Like ravenous wolf packs, king mackerel roam the waters over the continental shelf looking for something to devour, but nowhere do these toothy predators gather in greater numbers during the winter than around the southern tip of Florida.
Photo by John Felsher.
“There are a million different reefs to fish for kingfish around here,” said Capt. Mike Weinhofer of Compass Rose Charters in Key West. “In November and December, we hit fish in both the Atlantic and Gulf sides. Sometimes, we’re trying to catch sailfish and we have so many kingfish, it’s like the plague. Sometimes, we see schools of fish an acre across.”
In the family with tunas, bonito and wahoo, king mackerel range throughout the western Atlantic Ocean and the entire Gulf of Mexico. Common from North Carolina to Brazil, kings sometimes venture as far north as Maine.
The largest species of mackerels in the western Atlantic, kings spawn in late spring and summer in the northern Gulf of Mexico and off the east coast of the United States. One female could lay hundreds of thousands of eggs.
In its first year, a young mackerel may grow to 25 inches long and weigh about 3 to 4 pounds. Males seldom weigh more than 15 pounds, but females can top 90 pounds. The world record, a fish weighing 93 pounds, came from off Puerto Rico in April 1999.
Norton I. Thomton holds the Florida record with a 90-pounder he caught off Key West in February 1976.
“King mackerel are fairly abundant and make great sport,” explained Dr. Robert G. Muller, a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in St. Petersburg. “The population goes up and down, but stocks are generally healthy around Florida. Gulf stocks seem to be in much better shape now than a few years ago. It takes about four years to reach 10 pounds or about 33 inches fork length, but a king mackerel can live more than 25 years.”
As temperatures cool, big kings migrate south. Kingfish from the northern Gulf of Mexico head to southern Texas and Mexico or down the west coast of Florida to mingle with Atlantic kingfish coming down to eastern Florida. From about November to April, they remain in southern Florida waters or around Caribbean islands. When water temperatures warm again in the spring, the two distinct populations go their separate ways, heading to their respective spawning territories in the Gulf or off the Atlantic states.
“Not all king mackerel migrate,” Dr. Muller emphasized. “We do have resident populations in the northern Gulf of Mexico and off North Carolina, but in winter, South Florida is the place to fish for kings.
“Temperature determines when they move,” he continued. “King mackerel don’t like really warm or really cold waters. In years with cooler springs, people in the southern portion of Florida brag about how good the fishing is, while people in the northern part of the state complain about the awful fishing.”
Mackerel typically stay in waters at least 30 feet deep, often over reefs, wrecks or other bottom structure. In deeper, salty areas where the continental shelf edge veers close to shore — like the waters between Fort Lauderdale and the Florida Keys — kingfish often come very close to shore. Anglers frequently catch them off long piers near deep water. However, they usually roam open waters over the continental shelf out to about 300 feet deep.
“Just about any sharp drop between Fort Lauderdale and the Keys can be a good place to fish for kings,” said Capt. Jim Barlett of Beast Fishing Charters in Miami. “I look for drops off the shelf where kingfish can come up to feed in the shallows and still escape into deep water. The big kings are usually in at least 40 to 80 feet of water. Some better areas around Miami include the Cuban Hole, some ocean reefs and most areas around shoals near the lighthouses.”
Streamlined for speed, these elongated greenish-silvery torpedoes chase down prey in open water. Feeding almost constantly and insatiably, they often attack baitfish in schools from all directions, slashing at anything they can grab with their razor-like chompers that can easily shred flesh and tackle. Highly aggressive and competitive fish, they frequently try to snatch baitfish from their brethren. They may follow baitfish schools for long distances, preying upon mullets, blue runners, jacks, sardines, pilchards, ribbonfish, herring or squid and shrimp, as well as anything else these gluttonous sea wolves can grab.
“School feeders traveling in groups, king mackerel are fish-eating machines,” Dr. Muller agreed. “They are built to capture and feed upon other fish.
“Sardines move up and down in the water column,” he added. “During the day, sardines are going to be down. Mackerel will be primarily feeding upon sardines at night when they come near the surface since mackerel spend most of their time in the upper portion of the water column.”
Find the bait and you usually find kingfish. If you can’t find the baitfish, you can often call kings to the boat with chum. Chumming may put these voracious, opportunistic carnivores into a feeding frenzy as they compete to gulp as much food as they possibly can before their associates take it from them.
Either anchoring or drifting along a reef edge, rig a live bait on a drift line when chumming. Mullet, menhaden, small jacks and pilchards make excellent bait choices. Without a weight or a float, toss the bait into the chum slick about 30 feet behind the boat. Slip the rod into a rod holder and set the clicker. A struggling baitfish won’t last long if any mackerel cruise the vicinity.
Chum can come in many forms from prepared mixes to cut fish to live baitfish. Some skippers make an oily concoction of menhaden meal, which they scoop into the water or dangle in permeable bags over the side of the boat. As blood and oily fish pieces ooze into the water, toothy predators gather for a meal. Sweeten the chum slick with some live bait to really get kings in a feeding mood.
“One traditional way to fish for king mackerel in South Florida is to find pilchards and put out a chum slick,” Capt. Weinhofer said. “The pilchards form a live bait chum slick around the boat. Once we get the chum slick going, free-float a 2- to 4-inch pilchard back into the slick.
“Free-floating is a very visual fishing method. If there are a lot of fish around, watch out for the bubble trail from the swivel. Hook one kingfish and it’ll pull the line so fast that the swivel makes a bubble trail and other kings will hit the swivel. If that happens, go to a short leader, about 12 to 16 inches. That way, it will lay the bubble trail right down the side of the fish.”
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