Kings Of The South Florida Coast
September 30, 2010
The fall and winter months are the time when king mackerel show up along the southeast Florida coast. Here are some tips on finding and catching those fish! (November 2009)
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.
Daniel Felsher is showing off the kind of big kingfish that turns up along the southeast coast of the peninsula in the fall months.
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."
Strips of fresh fish undulating in the currents also tempt kingfish. Fillet a large baitfish, such as a blue runner, jack or bonito, and attach about a 12-inch slab of meat to a single hook. Set this on a drift line or a balloon rig. You might even bump the motor occasionally to make the fish strip pop and dance behind the boat.
To make a balloon rig for drifting into chum slicks, tie a typical balloon that one might use at a child's birthday party directly to the line above a wire leader. On a circle hook, attach a live or strip bait. Allow the balloon to drift with the chum slick. The balloon holds bait near the surface and in the strike zone like a bobber.
You also might tempt mackerel swarming in a chum slick by casting lures at them. Kings hit large crankbaits, poppers, metal jigs, lipless crankbaits, feather jigs, spoons, spinners and other lures.
When chumming brings kings to the surface close to the boat, anglers can also entice them with fly tackle. Drop silver streamers in front of cruising fish.
"In the Keys, fly-fishing usually starts with catching live pilchards and using them as a live-bait chum," Capt. Weinhofer described. "When we throw pilchards, we can chum kings to within 20 feet of the boat. Action can be fast and furious requiring only short casts for success. When fly-fishing, use any streamer with barbell eyes, something with some weight to it. Use a very fast retrieve when fly-fishing. No angler can out-retrieve a mackerel. Also, use intermediate (sinking) fly line, not floating line. When conditions are right, fly-fishing in Key West is like nowhere else in the world."
Another form of South Florida "fly" fishing, many charter skippers deploy kite rigs to tempt mackerel and other species, especially sailfish. Kite fishing means flying a kite with a line and bait -- such as a 6- to 10-inch goggle-eye or blue runner -- attached to it. Like on an outrigger, the fishing line runs up to a release clip on the string that holds the kite to the boat.
"Fishing a kite is like using a flying outrigger," Capt. Weinhofer said. "When properly rigged, a kite holds the bait at the surface while keeping the entire leader out of the water. The bait swims frantically trying to dive or escape and struggles on the surface. The angler gets to see the fish eat the bait right on the surface.
"Quite often," he continued, "we tease a predator by lifting the bait out of the water right in front of it. This drives the fish nuts until it strikes at almost anything with a vengeance. When the predator attacks the bait, the release clip pops and the battle begins."
Off Key West, Capt. Weinhofer can normally start fishing reefs about four miles from shore and generally fishes out to about 25 miles from his homeport. However, when the skipper really wants to catch big kings, he finds big bait and makes the run to the Dry Tortugas, a small archipelago technically part of the Florida Keys, but about 70 miles west of Key West. Waters around these low islands and shoals frequently produce giant kings. Wrecks and reefs dot the area. Fish migrating through from the Gulf to the Atlantic pass by the Tortugas, following currents that push baitfish into the shoals.
"It's not uncommon to catch kings in the 40- to 60-pound range around the Tortugas," the captain confirmed. "I know of at least one 67-pounder. During kingfish tournaments, some competitors run all the way from Fort Lauderdale around the tip of Florida to the Tortugas.
"Often, when I want to catch really big kings, I don't anchor and chum. Instead, I slow-troll and kite fish with live bait. For just big kingfish -- 40-pounders or bigger -- find a live 2- to 3-pound blue runner and put a circle hook straight up through its nose and add a stinger with a small 3X treble hook."
Among the most popular methods for finding kingfish, trolling can cover considerable expanses of water quickly. You may troll for roving fish with live or fresh bait or lures. Sometimes, captains put out several lines, dragging some baits on or near the surface and dropping some on downriggers or planers.
"I usually run four surface rods and one downrigger, but my preferred method is to use a downrigger," Capt. Barlett said. "We generally fish in about 120 to 140 feet of water. We drop the downrigger down to about 50 to 80 feet deep and rig it with live ballyhoo. We slow-troll in the current at idle speed, about 1 1/2 miles per hour or just enough to maintain position or crawl forward a bit. One day, we actually timed it and the line was only down for 18 seconds before it got hit."
Deep-running crankbaits almost can serve as downriggers if you don't own the real thing. Some long-lipped lures can run 30 to 40 feet deep. Some anglers even attach baited leaders to lures and pull both simultaneously. Sometimes, fish prefer bait; at other times, lures do the trick. At times, the odor wafting from the bait entices kings, but the predators prefer to hit the flashy, wobbling lures.
Many captains simultaneously pull different combinations of bait and lures to see what fish want most at that time. Some better lures are Rapala X-Rap Magnums in black and silver, clown or firetiger, silver spoons, sea witches or feather jigs. Soft-plastic ribbonfish imitations trolled at 2 to 6 knots undulate through the water, resembling a prime mackerel temptation. Try trolling with different colored lures to see what works best and generally troll lures slightly faster than bait.
Many skippers troll fresh ballyhoo. When trolling dead bait, Capt. Weinhofer puts out six lines and runs at about 4 to 5 knots. He drops two downriggers on the inside, two medium lines in the center and two outside lines on long outriggers. He sets one downrigger at about 35 feet deep and the other at about 60 feet deep. When dragging dead baits, he prefers ballyhoo that are about 12 inches long.
"For tolling, I sometimes use a no-wire double-hook rig with a ballyhoo," Capt. Weinhofer pointed out. "It's a pin rig with the first hook pointed up. It goes through the head and the point of the hook sets in the belly. The second hook swings free. With a single hook rig, I use about 5 to 8 feet of No. 5 or 6 wire leader. If fish aren't finicky, I like to use No. 8 wire. I always want the leader long enough so that when the angler reels the fish all the way to the swivel, the fish's head is still in the water."
For leader material, the captain recommended piano wire instead of stainless steel. Cheaper than stainless steel, piano wire also reacts to salt water, turning blackish-silver and nearly disappearing in the water.
"As soon as we start fishing it, piano wire changes color," Capt. Weinhofer explained. "The key is to keep it in Tupperwa
re with talcum power to keep it dry. As soon as it gets wet, it starts to corrode. If any moisture gets in the container, it can all go bad. We can only use it for two trips and it goes away."
Among the most popular open-water game fish, king mackerel can provide highly challenging sport. When hooked on fairly light tackle, they often put on spectacular shows, as they leap into the air or make drag-ripping runs. Abundant, widespread voracious feeders that hit a variety of baitfish in diverse ways, kingfish offer big-game action even for anglers with small boats.