Catch More Kings on Artificial Lures

King mackerel tournaments have just about convinced saltwater anglers that the only way to catch big fish is to use live bait. But that ain't necessarily so.

By Mike Marsh

It was not long ago - easily within the memory of saltwater anglers nearing senior discount status - that catching king mackerel meant trolling with heavy rods and big lures. These outfits, which included trolling No. 5 planers that trailed spoons in sizes of No. 3 and up, wasn't exactly what most anglers of today consider "sport-fishing" gear. Nonetheless, such rigs were extremely effective at catching big fish the old-timers called, "horse mackerel."

Even now, commercial kingfish crews use spoons to catch 100 percent of their hook-and-line catch. They use downriggers and planers and essentially "winch" the fish to the boat. It is meat fishing, plain and simple. It gets the job done.

The standard approach to catching big kings is to use live bait, a technique perfected by tournament anglers. When large fish are the goal, they hook a flipping menhaden or jumping mullet and drop it into the wake.

The "use bait for big kings" is such a common strategy that many anglers don't examine how they can use artificials to entice larger fish. And indeed, most kings caught on artificial lures generally weigh less than 30 pounds, although there are exceptions.

Most anglers are happy with a limit of king mackerel of any legal size, so catching smaller kings on lures doesn't bother them at all. Some of these anglers don't know how to use cast nets to catch live baits, others are tired of wasting valuable fishing time searching for live baits. Some don't like forking over several $10 bills for a day's frozen bait.

The author catches big king mackerel like this one by trolling lipless lures on standard bait-fishing rods. Photo courtesy of Mike Marsh

They don't need to settle for small fish just because they want to fish with artificial lures, however.

King mackerel show up within range of center-console boats as water temperature approaches 70 degrees in late May and early June. The first fish are juvenile "snakes." With no thoughts to catching big fish at this time, anglers can begin refining their lure-fishing techniques.

Kings will strike the same spoons as Spanish mackerel. However, instead of selecting spoons of No. 00 or 0, anglers should upsize the same silver or gold diamond-shaped spoons to No. 1, 2 or 3 to handle the larger fish.

Live bait rods work fine with small diamond-shaped spoons. The spoons should be trolled behind keeled trolling sinkers equipped with swivels or planers to prevent line twist. When using larger planers, stiffer rods must be used to avoid stressing blanks and guides.

Larger planers and spoons are designed to run deeper than the smaller sizes. Anglers spotting fish on a depthfinder can use these spoons to troll at the exact depth of the fish. This is an advantage lures have over live baits, which can wander up and down when fished behind a downrigger on a long leader.

When spoon-feeding kings, anglers adjust their drags to a heavier setting than the typical 3 pounds of a live-bait rig. Spoons have stout hooks that hold well in the bone structure of a king's jaws. The only thing an angler needs to worry about is the strength of the leader and line. Tough plastic leaders are best for catching kings with trolling spoons, because they will not kink, and the mono can be grabbed behind a weight or planer to haul in the fish.

The old standard for catching kings at the surface was a cedar plug. It is still effective. A cedar plug looks like a cigar or a magnum version of a freshwater angler's stickbait. Trolled at high speed, it splashes erratically like a wounded baitfish and draws a savage impulse strike. It is fished on a medium-weight rod because it creates a lot of tug.

While trolling spoons and cedar plugs are tried-and-true methods for catching kings. Sporting anglers want to catch kings on lighter tackle. Fortunately, there are many ways to catch kings on light gear, patterned after methods used for other aggressive sport fish.

Striped bass anglers have designed many lures that serve well as king mackerel plugs. These include jigs, baitfish-imitating lures and poppers.

One of the advantages of casting to kings is that the angler avoids some of the disadvantages of trolling: exhaust fumes and horsepower do not have to be a big part of a king trip.

Trolling is the fastest way of locating kings, but after finding the fish (either by trolling, using a depthfinder, or by spotting a school of mackerel boats having success), a captain simply motors upwind, shuts off the motor, and allows the boat to drift while anglers begin casting.

Large bucktail jigs cast and then bounced up and down will entice savage strikes from kings. One-ounce jigs ounce are effective at depths to 30 feet. However, the dressing slows the fall. When fishing deeper than 30 feet, anglers will find that a casting or jigging spoon is more effective because it sinks faster. The color and flash of a jigging spoon also makes it more effective than a bucktail much of the time. However, adding a splash of menhaden oil to a jig's tail more than evens the score.

Large topwater poppers are effective when kings run schools of baitfish to the top. Diving birds are the best indication of surface-feeding kings, but birds will also attract other anglers. Boats trolling through a school of visible king mackerel will quickly drive the school deep. Therefore, anglers who want to try surface lures should head out before dawn and be in an area where king mackerel are known to concentrate as day breaks. By using lures instead of live baits, they can be fishing while other anglers are still trying to find bait for their livewells.

Many of the large casting and trolling lures intended for striped bass are great for kings. A great number of similar lures designed specifically to catch saltwater fish will catch kings too.

Designed to imitate baitfish or juvenile finfish, some of these swimming lures have plastic lips for diving while others use the shape of the body contour to create action.

A trolled lure's depth is controlled by line length, line diameter and boat speed. Anglers further modify the running depth with a planer or trolling sinker.

Some anglers cast and retrieve smaller versions of lipped crankbait-style lures through schools of king mackerel at or near the surface. However, most anglers find trolling these lures to be less of a workout.

Most of the lipless lures can be cast and retrieved or jigged with ease. They come in many sizes, colors and weights. Lipless lures that are designed to sink rapidly can be dropped to extreme depths, then jigged right in the face of a king mackerel in the same manner as a jigging spoon. However, instead of the flash and the wobble of a falling spoon, lipless lures create high-speed vibration as they are fished. Most strikes with a jigging spoon occur on the fall while most strikes with a lipless lure occur on the rise.

Almost any bass plug would draw a strike from a king. However, the lure would most likely shatter or the hooks would straighten. If fished on a bass rod, the line would be sliced or the reel emptied of line in seconds. However, super-sizing the same type of gear will help an angler have fun with kings.

Baitcasting or spinning reels with line capacities of 300 yards of 15- to 20-pound test mono will catch king mackerel. Lines that sacrifice suppleness in favor of abrasion resistance offer protection against sharp teeth.

Anglers who use tough monofilament or wire leaders will lose far fewer expensive lures. Many anglers who troll or cast lures for kings find that titanium wire is the best material. Titanium leader offers controlled stretch and is nearly weightless so it does not diminish lure action. Its biggest advantage, however, is that it does not kink so it does not have to be replaced after each catch, as is the case with steel leader. Titanium leader may be the most important development in adapting bass-type casting methods to catching king mackerel.

Lures should be made of metal, hard plastic, Nylon or coated wood and should have durable finishes. Painted finishes are usually just that - finished after being gnawed by a couple of fish. Lures should also have heavy hooks made of stainless steel for durability. A poor quality lure may save some money initially. But it is false economy if the finish is damaged and the hooks rust away after a single dunk in the brine.

Some king mackerel tournament pros and sponsors have discussed holding an experimental, all-artificial-lure tournament in an effort to inspire further creativity from lure manufactures as well as from fishermen. The freshwater bass anglers did the same with a resounding success that is now part of fishing history. As easy as kings are to catch with the lures available today, it seems the time is right to cast away.

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