursing or otherwise of child-bearing age should definitely be steered toward other fish. Kingfish actually do pretty well as a catch-and-released sportfish, if you get on them quickly, remove the hook and propel them forward by the wrist of the tail. FS


Published Florida Sportsman Magazine May 2020

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