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Stop-and-Go Kingfish

Is it summer? Is it winter? The kings will be out there. It's how you approach them that makes the difference.

A calm day blessed us with an easy ride offshore, but that tranquility also meant unusually clear water. It was classic late-summer water. We knew we'd have to pull out some tricks to produce fish.

Anthony Cellemare deployed a frozen chumblock in a mesh bag off a stern cleat. After a few shakes to hasten a wafting scent trail, several dark shadows appeared about 20 feet down


“There they are,” Cellemare said. “Snapper are following that chum right to the boat.”

I could make out several nice mangroves heading topside from the reef 100 feet beneath the boat. But when a shiny object caught my peripheral vision, I literally had to rub my eyes and do the sunscreen squint.

Not 10 feet from the motors and maybe a dozen below the mirrored brine, an honest 30-pound kingfish had risen to inspect the chumslick. My guess is that he was lining up a shot at one of those snapper, but Cellemare's quick reaction maximized the moment. Freelining a live blue runner on a wire rig, he drew an immediate strike.

South Florida anglers anticipating winter sailfish tangle with their share of south-migrating kingfish.

The king mangled the runner, but missed the hook and disappeared. Joe Maisano followed up with another bait that also drew a near-miss from a smaller king that had been hiding beneath the hull. This gave Cellemare time to reload and his second runner got a one-way ticket to tooth town. After a good fight and two long runs, Joe gaffed the kind of kingfish that tournament wins and smoked dip are made of.

Kings aren't always such a gimme, especially in clear water, to say nothing of the kind of roily chop that accompanies October cold fronts. As winter approaches, kingfish begin migrating south along Florida's Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. In spring, they follow bait schools north to summer spawning grounds. Some of the bigger kings establish year-round territories on offshore reefs. During the sweltering months, and the jacket season, they remain a viable, albeit less abundant, target.

October's “Summer” Kings

If Indian summer sets in, with long, hot days and calm winds, those fall kingfish migrations can grind to a halt. If the main body of fish happens to hole up outside your inlet, you may enjoy dependable action for weeks at a time. On the other hand, you may be left with resident fish, more of an offshore specialty.

The usual kingfish baits work well offshore, if you can find scaled sardines and threadfin herring. But even if bait seems scarce, offshore kings will not go hungry – they'll slice whatever meals their deep abode offers. Common offshore kingfish forage includes grunts, small bar jacks and blue runners.

Slow trolling live baits with flat lines and downriggers works well, particularly over sites of known kingfish activity. Chum blocks, dripper bags with menhaden oil and small chunks of chopped sardines will jumpstart the party. You may have to weed through a few barracudas, but the bycatch on spots in 130-plus feet could just as easily be wahoo.

Slow trolling works best for targeted missions, but if you're testing new sites for pelagic potential, covering lots of water at a quicker pace is the key to maximizing your time. The old standby, dead ballyhoo dressed with plastic skirts work well.

Artificials will get the job done too, so try a spread of large diving plugs like the Mann's Stretch 25, Magnum Rapala or Yo-Zuri Hydro Minnow along with a couple Halco Tremblers or Yo-Zuri Bonita. Drone spoons and trolling jigs pulled behind downriggers or planers also fit this game. For that matter, upscale versions of the jointed plugs featured elsewhere in this issue would be dynamite on kingfish.

October's “Winter” Kings

Cooling water seems to bring groupers, and the anglers who chase them, out in force. Same for amberjack, and in some areas, snapper. While anchored for bottom dropping, run a live bait 100 feet or so behind the boat on a flat line. To prevent tangles, set the flat line rod in a T-top rocket launcher and engage the reel's clicker so strikes don't go undetected while everyone's facing downward.

Fall cold fronts often stir coastal waters and push the bait schools deeper offshore. The kings follow, and it's often the grouper fishermen who find them first, not the guys trolling the beach.

On the other hand, calm fall days can be gangbusters around coastal passes. Bait schools move out of the inlets on their way south for winter, and huge schools of kings and monster Spanish patrol the coastal waters outside the passes and hammer the forage. Anchoring on a patch of hard bottom and heavy chumming with small baits will bring waves of kings slashing across your chum line. The fish have extremely short attention spans, so if your chum slows, and the next boat over picks up the slack, guess where the fish are going?

This is also a scenario where casting lures excel; when kings are busting mullet or sardines along the beach, a chrome- or mullet-pattern topwater or swimming plug often earns a crushing strike.

Kings in Any Season

Make sure you have at least 300 yards of 20- to 30-pound line on a high-speed reel. Kings are kings in any season and they'll rip off a lot of line in a little time. Sharp teeth remain an issue, too, so rig at least 24 inches of No. 4 wire leader ahead of baits and lures.

Some anglers opt for 6-foot leaders to avoid line breakage from the harsh beating of a king's rigid tail. Long wire leaders are easily kinked and thereby weakened, so try backing up your wire with 30-pound fluorocarbon leader. Connect main line to fluorocarbon with an Albright special knot and you can use 10 feet or more of fluoro and reel it right through the guides.

On a livebait strike, hold the rod high and let the fish run while your boat mates clear all other lines. Keep a good bend in the rod tip, gather line when you can, but stop reeling when the fish runs. At boatside, stay alert for sudden bursts and dives under the hull. When the fish rises topside, finish the job with a smooth and controlled gaff shot (see sidebar: “Gaff Not Gaffe”).

