May 16, 2011
Smoker Gulf kingfish, that is.
We had been sitting on Southwest Channel since a little after daylight. The Sunshine Skyway arched busy traffic from St. Pete to Bradenton against the sunrise to the east, Egmont Key light blipped to the west, and big tanker ships plowed past heading up the channel toward Tampa, tossing us with their rolling wakes. It was a busy place, except for the fish. We hadn't had the first hint of a strike.
But, true to the usual pursuit of lunker fish, boredom was eventually replaced with panic. When the slack high turned and began to head out of the bay, the water woke up. Our lethargic chum slick began to stretch out off the transom, and before long a little rip formed at the edge of the submerged hump where we were anchored. Baitfish began to sprinkle the surface, and the gulls got up off the water and began to work on them.
"Nervous bait," said Brock, my son home from college on spring break.
The big ladyfish on his rod came to the top and began making frantic circles. On about the third go-round, the 12-inch bait was hit by what looked like a launching Polaris missile. The 30-pound kingfish caught the bait in its jaws and carried it in an arching leap that must have covered 20 feet.
The fish came down, felt the hooks in what it had thought was an easy meal, and headed for the horizon. Fifteen-pound-test blurred off the big spinning reel spool so fast that there was the telltale mist or "smoke" that gives smoker kingfish their name. The fish did a hundred yards in a couple of heartbeats, then turned around and did a hundred yards straight back at the boat while Brock frantically cranked on the slack.
The fish ripped past the bow, came tight on the slack that was slicing along the surface after him, created a huge boil, and then began a 360 that dragged Brock from the bow to the transom and back to the bow again.
The fish went deep and put its power to work for the next 10 minutes, then gradually yielded to Brock's steady pressure. Once the fish slowed and rolled at the surface, I grabbed it by the tail. A quick photo and we sent it on its way; big kings are too valuable and scarce to kill for food in my book.
Of course, what constitutes a "big" king might be up for argument. Fish to over 50 pounds have been caught along the west coast in recent years. Not a lot of them, to be sure, but enough to keep smoker anglers coming back, and more than enough to keep the big money tournament fishermen happy. Basically, on my boat, we consider any fish over 20 pounds to be a smoker, and we release most of them-the 8- to 10-pound "snakes" are better eating and more abundant, and we don't feel the regret about tossing them in the fish box that we sometimes do with bigger fish, which biologists say are nearly all female.
It takes 10 years for a king to reach 20 pounds in most waters, according to scientists, and that 40- to 50-pound trophy may be close to 20 years old. As with tarpon, every mature fish you kill takes a very long time to replace; better to release them to continue spawning, and to grow even larger and provide a thrill another day. (There's also a state health advisory against consuming kings larger than 39 inches due to mercury levels.)
The kingfish migration on the west coast begins in early March when the fish that have spent the winter off the Florida Keys mingling with their cousins from the Atlantic begin their journey to the northern Gulf of Mexico. They're headed for summering areas between the mouth of the Mississippi and the Big Bend country of Florida. The route usually requires 8 to 10 weeks to travel.
The migration usually begins around the end of February, and progresses northward as the 68-degree temperature line moves northward. They travel faster in warm years, slower in cold. But by the end of March, there are usually plenty of fish between Boca Grande and Clearwater Beach, and the schools usually hang around until the first of May, with a few stragglers later. (For those who miss the spring run, the fish return in the fall, and the average size has usually increased after a summer of feeding. The fall run in the West Central area is typically from mid-October until the first of December, and sometimes as late as Christmas in warm winters.)
Big kings and juveniles don't travel as a unified school. The 8- to 10- pounders, which make up the mass of the migration, generally stay right on the tail of the billions of baitfish that are also making the migration, and these fish typically pass from 1 to 10 miles offshore in most areas.
The big fish, on the other hand, often earn their second nickname which is "beachcombers." Looking for larger mouthfuls than the threadfins and sardines offshore, they prowl within 100 yards of the beach and well back into the major passes in search of mullet, ladyfish, Spanish mackerel and other large prey.
The larger fish also seem to gravitate to structure well offshore; wrecks and major reefs in water 50 feet and deeper often hold some true monsters. And for those who really, really want to get a monster, a trip to the edge of the continental shelf is in order. Though the big drop-from around 200 feet down to more than a thousand-is typically 100 miles from most ports along the west coast, once you get there you may find that every king weighs 20 pounds and more, and sometimes there are schools so dense that you can't get a bait through them to the big grouper and snapper waiting below. (This is a problem?) Another benefit of the long trip west is that the water here is warmer sooner due to the Gulf Loop Current; it may be 70 while inshore water is still in the low 60s, so the kingfish bite happens earlier in spring, and lasts later in fall-in fact, there are some kings on the edge pretty much year-round.
