May 20, 2013
Florida anglers, particularly on the Central Gulf Coast, eagerly await the arrival of big kingfish.
Many spring days begin like this, castnetting live bait near a marker along the Florida Gulf Coast.
Having wintered in the warm waters off the Florida Keys, the fish begin their northward push around late February. March to mid-May sees the migration passing the coasts between Charlotte and Pasco counties. As summer sets in, the fish move onward to their spawning grounds in the northern Gulf, before returning south along the same course for another winter.
Weather greatly affects the timing of kingfish migrations. For one thing, windy conditions stir coastal waters and push the fish offshore. Also, kings favor water temperatures of about 68 to 75 degrees, so early or late warmups will adjust their travel plans.
Some “resident” kingfish live year-round in deep offshore ranges like the Florida Middle Ground (about 75 miles west of Tarpon Springs), but these are predominantly large, mature fish that have staked out livable digs and leave all the running to the youngsters. That said, the migrations also see plenty of huge kings in the 40-plus pound range.
FIND THE FISH
Wrecks, reefs, ledges and natural hard bottom are the likely kingfish haunts. Private spots are a plus, but local charts provide coordinates for several well-known and often productive reefs and wrecks. Marked with buoys, many of these spots sit just a few miles off the beach.
Artificial reef construction varies from demolition rubble to sunken barges to Army surplus tanks. Some have been supplemented with additional structure drops that stretch a significant distance from the center numbers, so always work broad patterns around the buoys.
In addition to targeting particular spots, anglers often find kings through visual cues. Kingfish tournament veteran Robyn Dawson of St. Petersburg said he looks for three things that invariably lead him to spring kings: “Bait, bait and more bait. On the surface and on the bottom. It doesn't make a difference as long as the food is there. Because those kings are hungry and they're looking for a meal.”
Feeding kings will drive schools of sardines and threadfin herring topside like a cornerback running a wide receiver out of bounds. Showering at the surface, baitfish will erupt in sudden whitewater waves as kingfish slash at them from below. Scan the horizon for clouds of low-flying birds, which dip and dive toward the action in hopes of scoring an easy meal from the kingfish's table scraps.
Elsewhere, boat and ship channels leading into major waterways like Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor create veritable food funnels for kings. From a fish's perspective, channels are just long continuous ledges that hold plenty of bait and provide quick access to deep water. When tides push through the inlets, bait schools get stacked up on channel edges and kings have their pick of bountiful vittles.
“When a king comes through at 30 miles an hour, it's a lot easier looking at 100 baits rather than one,” Dawson said. “He just runs at them with his mouth open.”
Because big kings like big meals, Dawson often looks for schools of Spanish mackerel and bonito—both regular targets for whopper kings. In the classic food chain example, mackerel and bonito will ravage bait schools at the surface, and when they're not watching their backs, kings will rush in for a big bite.
In all scenarios, you can help kingfish find your baits by filling the water with a scent trail formed by a combination of chumming methods. A good mix comprises a frozen chum block in a mesh bag hung from a midship cleat, an IV style dripper bag slowly dispensing drops of menhaden oil and a few small chunks of cut baitfish. Be careful not to overdo it with the latter. Just lay out a line of shimmering tidbits that kings will gobble all the way to your bait spread.
Plenty of line and ample helpings of patience made it possible to land both fish.
As Dawson noted, chumming can create a situation that does the work for you. “If you can anchor up, and get a big pile of baitfish in your chum line, you can make it your playground. You just became the structure.”
Kingfish will hit dead ballyhoo dressed with plastic skirts or rigged behind Sea Witches or trolling feathers, as well as large spoons and plugs trolled behind planers. Expect mostly juvenile “schoolie” fish with the non-breathing baits, whereas with live baiting, you stand a better chance of nailing a legitimate “smoker.”
Top live baits on the Central Gulf Coast include scaled sardines (“pilchards”), threadfin herring (“greenbacks”), cigar minnows, Spanish sardines and blue runners. Castnetting around piers, bridges and grassflats, or jigging near channel markers or over hard bottom with gold-hook sabiki rigs will provide a day's worth of bait. (When bait is plentiful, tournament types like to dump their livewells at midday and restock to ensure fresh presentations.)
