Summertime Smoker Secrets

Summertime Smoker Secrets

If you want to tangle with a big king mackerel this summer, the Georgia coast can accommodate you. Read on as some local experts reveal how it's done. (August 2009)

There are many reasons why the pursuit of trophy king mackerel ranks high on the list of saltwater-fishing addictions. There's the blistering run -- big kings are called "smokers" because they can empty 100 yards of monofilament from a reel in a matter of seconds. There's the acrobatics -- picture a 5-foot-long silver rocket engulfing your live bait in the prop wash as the predator leaps from the water, arcing gracefully in the summer sun before diving headfirst back into the green water.

But mostly, anglers love the challenge of outsmarting these finicky fish. Catching "snakes" or "teenagers," as the smaller kings are called, is everybody's game. Consistently catching big fish of 30 to 40-plus pounds requires the right equipment, skill, teamwork, steady nerves, and a healthy dose of luck.

In the 1970s, fishing clubs up and down the Atlantic Coast began holding annual king mackerel tournaments to capitalize on the allure of this speedster. By the 1980s, many of these club tournaments grew to extravagant affairs, offering prizes valued at five figures.

Today, the Southern Kingfish Association (SKA), founded in 1989 at St. Simons Island, annually sanctions dozens of local tournaments and hosts a professional trail that is nationally televised. Competitors not only fish to win individual tournaments, they amass points toward national ranking and qualification for championship events.

Georgia's kingfish experts have claimed their share of SKA tournament glory with two angler-of-the-year titles, three national championships, and a multitude of wins and top-10 finishes in sanctioned events. Let's look into their playbook for some tips on catching summertime smokers.

RETURN OF THE KING
The rebound of once overfished king mackerel populations is a fishery management success story. Tournaments helped speed the recovery by changing from aggregate to single-fish formats and by returning some or all of their proceeds to conservation activities like artificial-reef construction. According to many veteran anglers, king mackerel fishing in the new millennium is a return to the good old days.

King mackerel are considered a sub-tropical species given their preference for water temperatures between the mid-60s and upper 80s. Although some fish can be found on the edge of the Gulf Stream throughout the year, most of the Atlantic Coast population spends the winter off South Florida and the Florida Keys.

As the waters of the continental shelf begin to warm in the spring, kings and the baitfish they depend on for food start moving. The Gulf Stream fish head to the west and the South Florida fish to the north. By July, both groups have converged off Georgia, making late summer the peak time to catch a smoker.

In the world of kingfish tournaments, the name Capt. Rick Smith is synonymous with big fish and big prizes. Smith claimed the SKA Angler of the Year title in 1996 and won the 2003 National Championship. So where does Smith, now an SKA Hall of Fame member, look for kingfish during July and August?

"Kingfish are creatures of habit. I expect to find them in the same areas each year unless we've had abnormal weather or sea temperatures," he explained. "During late summer, our offshore reefs, especially the ones in the 70-foot depth zone -- CCA-JL, JY, DRH, HLHA -- hold lots of small to medium kings, with a few big fish mixed in."

There are 22 artificial reefs scattered offshore of Georgia. Most are marked with identifying buoys that also serve as convenient locations to catch resident baitfish. Detailed information about the reefs is available in several commercially produced maps or by online going to www.coastalgadnr.org, where you find both an artificial-reef guide and an up-to-date list of latitude/longitude coordinates for the material at each reef site.

"When I'm looking for a fish to win a late-summer tournament," Capt. Smith continued, "I'll head to Gray's Reef or to a spot closer to shore; maybe the area around D Buoy off the mouth of the Altamaha River or even the ship channel in Brunswick. As a rule, we catch bigger kings closer to shore."

Smith's faith in Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary is well placed. The current state record -- a 75-pound, 12-ounce giant caught by Joe Bell of Statesboro -- came from this area in June of 2004. Plus, dozens of tournament-winning smokers have been pulled from this area of submerged limestone outcroppings located 17 miles east of Sapelo Island. Coordinates for fish-holding spots and the NOAA data buoy can be found on commercially produced maps or at the aforementioned Georgia DNR Web site.

SIZE MATTERS
Between my fishing activities and. working tournament weigh-ins, I've looked in the stomachs of hundreds of kingfish, finding everything from squid to shrimp to snapper. One thing holds true -- big fish eat big bait. No wonder kingfish anglers obsess about having just the right bait. In fact, choosing the bait can sometimes be harder than choosing where to fish.

