May 16, 2011
The kingfish bite off Jupiter can be out-of-this-world.
You’ve heard the term. Whether it conjures up images of sizzling reels or cold fish dip, “smoker” pays homage to those mythic, 30-pound-plus kingfish. If catching one of these guys is your passion, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more productive port than Jupiter, Florida.
Plenty of facilities near Jupiter Inlet.
Located in northern Palm Beach County, Jupiter was built around a single, unifying concept. Settled originally by hermits and shipwreckers, the town quite literally learned how to live off the land. It wasn’t long afterwards that residents began augmenting their trapping and farming incomes by catching and selling fish. As the years went by, schools of Spanish mackerel, bluefish and pompano were gill-netted commercially in an effort to satisfy our nation’s growing obsession with seafood. Eventually, commercial fishing became Jupiter’s defining opus. Yet while inshore netting supplied the town’s bread-and-butter, it was an offshore species that put icing on the cake.
Kingfish, or kings, echo the town’s history and still help pay its bills. If smaller schoolies provide the daily drama, those truly large individuals give it an epic twist.
I speak from experience. Not long ago I, too, hook-and-lined these giants for profit. My fishing partner and I would fish just north of the inlet, then race back to the dock and later, to Fort Lauderdale in hopes of selling as many as we could stuff in the box. I still remember how we took them to a particular restaurant that specialized in kingfish steaks. Our greed notwithstanding, it was legal in those days and everybody got their money’s worth.
Back then, we’d drag blue runners on 50-pound outfits. That part hasn’t really changed. Neither has the need to muscle a big king into the boat before the sharks or porpoises get her. If you haven’t tried it, putting the boots to a 40-pounder on heavy tackle is a lot like punching a brick wall. There’s an immediate stutter, followed by a feeling of helplessness that can take minutes to wear off.
At one time, the schools of juveniles stretched for miles. That was before commercial interests drift-netted kingfish by the tons. The runs eventually dwindled as a result, leaving a few large individuals in their wake. Incidentally, if you no longer see nets drying, it’s because long-overdue legislation put an end to the slaughter.
Jupiter has always represented the epicenter of the smoker fishery. Although populations of trophy fish remain fairly widespread, with major concentrations occurring in the northern Gulf of Mexico and off Key West, it’s still Palm Beach and Martin counties that host the motherlode.
School kings normally frequent depths ranging from 50 to 140 feet, but the larger individuals tend to run closer to shore.
Off Jupiter, smokers can be found anywhere from 80 feet of water to the actual surf, where they’re occasionally seen skyrocketing through baitfish schools. The big kings seldom school, rather choosing to behave like supercharged barracudas.
The biggest fish are often hooked very close to the beach around bait schools.
For some, there’s still a business side to kingfishing. Nowadays, however, it’s a series of light-tackle tournaments that’s generating all the interest and attention. An organization known as the Southern Kingfish Association currently sponsors huge contests that award hefty prizes for the largest fish, while attracting hundreds of boats. When I spoke with SKA entrant Mike Hogan, he explained the lure of competition kingfishing:
“The SKA conducts a series of major tournaments throughout the south. They recently held one down your way [Fort Lauderdale]. I understand the winning fish came from Jupiter.”
I commented that Jupiter seemed a long way to run. However, Mike assured me that marathon dashes were part of the program. (continued)
These are serious tournaments. For one thing, captains can choose to fish regardless of the weather. Since winning is a matter of locating big fish, the search can entail running several hundred miles.”
Jupiter Lighthouse and the adjacent inlet have seen a lot of boats pass through carrying big kingfish.
Most SKA entrants fish out of well-equipped boats with lots of power and electronic accessories. That being said, I listened while Mike continued:
“In SKA competition, anglers go the distance. Last year, someone won the Jacksonville Tournament by running all the way to Fort Pierce. Actually, there’s a tournament this weekend in Fort Pierce. I’ll bet the winning fish comes from Jupiter.”
I was flabbergasted. After politely declining Mike’s invitation to attend the weigh-in, I reflected on how far some kingfishermen are willing to go.
| Jupiter Travel Details |
Burt Reynolds Park: Well-maintained county ramps, on U.S. Hwy. 1 north of Indiantown Rd. Open 24 hours. Closest to Jupiter Inlet.
Bert Winters Park: County ramp at 13425 Ellison Wilson Rd., south of Donald Ross Rd.
Jupiter Waterfront Inn: Located on Intracoastal Waterway, just north of Jupiter Inlet. 38 suites, with rates ranging seasonally from $84 to $219. A popular place for boaters, with a 200-foot pier. (888) 747-9085; www.jupiterwaterfrontinn.com
Wellesley Inn Jupiter: No dockage, but very close to county ramps and reportedly amenable to trailer boate
rs. Rates vary from $89 to $129. Call (561) 575-7201; www.wellesleyinn.com
Fishing Headquarters: (561) 743-7335
Grand Slam Sportfishing: (561) 746-0526
Usually two or three boats stationed near the inlet in winter. Call VHF Channel 68.
Juno Pier was up and running quickly in the wake of hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, but repairs to the end “T” section were under way. It’s about a mile north of Donald Ross Rd. on A1A. Open 24 hours from November through February.
Dubois County Park provides easy access to the south jetty at Jupiter Inlet.
