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Snakes, Smokers and Power Brokers

Whether slashing through baits below the surface or launching an aerial assault, kingfish are an offshore favorite.


You won't mistake the run of a smoker king.

Like a zigzagging torpedo, a 30-pound kingfish zipped through the bait spread, inspecting each offering for a millisecond before selecting its next meal. The bite knocked a small hole in the surface followed by a silver flash and wailing drag.


"That was cool," said Brent Bowman. "Did you see how fast that fish looked at all those baits? You'd think it wouldn't get a good look at them."


Since the fish opted for the only bait in the spread with a mono leader, I'd say the fish effectively eyeballed every one of them. Made a pretty educated choice too.


In fact, if it wasn't for the No. 3 copper wire stinger, the fish probably would have cut through the mono, judging by the trailer hook wedged in the roof of the fish's mouth.


"I think we got lucky on that one," remarked Bowman. "Another two inches, and it would have had the front hook and mono leader in its mouth."


Kingfish have been an offshore fishing staple for generations, and when the big schools are in, they're the focus of many Florida fishing adventures. Their aggressive, speed-driven attacks and aerial assaults on baitfish take top billing among the angling sect, and when a smoker king makes a reel sing, it's sure to grab the attention of everyone on board.


When the dolphin and sailfish action is slow, you can bet a school of kings is going to be the feature for the day, and if there's a big king around, it's sure to be the star attraction. In fact, since the resurrection of kingfish tournaments on both coasts, the king mackerel has become one of the most sought-after species in blue-green water.


The first reel I ever saw explode was at the mercy of a maddened kingfish. I was fishing the surf for snook with Tom Styles, one of the Treasure Coast's local lifeguards, when a wayward king crushed his live mullet. While we were both stunned by the surface strike, it took the line several seconds to catch up with the fish and make us realize exactly what was behind the exploding wake.


Styles had the drag set for stopping snook before they reached the reef, and his little conventional reel started to sing, made one screeching groan and popped like an over-wound cuckoo clock, sending the reel plate and guts out the side. The spool spun erratically into the water, but rose to the reel long enough to pop the knot and fall back in.


It was such an incredible demonstration of power that we both started laughing-not at the comedy of the exploding reel, but at the insanity of thinking anything we were using that day would hold such a fish. Talk about taking a knife to a gunfight. Had the reel not parted with its components, the fish's initial run would have taken every inch of line. I don't know which would have been worse; but either version of the story would have had the similar effect of expressing the impact of that kingfish.


And it's not just the big kings that can smoke. Take a light spinning outfit, pin a live bait on it and pitch it out into a beachfront bait school. A small barracuda or bonito will certainly heat up the spool, but a 15-pound king will tighten the line to the point of maximum stretch.


Juvenile kingfish tend to travel in schools, so where you hook one, several more will follow their surfacing brethren to the other baits. At times, the school kings can be so compact that they will make a bottom machine look like it's having a serious malfunction and marking water.


These smaller kings, called "snakes" by the professional fishermen, have the same bad attitude as their larger cousins. While some fish look at a bait and wonder if it's small enough to eat, a king will see the same bait and know it's going to eat, maim or just plain harrass it to death. They'll attack a mullet half their size, biting the tail off to immobilize the fish, then making several more sorties until the whole baitfish is consumed.


But that's the way a kingfish operates. Nothing short of a Ginsu Knife slices and dices with the equal aplomb of a kingfish on a bait school rampage. Take out the tail, and the prey comes to a wiggling halt. Then it's a matter of a quick spin around the reef for the second course counterattack.


Get a strike while trolling a reef, pull in your line to check the bait. If it's been cut in half with a straight razor, then a kingfish has paid a visit. If it's mauled, hamburgered or scaled, odds are something else took interest and left the change.


A king or pair of kings will routinely attack a bait school, swimming along the perimeter of the baits to round them up, then take turns dashing in and grabbing the bait that falls out of line. When 10,000 Spanish sardines swim counterclockwise then dash right, the one bait that's still unwinding is sure to get clocked.


Then there's the aerial assault. Sometimes, it seems kingfish are just playing games with their food and actually possess the speed to overcome their prey at will. When a pursued baitfish takes its game to the surface, the king will juke left and fake right to keep the fish swimming in a straight line, then attack it from below.


Talk to any hardcore offshore angler and he can tell you of at least one skyrocketing king that's forever etched in his memory. And he'll describe the fish in great detail, expanding on the way the tail wagged in the air while the fish remained suspended with the bait between its teeth. Or how the fish planed out over the surface five feet behind the boat, missed the transom by inches, turned left and doubled a rod.


No matter which aerial attack plan the fish took, the next thing anglers always remember is how the line hissed through the water to catch up with the hooked fish. The speed of a kingfish really sets it apart from other ocean pelagics. Dolphin hit and run, but with a good measure of jumping thrown in; wahoo will smoke a spool, turn around and come right back to the boat; but a kingfish will flat out leave town.


You can tell an experienced kingfish angler from the rest by the way he lets the reel build to a crescendo and then taper off before he'll pull it out of the rod holder. Less experienced anglers try to get the rod out as soon as possible, and end up fighting over a fish they won't be able to control until it's finished it's initial run.