Specifically, some inshore areas worth trying include the hard bottom off Clearwater Pass and the outflows of Blind Pass, Johns Pass and North Channel at Pass-A-Grille. The last three are small passes, which produce best on the strongest outgoing tides, occurring within a few days of the new and full moons. The giant passes of Tampa Bay, including 90-foot-deep Egmont, plus Southwest Pass on the south side of Egmont Key and the waters beyond the bar at Passage Key Inlet, can all hold fish. The area where Egmont and Southwest pass meet east of Egmont Key is a famed spot for big kings, anywhere from the edge of the 14-foot-deep bar on out. The Egmont Channel buoys from 5 and 6 westward are also good spots to try; they always hold lots of bait (easily caught on sabiki rigs) and usually have a big king or two cruising close.
Farther south, waters outside Big Sarasota Pass, Venice Inlet, and of course Boca Grande are all noted gathering spots where big kings mill around for weeks on end before pushing farther north. At Boca Grande, it's common for the first tarpon fishermen of the spring season to catch a smoker kingfish or two on their squirrelfish in early April, and these fish may be right off the lighthouse, completely up inside the pass over the 72-foot main hole.
When it comes to bait, you can often find
all the threads you want in massive balls at the surface off the beaches during the peak of the migration. When the bait gets scarce, you can always find threads under the Sunshine Skyway and the sections of the old bridge that are now the Sunshine Skyway Pier. The biggest threadfins, approaching 6 inches long, work pretty well as smoker bait, while the smaller ones, run through a chum grinder or nipped up with bait shears, make unbeatable chum.
If you're really focused on catching big kings, though, you may want to search for larger baits. Schools of ladyfish can often be found just inside the smaller passes as well as over the spoil bars beside Egmont Channel, inland toward Port Manatee. Catch them on small jigs or large sabiki flies. Ladies up to 14 inches long are excellent baits.
Blue runners also make prime lunker king bait; they're easiest to catch around the deeper buoys on sabikis. So do bluefish and Spanish mackerel-both are legal at 12 inches fork-length. Blues are the more hardy of the two, but harder to find. You can always come up with a springtime Spanish by pulling a small spoon fast around the bait schools.
The big baits require the typical kingfish stinger rig: a 3/0 single hook in the lead, a size 4 to 6 triple-strong treble skin-hooked in the back about 4 to 6 inches back on a length of number 6 wire or thereabout. Some anglers let the stinger just dangle aft. On really big baits, some anglers add a second stinger hanging behind the first-the idea is to prevent the king from chopping off the tail and not getting a hook.
When the water is calm and clear, as it often is in spring before the algae blooms get going, many lunker kingfish anglers opt for light gear to entice the bites. This means a short wire, typically just a foot, linked to a relatively light line, 15- to 25-pound test.
You obviously can't put a lot of pressure on this rig, and that's actually a good thing; most big kings are lost not to broken lines or leaders, but to pulled hooks. Handle them patiently and gently and you'll get more of them to the boat.
Chum is a big part of catching smoker kings. If you know about where the fish are likely to be and you've got good tide movement there, it's often most effective to anchor and bring the fish to the boat. Grinding fresh fish of most any kind will do the job. A menhaden drip system also helps. Occasionally toss a wounded threadfin over the side to sweeten the mix, and to act as an indicator; when the fluttering sacrifice disappears in a boil, you know the bite is about to happen.
You can also chum while slow-trolling. Put a mix of ground fish, cheap dog food and menhaden oil in a mesh sack and hang it over the transom. Putt along at idle speed in likely areas for big kings; pay particular attention to the color line where black inshore water meets green offshore water on outgoing tides. Most successful trollers work a repeating pattern, following their chartplotter so that they build up a scent throughout the fishing area. Again, pitching a live but injured freebie over the side now and then may be the ticket to stirring up lethargic fish.
When you finally get lucky, your lunker is coming aboard for a quick trip to the scales if you're a tournament fisherman. If not, you may want to consider letting her swim off to fight again; keep the fish in the water if possible, pop a few photos, and flip out the hooks with a long-nosed extractor. Pump the fish a few times to make sure she has equilibrium, then give her a violent shove out and down, as though you were pushing a spear into the water. The push usually starts the fish swimming, and most will survive.