“We don’t have a lot of tackle restrictions. But practically everyone uses light rods and 20-pound line, and sets their drags at two to three pounds. Since we don’t have to conform to IGFA rules, (multiple) treble hooks are legal. A typical strategy involves staying on top of a hooked fish and fighting it from the bow of the boat.”
I’d gotten the answer I wanted. As I suspected, SKA competitors viewed Jupiter as a major honeyhole.
Few anglers understand kingfishing any better than Pete Shulz of Fishing Headquarters in Jupiter. After venturing offshore for most of his 40-some years, Pete knows the species both inside and out.
I asked Pete if his customers targeted smokers deliberately.
“There’s a few who do. They make it a point to stay well inside the schools of smaller fish. Keep in mind that this is commercial country. That means most fishermen are interested in schoolies.”
Pete reminded me that, “Chasing big kings is a livebaiter’s game. Around here, we feel that the bigger the bait, the bigger the fish.”
He was referring to blue runners and goggle-eyes. When it comes to tackle recommendations, he knew his gear.
“While SKA entrants prefer light gear, most of our locals fish with 30-pound line, No. 7 wire and 7/0 hooks.”
I asked about the hooks.
“We use J-hooks. Mostly, a pair of Mustad 7766Ms or Owner 5111s. The fishermen either stick both hooks in the bait or let one dangle.”
Smoker experts emphasize the importance of fishing relatively shallow water. This corresponds with a series of underwater trenches located between Palm Beach and St. Lucie Inlets. Of these, the Jupiter Wreck Buoy Hole (located in approximately 50 feet of water off Blowing Rocks) was once popular with kings and anglers alike. When the fish were running, it was common to see seven or eight boats hooked up at once. The fish were all monsters; I loved to watch them skyrocket on everybody’s baits.
As a light-tackle guide, Capt. Ron Doerr exemplifies Jupiter’s new breed of offshore fisherman. Although Doerr specializes in deepwater fly fishing, he’s spent enough time live-baiting to know a thing or two about smokers.
“I agree with Pete about big baits,” Doerr said. Whenever I fish live bait I like to drift with three lines. I’ll fish one ‘flat’ and put sinkers on the other two. If the wind’s in the southeast, I can ease along at four knots without putting the motor in gear.”
I asked about depth.
“I look for trenches or other inconsistencies in bottom contour. For example, I’ll be running along in 50 feet when the graph suddenly drops to 70. Then it’ll jump right back up to 60. That’s a trench. Usually, I’ll mark schools of baitfish.”
Did he have any other preferences?
“I like green water. The kings seem to bite better there.”
When I asked Ron for an overall assessment, he was glad to oblige.
“We release plenty of kings in the 12- to 20-pound range. But if we get one a day over 30, I’m satisfied.”
Mike Hogan mentioned bait pods. This time, Ron and Pete Shulz echoed his sentiments in spades.
“Big kings follow the bait. You figure they come inshore in search of blue runners, goggle-eyes, and to a lesser extent, thread herrings or sardines. At the same time, we don’t have as many so-called ‘beach fish’ as we used to,” said Pete.
I personally feel there’s a relationship between certain large baitfish like runners and goggle-eyes, and big kings. When the bait gets scarce, the kings suffer. That reminds me how we used to hook some real monsters off the old Juno Pier. It was during April, I recall, when we’d try to swim goggle-eyes past the sandbar. One king weighed 55 pounds after its tail had been bitten off by a shark.
Pete continued: “The farther offshore you go, the more structure matters.”
Was he referring to those trenches?
“Sure. Or to elevated spots like 80 Foot Reef off Lost Tree Village.”
When I asked about the best times to fish, Pete didn’t hesitate.
“We have several runs. The first comes in May, when the Atlantic schools migrate south to spawn. You’ll find the big females inside the school fish.
“Then there’s a second run in August. That’s when the Gulf fish come around the tip of Florida. I understand that Jupiter’s the northernmost limit of their migration. Whether or not that’s true, we get big fish the same way we did back in May, by fishing shallow.
“Finally, there’s another small run of smokers in December and January. The sailfish fleet occasionally hits them.”
Sadly, there hasn’t been a lot of scientific research on what it takes to grow and sustain populations of smoker-size kingfish. I spoke with Roy Williams, assistant director of marine fisheries with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“When I did my research,” Williams recalled, “we worked with the ‘buggers’ (hand-line trollers). We targeted school fish averaging between 4 and 18 pounds. Occasionally, we’d nail a 30-pounder, but there weren’t many in 100 feet of water. Besides, those we hooked weren’t so easy to tag.”
izzed him about the springtime fishing.
“If you mean the fish that show up between April and June, they’re spawners. We think they migrate south prior to spawning. Then they head north again in June. Remember the nearshore current that stretches from Boynton to Jupiter. It carries the fertilized eggs and generally runs the same direction as the Gulf Stream. After hatching, the fry work their way inshore. If you consider the local geography, it’s evident that if these fish spawned farther north, their eggs would drift out to sea.”
Lately, big kings are making a comeback. That’s after being as scarce as honest politicians. Thanks to recent legislation and an overall increase in angler awareness, it’s once again worthwhile to target these magnificent gamefish.
Interested in releasing the kingfish of a lifetime? If so, head to Jupiter. There’s certainly no better time or place for it.