Catching Big Baits on the Spot

Stinger-rigged blue runner in an all-season, all-coasts, standby for big kingfish.

Having a tough time finding those sardines and herring that were so thick all summer? Try doing what the resident kingfish do—catch local baits on the reefs.

Heavy sabiki rigs weighted with 4- to 6-ounce leads will nab a few, but what's good for coastal pursuits can be counterproductive in deep water. Specifically, “loading up” a sabiki rig in 30 feet is a good deal; filling the hooks in 100-plus presents a challenge. For one thing, the strain of 5 or 6 baits weighing up to a pound apiece will likely break some or all of your sabiki's branch lines.

Even if the rig holds, it'll take some amazing luck to sneak a concentrated bundle of tasty treats past the many mouths looking for them. Kings, cudas, sharks, amberjack and even a hostile red snapper will make short work of such exposed buffets. Goliath grouper – forget about it.

With standard sabikis, it may be prudent to cut away all but the top two or three hooks and leave enough leader for weight attachment. Try tipping the last hook with cut squid to diversify the appeal for a mixed bag of baits. Or, put together a chicken rig with two or three dropper loops, and small hooks baited with squid (keep in mind federal regulations for the Gulf of Mexico require circle hooks when pursuing reef species with natural bait).

October's Wacky Weather

Is it the last month of summer, or the first month of winter? There's not really such a thing as autumn in Florida. Most years, October brings flip-flopping weather patterns, where cold fronts slide in from the west, only to be bumped back by a resumption of summer's easterly tropical weather. By late November, the weather settles into a predictable winter pattern, with cool northerly winds behind a front, clocking to east, then south, every four or five days. The systems move from west-to-east. Come July, it reverses to east-to-west, mostly.

The October stalemate, unfortunately, means periods (sometimes weeks!) of strong northeast winds and snotty weather that can put a crimp on offshore fishing. The good news, whether you're chasing kingfish or grouper, is that diminished fishing pressure makes hotspots of public artificial reef sites.

A new weather link at has everything a boater needs to plan a trip: Not only NOAA marine weather forecasts, but also links to data buoys and beach cams to check current conditions. If this is your first season fishing in Florida, you'll undoubtedly hear from locals that, beginning in October, you should “add 5 knots” to a given NOAA forecast. That's good advice, but it's equally important to stay tuned to those brief, unexpected windows of calm weather that sometimes occur between systems. Find a calm day, pick a close-in reef, grab some live or dead bait, and you could hook a monster this month.

For an inshore perspective on tackling the wacky weather, see the feature by Doug Kelly, “5 Tips for Fishing Blown Water.”

--Jeff Weakley, Editor


A resident reef kingfish is relocated to the fish box off Pinellas County. As cold fronts pass, fish like these move inshore to feed on bait runs.

One thing that does not vary with kingfish no matter where you find them is the need for precision gaffing. This wily predator will give you only a brief window of opportunity before pulling a Houdini. Moreover, the likelihood of hostile intentions from barracuda and sharks increases in the deep waters, so getting your fish in the boat ASAP is paramount.

Opinions vary on the ideal spot to gaff a kingfish. Some say aim for the head to quickly dispatch the fish and minimize thrashing. The risk here is potentially clipping the leader. Gaffing a kingfish toward the tail gets his motor out of the water, say others. Good point, but kingfish get pretty narrow back there and there's not much besides bone and fins, so gaffs easily slip.

Generally, the best gaffing target is the mid back or “shoulder” area, somewhere around the primary dorsal fin (the one that collapses for swimming). Most agree with the “don't gaff him where you're going to eat him” clause, but in the heat of battle, perfectly preserved fillets aren't always a priority. That being said, if the fish gives you an easier shot at the belly, take it.

Constant are these no-no's of kingfishing capture:

Do not “swat,” “jab” or “tickle” the kingfish with a gaff. Unless you are absolutely ready to make your point, so to speak, keep the gaff hook clear of the fish. Most kingfish will spook into a final run at the sight of a gaff and touching a king will send the fish packing – a mistake that extends the fight and increases your odds of a break-off.

Do not reach below the surface. Water distortion makes objects look like they are where they really aren't. When the object of your focus is doing its best to escape, subsurface extensions can make you look silly. Most folks can handle a little embarrassment, but when an errant gaff attempt pulls a hook or breaks a leader, it's time to cut to commercials.

Do not gaff in front of the line. Simple physics here – placing a solid object in the path that the line will travel if the king makes a run creates a potential break-off point. In the usual nightmare: Fish hits the jets, line hits the gaff and teammates look like they want to hit you. Gaffing behind the line helps ensure the catch and preserves your friendships.

Tired kings always settle into very predictable death circles, so communicate with the angler on when to gently ease the fish topside. When you see a clear window, lay the gaff hook across the fish's body and firmly pull it home.

Of course, all this begs the question: Why not simply release the thing? The limit is 2 per person (24 inches minimum fork length), but for most folks that's an awful lot of meat... and unlike venison it does not do well in the freezer. Despite their fearsome appearance, kings are actually pretty tame. You can grab even a big one by the tail and hoist it up for a crewmate to extract the hook with a long pair of pliers. Send the fish back by dropping it headfirst into the water to jumpstart its respiration.

--D. B.

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