Capt. Howard Poe, a transplant from North Carolina to Darien, knows all too well the challenge of choosing just the right bait. Before his move south, he made a name for himself with a victory in the prestigious 500-boat Hardee's Atlantic Beach King Mackerel Tournament and the 1996 SKA National Championship. Now he's the organizer of the popular mid-July tournament in Darien, Captain Hap's Kingfish Bash On The Bluff. He's also a fierce competitor in local events and the SKA Yamaha Pro Tour.

"I like menhaden because they work regardless of whether I'm fishing nearshore or offshore," Capt. Poe said. "During the late summer, we have schools of menhaden scattered all along the Georgia coast. Find some pelicans diving, and you've found the menhaden. They usually school by size and show themselves by flipping at the surface.

"I judge the size of the fish in a school by the size of the flip and by the way the pelicans are working the school," the angler continued. "If they dive straight down into the school from a high altitude, you can be sure the menhaden are good sized, probably 6 inches or larger. If the pelicans dive from a shallow angle at a low altitude, chances are the menhaden are too small to make good kingfish bait."

Like others in the trade, Poe relies on a heavily weighted, large-diameter monofilament cast net to catch menhaden before heading to the fishing grounds. An 8-foot net with 5/8-inch mesh and 1 1/2 pounds of weight per foot of lead line is the minimum for the job. Many anglers opt for larger nets, up to 12 feet in size, just to make sure they can efficiently catch menhade

n on those days when the slimy baitfish are scattered by predators or rough seas.

A discussion of the intricacies of keeping menhaden alive is worthy of its own article. Suffice it to say, you need a flow-through baitwell system. Most new-generation saltwater fishing boats leave the factory with built-in wells suitable for menhaden and other baitfish commonly used for kingfish. Portable baitwells can be constructed from 30- to 50-gallon round or oval containers supplied with a constant flow of seawater.

Match the output of the pump to the capacity of the well to ensure frequent replacement of the water, but not too much flow, which can stress the fragile menhaden. Also, resist the temptation to overload the well. More is not always better, especially when you're transporting menhaden during the heat of summer. Limit yourself to one fish per gallon of livewell capacity. Any extra menhaden can be finely chopped or processed by a hand grinder and used as chum.

Cigar minnows, Spanish sardines and Atlantic thread herring -- also called greenies -- are a triple threat that claims a share of big kings each year. Blue runners -- also known as hard tails -- are also popular smoker baits.

You can catch these species with multi-hook bait-catching rigs, commonly called Sabiki rigs. Use them around offshore buoys and over areas of natural reefs.

Dead baits also have a place in the king catcher's arsenal. A ribbonfish, an elongated, silver eel looking fish caught in trawls or on hook and line and then frozen, makes an eye-catching addition to a live-bait spread. Some pair a ribbonfish with a live bait to create a "zombie" rig. The frantic action of the live bait gives a lifelike appearance to the deceased ribbon.

Most coastal tackle shops keep a ribbonfish supply during the summer, plus there's always someone with a cooler full hanging around the captain's meetings at tournaments. Be prepared to pay $3 to $6 each for ribbonfish, depending on size and quality. Gutted and brined Spanish mackerel, typically sold to billfish anglers, can also be rigged for kingfish spreads.

RIG 'EM AND PULL 'EM
As a founding member of the SKA and participant in local and pro-tour events for a dozen or more years, I was always looking for an edge when it came to live- or dead-bait presentation. I experimented quite a bit, but always returned to the fundamentals: the least amount of rigging necessary to ensure a successful hookup on a big fish.

Kingfish have a formidable set of choppers that make short work of even heavy monofilament; so terminal rigs must be built with wire. The basic live-bait rig consists of a 20-inch length of No. 3 coffee-colored wire finished on one end with a 30-pound Spro swivel and a No. 6, 4X-strong bronze treble hook on the other. Another hook of the same size is connected with a length of No. 4 wire so the two hooks are about 6 inches apart. A haywire twist is the preferred method for attaching hooks and swivels to single-strand wire.

Attach the live bait of choice by passing one barb of the treble through the nostrils and letting the other hook swing free. This "stinger" hook reduces bite-offs from kings that fail to strike the head of the baitfish. If you're still getting cut-offs with the free-swinging hook, pin the trailing treble just behind the dorsal fin, leaving some slack in the wire.

