May 16, 2011
Go light, go lures, go have a blast!
For pure thrills, it's hard to beat catching kingfish on light tackle. Solid hits, long runs, occasional jumps-in my book these fishy attributes make for exciting days on the water.
What's especially cool about kingfish is their willingness to linger in a chumslick behind your boat. Of course linger may not be the right word. Hip readers might describe those splashy, skyrocketing strikes as something resembling a marine mosh pit.
We came prepared to mix it up on a recent trip to the Florida Keys. Captain Jack Carlson of Marathon had his sights on a few kings for the smoker. I wanted to try topwater lures. Kevin Alexander of Boynton Beach was game for anything. Marine artist Joe Suroviec, organizer of our little expedition, was amping to wreak havoc on whatever finny creature would swim his way.
Suroviec, whose most recent work includes illustrations for Charles F. Waterman's column in this magazine, apparently powers his creative engines with high-octane fish oil. At sunrise, he joined Jack at the bow to castnet pilchards on oceanside grassflats near Knight Key. For half an hour the two pancaked big nets with the tenacity of tag-team wrestlers, depositing baits in the stern, only to race to the bow to throw again. Jack was energetic, but Joe was manic, shouting the whole time. When a pod of pelicans crashed into a pilchard school: "Black sheep squadron, 11 o'clock! Bombs away!" When pilchards broke ranks to flee the net: "They're running like al Qaeda!" When an especially large load hit the deck: "Call in the factory ship!"
By the time bait-catching was finished, Joe's exuberence had given us all a contact buzz that would sustain us for the 30-mile run to our first fishing site.
Jack punched the GPS numbers for a boat wreck in 30 feet of water, northwest of Marathon in the Gulf of Mexico. Along this part of the coast, the bottom drops off roughly a foot a mile; on the Atlantic side of the Keys, six miles or so puts you in 100 feet, followed by about another 100 feet per mile. This particular wreck, Jack explained, had been augmented over the years with various household appliances like washers and dryers (a practice that is no longer legal). Like many such spots in the area, the structure typically holds kingfish November through February, after which the kings begin migrating north along Florida's Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
That migatory route, by the way, takes kings over public wrecks and reefs which appear on fishing charts for every region of the state. The fish don't change much in their feeding habits; they just follow the bait and water temps between about 70 and 80 degrees. The techniques we planned to use on Carlson's boat could easily be adapted elsewhere.
Our first stop produced a giant barracuda and a ravenous school of bluefish-both formidable challenges if you hope to land kingfish. If the blues don't take your bait, the cuda will take your king.
We moved another ten miles offshore to a sunken airplane in a field of lobster trap buoys. An immediate hook-up on a live pilchard, followed by a long, drag-squalling run, told us we'd found the kings.
Carlson's strategy is to anchor upcurrent of a wreck and start a chumslick with a block of frozen chum thawing in a meshbag. Into this trail of scent and oil, he tosses one or more free-swimming livies every few minutes. A pair of nostril-hooked pilchards drift on flatlines in the danger zone-but not for long if kingfish are in the area.
This is a time-honored approach used in many parts of the state (including my home waters of Miami), and it opens up a lot of opportunities for different angling styles.
Carlson packed a quiver of 10-, 12- and 15-pound spinning outfits for flatlining live baits. His terminal rigging consisted of about two feet of No. 6 singlestrand wire, haywire twisted to a 2/0 treble hook and a small black swivel. Carlson ties a Bimini twist in the fishing line, and then a uni-knot to the swivel.
If someone catches a small blue runner-usually easy to do with a jig and shrimp on a shallow wreck-Carlson will rig it up with a forward treble through the nostrils, and a rear stinger treble pinned in the back. A popping float pegged on the line above the swivel helps give the skipper a visual to confirm the hard-swimming runner is not hiding out beneath the boat. The smaller, 3- to 6-inch pilchards get bites from all sizes of kingfish, but a runner is a real smoker-getter.
While the live baits do their thing, anglers can probe the bottom with deep-jigs, or work the surface with lures.
The strikes on topwater were a visual treat. On a light, 7-foot spinning outfit, I threw a 1/2-ounce chrome Gag's Grabber Schoolie Popper. There are dozens of lure styles that would work for chummed-up kings, but those with chrome or reflective patterns-and durable bodies-would likely have an edge. Kings took my popper two different ways, depending on the retrieve.
If I let the plug sit still, bobbing in the waves, and then moved it with short, splashy strokes, I would get a skyrocketing strike. One memorable fish vaulted at least 10 feet in the air, with the plug grasped tightly between its jaws.