When you're swinging for the fence, you might even run a couple of jumbo baits like ladyfish, mullet, trout, bluefish or mackerel. These take a little more time to capture and rig, but when they draw a strike, it'll be your home run hookup.
An exception to the live bait rule is the long, lanky ribbonfish—caught mostly on the East Coast and fished dead with multiple hooks and a 1/ 4-ounce jig under its chin for true tracking. Undulating in the water, the ribbon appears to be alive, an enticing target.
Because the kingfish bite could occur anywhere between the surface and the sand, you'll want to cover the water column with a spread of top and “deep” baits. Start by dropping at least one bait on a downrigger set to run just a few feet off the bottom. If you run a second downrigger bait, set this one farther behind the boat and position it at mid-depth. Monitor your bottom contour, as well as fish concentrations and adjust downrigger depths to drag baits through the hot zones.
Next, deploy two flatline baits at staggered distances. Run another bait at least 30 feet past your longer flatline and place this rod in an elevated holder. Set a large bait just 10 feet from the transom in the propwash. Keep fresh bodies rotated into the spread and try mixing various bait species at different positions, depths and distances until you find the winning combination.
FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT
Ideal kingfish gear includes 7-foot medium-heavy conventional or spinning gear with 20- to 30-pound main line. Rods should have plenty of king-whooping backbone with flexible tips for easy bait presentation. Artificials usually run on 3- to 5-foot fluorocarbon leaders, but with live baiting, you'll need wire rigs, as the king's formidable teeth rip right through mono and flesh.
The standard “stinger” rig eliminates short strikes (cutting a bait in half and missing a single nose hook) by placing a hook at both ends of a baitfish. Essentially, a No. 4 or No. 6 treble dangles from a piece of No. 3 or 4 singlestrand wire attached to a lead hook (usually a 2/0 to 3/0 shortshank model). Haywire twists and four or five barrel wraps connect wire and hooks. Tackle sizes and configurations vary with personal preference, but the notion of a bait that bites back underscores all.
Kingfish are more about speed than strength, but the small hooks common to live baiting can easily pull from their soft, lipless mouths. Also, stinger rigs frequently grab the fish outside the mouth—in the head, the face or gill covers and such feeble connections present a precarious predicament: Do you hasten the capture to avoid a pulled hook, or do you finesse the fish and hope the barb holds?
Tough call, but the latter is your better choice. A high rodtip, light drag and steady pressure is the forumla to putting the brakes on kingfish. Thumb the spool to gradually slow a long-running fish, but minimize rod motion as “buggy whipping” only increases your breakoff risk.
“You never know until you see [how the fish is hooked] if he ate the bait or just slapped at it, so you don't want to stand there trying to horse the fish,” Dawson advised. “There shouldn't be any lifting—the more the rod stays stationary and you use the boat to pick up the line, the better off you'll be.”
Best form is to let the fish make its first long runs, avoid reeling during a dash, and gather line when you can. Once a king tires, it will invariably go into ascending death circles at boatside. Simply guide the fish upstairs with measured tension, but stand ready to keep the line off the boat hull or engines if your fish makes a desperation sprint.
Kings are no easy target, but the excitement of vicious strikes and blistering runs more than justifies the effort. On the dinner table, fresh kingfish steaks or fillets from smaller fish make a fine reward for a day's effort. Grilled, smoked or pan fried, the king of the Gulf makes for a memorable meal. Kings over 39 inches carry a health advisory for mercury contamination, so there isn't much reason to keep a bigger king except in a tournament situation—unless you're stranded on a small island with few groceries. Most anglers clip the leader close to the fish's head while alongside the boat. Experienced crews tail even 40-pounders on board, for a quick hook-out. This technique works, as a number of kingfish (even big ones) released this way with a spaghetti tag were recaptured years later.
When it comes to action and excitement, those snowbirds just don't know what they're missing. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman February 2005
Author David A. Brown is a regular contributor to Florida Sportsman Magazine and author of Sportsman's Best: Surf Fishing, set for publication in 2013