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Walk the Planks for Kings

East coast and west coast pier action.

By Ed Mashburn



My blue runner bait was easy to see in the clean, green water as it desperately pumped its tail trying to get somewhere else. This double-hooked runner was not happy to be near the fishing pier where I stood. From my elevated vantage point, I could see much clearer and much farther away compared to the view from a boat, and it was quite the show I was seeing.

The blue runner took a sudden desperate dive out of my sight into deeper water, reversed its path, and ran for the surface.

He never made it. I saw a long silver flash, felt a very strong pull on my line, and then I heard my reel make that wonderful sound that happens when a big king mackerel decides to go the other way on that first blazing run. A chorus of experienced advice came from other anglers along the rail of the pier: “Let him run!” “Don't pressure him yet!”

I allowed my fish to run far and fast to wear itself out, and with help from some good friends I had never met before, my 25-pound king was subdued, pier-gaffed and lifted up over the rail.

Walking the planks of coastal piers to catch king mackerel is a Florida specialty along both Gulf and Atlantic shores. If you've never tried it, now's the time to go: Stocks of kingfish are near all-time highs, thanks to fisheries management actions—including a ban on inshore gill-netting--that reversed severe declines in the 1980s. The fish are fun to catch, and smaller ones, from the minimum size of 24 inches to 31 inches or so, are fine eating. Hook one of these speedy, large fish from a pier, and you have quite a battle on your hands!

Today, kingfish can be taken on piers ranging in size from massive structures such as the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Bridges in Tampa, which are literally miles long and can be driven on in cars, to the 200-foot stub of pier at Fort Pickens in Pensacola Pass.

There really is a whole lot to be said for being able to drive to a pier, unload some fishing tackle, and be fishing for kings in a matter of minutes. It gives a whole new meaning to “walk the planks!”

Timing the Runs

Timing is everything for king mack anglers who work from piers. Since kings are migratory fish, anglers can plan on certain times being better than others. In the more northerly reaches of Florida on both coasts, when the water temps rise to 65 and above, that's when to expect the arrival of the kings. Later, in fall, as temps dip into the low 60s, the kings head south. This makes seasonal planning for pier anglers a whole lot easier.

For instance, on the East Coast, at Anglins Pier at Fort Lauderdale, October is the best month for kings as they migrate back south from spending their summer farther up north. At the nearby Lake Worth Pier in Palm Beach County, April and May, when the kings start their northward travels, are very good months, and in October, the return run is good. At the Juno Pier at Juno Beach, September through December is a prime time for fall kings, and by January, they'll be gone farther south.

On Florida's West Coast piers, anglers can also plan their king trips reliably. Ms. Pat Huggins, a Gulf Coast pier fishing expert, says, “We see the first kings in April during cobia season. Usually these are really big kings and are often very hard to get to bite anything. The second week in June is historically the best month for spring/summer kings. As the weather cools off and water temps drop, late September, October and November are great king months.”

Down on the Sunshine Skyway Bridges, J. D. Rollins, a long-time worker on the pier, says, “The fall season for kings is usually from the second week of October and lasts for four or five weeks. Stragglers will stay somewhat longer. For the spring season, the last part of March is usually the starting point for kings.”

Ready-Made Reefs

One of the real advantages of fishing on piers for kings is that you're stationed on a giant fish-attracting structure. By using sabikis or other bait-catching rigs to capture bait as needed, anglers can have a constant supply of fresh, lively bait to put in front of hungry kings.

On the Jacksonville Beach Pier, king anglers use a range of live baits. Whiting catch some big kings, but bluefish are probably the most commonly used live bait. Anglers are reminded that bluefish used as bait must be legal keeping size--12 inches in length at this time. That's a big bait, but we're after big kings.

At the Lake Worth Pier, goggle-eyes, ballyhoo and greenies are popular king baits, and they can all be sabikied from the pier structure.



Ms. Pat Huggins distracts the crew on the Navarre Pier with a container of her kingfish salad.

On the West Coast from Tampa to the Gulf State Park Pier in Alabama, the most commonly used king mackerel bait is a frisky blue runner. These little jacks are usually easy to catch, they last a long time in the water, and hungry kings just love them. Cigar minnows and ballyhoo are always welcome when they are present.

Tactics, East Vs. West

There are similarities between the two coasts when it comes to pier fishing for kings, but there are also important differences.





You will also need a pier gaff or hoop net to hoist your catch over the rail.


Pier anglers in Northeast Florida will usually use “trolley” rigs when fishing for kings, while anglers on the west coast may not even be allowed by specific pier regulations to use this same kind of rig. A typical trolley rig consists of a two-rod system. The anchor rod is a long rod rigged with a large wire and weight “anchor” hook which is cast as far as possible from the pier into deep water. This “mudhook” finds a firm hold on the bottom, and the anchor line is pulled taut. The angler then attaches a break-away--either a safety pin or loop of light line--to send the actual fishing line, bait and hooks along the stretched-out anchor line. The fishing line is then allowed to slide down the anchor line to the point where the live bait is in the water. (If you're acquainted with offshore tactics, picture kite fishing.)