Drag the lure faster through the water, and a fish would line up and slice across the surface to grab it. A king we estimated at maybe 30 pounds fell for this tactic, but the fight ended prematurely with pulled hooks. In the end, I boated a 5-pound Spanish mackerel and about a 10-pound king, and had loads of fun tugging on a half-dozen other kings.
If you have a buddy like Joe who can simultaneously fish, munch a sandwich, pitch baits and prognosticate about grouper bites, you're in business: have him throw a half dozen pilchards out into your chumslick, then follow those baits with your plug.
I was experimenting with a new brand of braided Spectra line. That kind of no-stretch line is dynamite for bottom fishing, as it alerts you to subtle bites and allows you to put instant pressure on a snapper or grouper. But, for topwater plugging I found myself missing the stretch of mono. Kings are anything but subtle. I lost several near the boat due to pulled hooks, and my guess is that aside from operator error, the unrelenting pull of the braided line may have worked the trebles loose. When a king starts shaking its head near the end of the fight, you need some give. Of course I didn't fret, as we were planning to release most of our catches anyhow. Replacing trebles with a single hook at the rear may have upped my odds. For large, aggressive fish such as tarpon, jacks and tunas, I've noticed the typically narrow gap and light wire of a stock treble doesn't get as sure a bite as, say, a 5/0 single hook attached to the rear of the plug.
The action on the live pilchards was incredible-double hookups, triples, even a quad for a few seconds. We kept scaling down tackle until we were fishing 10-pound, and of cou
rse that's when the fish of the day struck. Kevin Alexander, who does some offshore guiding back home, watched helplessly as a fish fled with 100 yards of line and began zigzagging through lobster trap lines.
Jack has a contingency plan for smoker kings: He ties a surgeon's loop in his anchor line, fits a stainless ring through it, clips it off to an anchor-retrieval buoy, then dumps the whole works and frees the boat.
This accomplished, the skipper powered up and sent Kevin to the bow. After a few minutes of chase, Kevin had his line back and soon hauled a 25-pound king to the gaff.
None of us had the foresight to bring a fly rod, but there's no doubt a flashy streamer or popper with a trace of wire tippet would've been crushed by a kingfish behind our boat. The fish made strafing runs through our chumslick in cycles, each time pulling away into the green waters to reassemble formation.
I got the majority of strikes on my topwater plug when the kings were actively hunting our live-chummers. When I'd see a foamy bust, I'd launch my lure into the area; fly fishers would be advised to do the same.
By day's end we'd boated six kings and released another dozen or more. Mashing down barbs on hooks, or cutting one or two points off trebles helped facilitate quick releases. Those that made it to the icebox were destined for the smoker at City Fish in Marathon-perfect party food to remind us of the fun we had catching them.
Go light, go lures, go have a blast!
Running across miles of open water in the Gulf of Mexico made me wonder why Monroe County doesn't have a better artificial reef program. Most of the bottom in this area, local skipper Jack Carlson explained, is flat and featureless. Those spots known to the charter fleet, such as shrimpboat wrecks, lobster trap piles and downed airplanes, are jeal-ously guarded (sometimes they're traded like baseball cards, and occasionally a few wind up on fishing charts). State records www.marinefisheries.org/ar/ar-monroe.htm show quite a bit of public reef development in Monroe County in the late 1980s, but very little in recent years.
Meanwhile, other counties around the state, such as Citrus County in Florida's Big Bend region, featured in the December issue of FS, have aggressively pursued placement of artificial reefs, giving GPS numbers to the public and greatly expanding recreational fishing and diving opportunities. A recent study in Palm Beach County, for example, showed that local reefs generated $500 million in retail sales, and nearly $200 million in income with over 6,000 associated jobs.
Think of all the hotels, bait and tackle shops, marinas that could benefit in Monroe County. And think of all the exciting days of fishing.
"It would be nice to have reefs on the backside where people in small boats can get to, especially in winter when it's windy," said Neal Greek at World Class Angler tackle shop in Marathon.
Sadly, it seems the opposite is occurring. Greek reports that the Coast Guard has embarked on a mission to pull up "illegal" reef materials placed by Keys fishermen over the years. "If they catch you putting out debris, even cinder blocks, they'll nail you," he said.
Permitted reefs that have been sunk in recent years have mostly been in deep waters on the Atlantic side of the Keys. Local initiative-and not a tightly organized county agency-has been instrumental. But even these projects have had to go through a gauntlet of bureaucracy. Spencer Slate, a dive shop operator who's devoted six years to the Spiegal Grove reef effort in Key Largo, said the 510-foot ship set to be sunk in Atlantic waters this spring had to pass rigorous environmental codes.
Clearly there is the need for more efficient reef building in Keys waters, especially in the flat, sandy shallows of the Gulf of Mexico.