That's not a big deal when messing around and catching a few fish, but fight and land 20 or more over the course of a two-day tournament, and your forearm will look like you've been workin

g out with Popeye, and it'll be thumping regular intervals of pain impulses your way for about a week.


While kingfish rely on power, speed and a razored set of pearlies to set the dinner bell to ringing, it's their sensory systems that really make these apex predators so efficient. Running the length of a king's body, the lateral line senses movement, pressure and temperature changes. Like southern gentlemen, kingfish prefer a temperature range above 68 degrees, so they're not likely to be visiting North Florida during the winter months, or swimming along the beaches during a summer cold-water upwelling.



Donna Gowen fights a smoker king off Miami while the rest of the crew looks on.

It's best to look for winter kings from Dade County south to Key West or the Dry Tortugas. As spring rolls in, the fish work their way north, one group moving into the Gulf of Mexico and up the west coast of the state and the other working north along the Atlantic seaboard. Scientists believe there are at least two migratory groups of king mackerel, both wintering from Cape Canaveral to Key West, and then going their separate ways once warmer temperatures prevail.


Kings also possess a keen sense of smell. Examine the face of a king mackerel closely, and you'll realize how prominently the nostrils stand out. You can fish for years and not notice that fish have nostrils, but indeed, despite the fact that fish breathe by moving oxygenated water across their gills, they still have noses. You don't have to want to be a millionaire or burn up a lifeline to be able to conclude that the nostrils are there to get the scoop on the stink.


No one knows how extensive that olfactory sense might be, but it's plain as the nose on your face that kings can find oily baitfish with enough consistency to merit a keen attraction to something fishy. As baitfish are consumed, their bodies release oil into the water column, often creating a slick. Once a king crosses that slick, it's just a short swim upcurrent to the chow line.


That's why you'll see I.V. bags and meat grinders on the stern of a boat belonging to a tournament kingfisherman. Get a good oil slick going, add a few tidbits and a half-dozen livies, and something is going to die. Odds are, it'll be at the mercy of a slashing kingfish.


Of all the king's superior senses, sight is the most formidable. These fish use keen vision to determine what lives and dies and what eats pie. Anglers know it's the one sense that will make or break a strike. Long wire leaders are a necessity to combat the fish's dental armature, but use more than a foot of No. 3 or No. 4 copper colored wire, and some days it won't mean a thing, cause it can't fool a king.


Hooks are another feature that a kingfish will eyeball in the split second it determines whether to strike or take a hike. Some anglers favor a 2/0 or 4/0 single hook as the lead hook, while others opt for an extra strong treble.


The tendency for a kingfish to tail-strike a bait calls for a second stinger hook, one small enough to go unnoticed alongside the rear of the bait. If a king decides to terrorize your bait with the slash and dash, odds are good the stinger is going to catch some skin in the mouth or on the outside of the fish's face. That's where the use of light line and a loose drag comes into play. Use the standard bluewater outfit and drag settings, and a skin-hooked king will rip loose quicker than you can say, "Fish On! Look at that mother run!" But, drop down to 15- or 20-pound line, and three pounds of drag, and you'll be screaming louder than the reel.


Now when it comes to king cuisine, it's rather obvious that if it has fins, it's a potential snack, Spanish mackerel included. One of the largest kingfish I've ever seen was a 53-poundeer that ate a live lookdown. I've seen some big ones that fell for croakers, shrimp and even a small weakfish. But given the choice, the herring, jack and mullet families probably top the menu, with a side order of ribbonfish thrown in for good measure.


The common denominators for these bait species are a high body oil content and an instinctual need to travel in schools. Put enough food in one area, and something is going to come by and ring the dinner bell. Concentrate that food source for months at a time, and the chow line is sure to be long, and if the water temperature remains constant, the kingfish bite might be continuous.


Food supplies vary throughout the state, as do the kingfish bites. Northeast Florida kings will summer on the beachfront pogie schools, while the larger loner kings ravage the artificial reefs. Farther south, the summer threadfin and Spanish sardine schools in 20 to 50 feet of water draw the smokers, and the natural reefs and bars lure the schoolies.


The sewer outflows off Dade County are outstanding areas to offer up a pilchard or jumbo shrimp, and once you head south, the fish work the reef lines from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas for ballyhoo and jumbo blue runners.


West coast anglers target their largest kingfish in the shipping channels, along inlet tidelines and on the natural and artificial reefs. Move up to Clearwater, and just about any stretch of hard bottom that holds bait will draw the ire of a marauding king.


Panhandle kings are notorious for following the bait schools, be they offshore in 100 feet of water or in along the 30- or 40-foot ledges. They like to shadow the Spanish mackerel schools near shore, feeding on their smaller cousins.


Each area has its own natural kingfish attractions, be they a dirty-water color change just outside an inlet or a dog-leg reef or bar with adjacent dropoff. What really determines where the kingfish like to roam are food, water temperatures and structure.


Kingfish might not possess the table qualities of a dolphin or wahoo, but their power and pop have made them an offshore and nearshore Florida favorite. Catch a small king and put it on the grill, and you've got a darn good meal. Land a big king and send it to the smoker, and you've got snacks and dip for a week, and a fishing story that may last a lifetime.

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