The trolley rig allows pier anglers to get their bait as far away as possible from the pier without having the bait drift with the wind or wave action away from the desired fishing area. It's an effective way to fish for kings.

Farther south on the Atlantic coast, the trolley rig is used less and less. South of Flagler Pier, pier anglers looking for kings primarily use standard cast-and-retrieve single rod rigs for kings.

West Coast pier anglers usually use freeline rigs for kings. “Snobbling” is the most common method of attracting kings on the West Coast, especially up in the Panhandle region of Florida and neighboring Alabama. Snobbling consists of a cast with either live or frozen bait and then the bait is allowed to drift and is steadily worked back to the pier--much like how a jig is fished.

Ms. Pat Huggins, a long-time Panhandle pier angler, specializes in king mackerel. She says, “I am 73 and have fished piers for over 50 years. I've seen kings so thick you could catch as many as you wanted, and I have seen only a very few in a year. Today it appears that kings are increasing in numbers. 2010 was the best king year I have had in many years. So far I have caught 42 this year. God willing, maybe I can catch another one.



Tail-hooked blue runner is a good kingfish bait anywhere you fish, though some piers have other local favorites.



“I personally prefer fresh cigar minnows or threadfin shad,” said Huggins when I asked about her tactics. “I use hardtails (blue runners) when the others are not available.” Huggins advises anglers who are gearing up for pier fishing for kings, “Use a spinning rod with at least 300-yard line capacity for 15- to 20-pound-test monofilament line. Heavy line causes hook pulls and tangles nobody can get out. Leaders should be uncoated steel leader in 27- or 30-pound test with a No. 1 or 2 hook. A good swivel in at least 30-pound test is a must. Ask on the pier and locals can show you many tricks for making good leaders real quick.”

Following the established fishing pattern is a good way to avoid possible problems.

“Talk to locals and find out what they do,” Huggins continued. “Fish the same way as others around you. Follow helpful instructions from fellow anglers. Respect fellow anglers who have a fish on. Get out of the way without having to be asked.”

Kingfish Piers - East Coast

Jacksonville Beach Pier-5031 1st St. North 904-241-1515

Daytona Pier-Main Street 386-253-1212

Sunglow Pier-3701 S. Atlantic Ave. 386-788-3364

Sebastian Pier-9700 South A1A, Melbourne Beach 321-984-4852

Flagler Beach Pier-215 S. Oceanside Blvd 386-517- 2000

Juno Pier-A1A at Juno Beach Park 561-799-0185

Lake Worth Pier-William O, Lockhart Pier at Lake Worth Beach 10 Ocean Blvd.

561-582-3474

Deerfield Pier-200 NE 21st Ave 954-426-9206

Pompano Beach Pier- 954-773-1346

Anglins Pier-2 Commercial Blvd. Lauderdale, 954-491-9403

Kingfish Piers - West Coast

Gulf Shores State Park Pier, Alabama- 20115 State Hwy 135 251-948-7275

Pensacola Beach Pier-41 Fort Pickens Road 850-934-7200

Navarre Beach Pier- 8579 Gulf Blvd 850-244-1023

Okaloosa Island Pier- 300 Pier Road Fort Walton Beach 850-244-1023

Dan Russell Pier- Panama City 850-233-5060

M.B. Miller- City Pier- 12213 Front Beach Road Panama City

Pier 60-Clearwater- 1 Causeway Blvd 727-462-6466

Sunshine Skyway- 4905 34th St. South St. Petersburg 727-865-0668

Naples Fishing Pier- 25 12th Avenue South 239-213-3062

King Mackerel Vitals

Fishing Licenses: Most saltwater piers have a group license that covers all who pay the fee to fish. Call in advance.

Kingfish Limits: 24 inches fork length minimum, 2 per person per day

Consumption Advisory: Due the presence of methylmercury in tested specimens, the Florida Department of Health recommends against eating king mackerel greater than 31 inches fork length. For smaller kings, eat no more than one meal per month. Women of childbearing age and young children should eat no king mackerel whatsoever, the Department advises.

Methylmercury is a known contributor to developmental and neurological problems. Its distribution in the aquatic and marine environments, though not completely understood, is thought to be linked to certain industrial and municipal waste emissions. The compound “bioaccumulates”—meaning it works its way up through the food chain and builds up greatest accumulations in the tissues of larger, older organisms.

Surprisingly enough, many premium sellers at seafood markets and restaurants are on the mercury hot-list; this includes swordfish, sharks, dark-fleshed tunas, orange roughy and chilean seabass. For more, visit www.doh.state.fl.us/floridafishadvice.

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