There are several variants of the basic live-bait rig. Some pros use a J-hook instead of a treble nose hook. Some combine more hooks and wire to create double and triple rigs and to make longer rigs for Spanish mackerel and larger baitfish. Skirts and beads placed in front of the nose hook add color and flash to the presentation. Chartreuse and pink skirts with Mylar for flash are perennial favorites.

The ribbonfish rig is a multi-hook variation of the live-bait rig with a few modifications. It consists of a 2/0 J-hook or a 1-ounce jighead as the lead hook followed by a series of nickel-plated 4X-strong trebles connected together by 6-inch lengths of No. 4 wire. The length of the rig is determined by the size of the ribbonfish to be used. The aforementioned zombie rig is simply a live-bait rig with a trailing ribbonfish rig substituted for the stinger hook.

To prep the ribbonfish, thaw it thoroughly in a bucket of seawater and gently break the backbone at several spots. Remove the pectoral fins with a pair of sharp scissors. Attach the ribbonfish to the leader by bringing the point of the lead hook up through the bottom jaw and out the top jaw. The hook will keep the mouth closed, preventing the bait from spinning. Attach the trailing trebles high along one of the sides of the ribbonfish, near the dorsal fin, making sure there's some slack between hooks.

Most tournament pros build their own rigs, but similar ones are available from a variety of manufacturers. Whether you build or buy, make sure you have an ample supply of terminal rigs stored in an organized manner before you head to the fishing grounds. The middle of a hot kingfish bite is not the time to run out of terminal rigs.

Experts choose high-speed revolving-spool reels capable of holding 400 yards of 20-pound-test mono­filament, paired with fast-action 7-foot casting rods as kingfish tackle. Pros typically use a matched set of identical rods and reels to avoid confusion in the heat of battle. Well-maintained drags are essential since kings hooked on live-bait rigs must be handled with a light touch. Too much angler horsepower equals pulled hooks and hurt feelings. Spinning rods rarely are used as primary tackle.

Slow-trolling reigns supreme in the kingfish world. This technique allows mack chasers to cover more water than on a drift, increasing the odds of crossing paths with that tournament-winning monster. Boat size and propulsion, current and wind are part of the slow-trolling equation. Pros with twin- or triple-engine-powered vessels typically use one engine while trolling. Anglers with single-engine boats may find it necessary to use a sea anchor to slow forward progress. You know you're trolling the right speed when the live bait closest to the transom occasionally swims forward and under the boat.

Live and dead baits are deployed at various depths at various distances behind the boat. Downriggers are used to cover the water column from bottom to surface. Having a T-top on the boat not only provides valuable shade from the late summer sun, but also makes a convenient place for the rod holders that keep tackle from cluttering the gunwales.

Here's a tournament-proven spread. Deploy a single menhaden 150 feet behind the boat. Set a rigged ribbonfish on a downrigger to run 50 feet astern and 20 feet off the bottom. Place a two-bait/tandem menhaden rig on another downrigger to run 30 feet off the transom and about 20 feet below the surface.

With both deep lines in place, dress another tandem menhaden rig with a chartreuse skirt and run it about 75 feet astern. Last, but not least, send a single menhaden just aft of the turbulent water rising behind the propeller. Big kings often instinctually rise to this disturbed water apparently believing it to be caused by baitfish schools or the

violent feeding of another predator. Prop-wash bait strikes are the stuff of kingfishing dreams.

Live-bait spreads require constant attention and not just to prevent tangles. Sometimes the simple act of moving a bait to check it for liveliness can trigger a strike. When that strike happens, the teamwork begins. Kings are notorious for their long runs and erratic maneuvers. Tangles on sub-surface and surface lines can ruin everyone's day.

As the designated angler grabs the rod and heads for the bow, the crew brings up downriggers and retrieves surface lines. The helmsman moves the boat toward the fish as the angler keeps a gentle bend in the rod tip. Slack in the line can spell disaster. Sometimes the fish will make a second run, sometimes not.

Once the boat has closed the distance, the angler uses a gentle pump-and-reel motion to coax the king close enough for the gaff man to do his job. After the fish is onboard, hooks are removed and any bleeding from gaff holes is stopped. The king is secured in an insulated bag packed with ice for its trip to the scales. Quickly, lines are baited and back in the water. Watching a seasoned kingfish team is like watching a top NASCAR pit crew -- no wasted motion, no wasted time.

If you have the itch to match wits with a trophy king this summer, then coastal Georgia is your destination. But be warned, once you experience the thrill of your first smoker, you'll only want another. Well, I guess there are worse addictions.

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