Kings on the Coast

In July, king mackerel are running off the Alabama coast. Join the author on a venture for these hard-fighting bruisers.

For me and for Dr. Warren Inge, life took on a new meaning last year during a fishing trip to the Florida Keys. It was nearly a disaster. The second night of the three-day trip found us anchored to a reef riding out a storm. The current tossed the 50-foot boat for 4 1/2 hours, turning what was a reunion of college buddies into a silent prayer vigil. That experience encouraged us to stay closer to home in the future!

The weather was a lot nicer this year. Capt. Robert Downey reported that afternoon showers were expected, so we decided it would be best to head out around 6 a.m. from Sportsman's Marina in Orange Beach. We were greeted by Capt. Downey and deckhand Brandon Aldridge; then we stored all the provisions aboard the 28-foot Should'a Been There.

As we idled through to open water, it became apparent why Alabama's Gulf Coast is so popular. The view from the water, with the sun rising above the beaches, is breathtaking.

Capt. Downey seemed to know the way during the 50-minute ride out. He turned on his GPS navigational system for all of about five minutes, apparently only to reassure himself, then turned it off. Once we were about 12 miles out, Capt. Downey brought online his fish finder. He was in search of structures in the water. There are oil and gas wells in the area, some without platforms above the water, but providing structure below the surface that acts as popular feeding places for game fish.

This day we were in search of king mackerel. Once the boat was situated in the current, Brandon showed us our equipment and bait. We were using baitcast-type reels with 14- to 20-pound-test. Each rig had 3 feet of 31-pound wire leader and No. 4 treble hooks. The only weight would be the cigar minnows used for bait. Capt. Downey makes his own rods, which are 7-foot medium-flexibility fiberglass.

The strategy was to toss the minnows into the current. With the drag open, keeping a thumb on the spool, we pulled line free as the baits were carried by the current about 5 to 10 feet below the surface. We were in 85 feet of water, but at that time of morning the fish were feeding near the surface.

The author displays one of the king mackerel from his trip with Capt. Robert Downey. Photo courtesy of Victor Inge

It didn't take long for some nice-sized fish to make their presence known. As it turned out, they were a school of bonita.

Warren, better known as Doc on fishing trips, had the first action. The first bonita hit his cigar minnow adrift in the current. Then he got another strike, this time from a 7-pound bluefish. This fish made a strong run and put up a gallant fight. But we were looking for kings.

Still, there had been some excitement, and it reminded Doc of what he hadn't done. Once his bluefish was unhooked and released, Doc abandoned his fishing position. His line, however, had another hit.

"Fish on!" Captain Downey yelled.

"I know," Doc replied. "Vic, get that for me."

One look told it all. I'd offered him a dose of Dramamine before we turned in to the Sportsman Marina parking lot.

"I don't know what's wrong. I never get seasick," Doc said.

I'd heard that before, and even spoken those very words myself. I never got sick either - at least until last year's trip. Forty-five miles off the coast of the Florida Keys, with no land in sight, I got sick as a dog. As I threw up in a bucket, my old Florida A&M classmate and swimming pool mogul Mike Harris started with the jokes.

"Don't waste that chum. Lean overboard. That's good chum," he coached.

"Bring a little over here," big John Moss joined in.

I didn't tease Doc at all. I'd just wait.

"Fish on!" Capt. Downey screamed again. "This might be him."

And it was.

The drag on the reel began to howl.

"You might want to put on a cup for this one," the captain recommended. "This fish hit like a king."

The fish was making a run for it, down and away. I picked up the rod and immediately cupped it. The next 10 minutes were stressed. By easing the rod up to the 12 o'clock position, then reeling in as the rod is lowered to about a 35-degree angle, you put a lot of pressure on the fish and regain some line.

After a few minutes of constant work, it appeared the battle was over. The fish had come to about 10 feet below the surface. He was swimming toward the boat and closer to the surface. Just as my stamina was being called into question, the fish showed himself.

"It's a king," Capt. Downey exclaimed. The excitement and noise sent the mackerel on another run. By then I was beginning to tremble.

"You should be able to stop him now," the captain encouraged. "Don't rest. While you're resting, he's resting. When he stops running off, apply a little pressure by raising that rod tip up. You'll have him stopped; then get him back to the surface."

That's easier said than done! But sometimes you just have to dig down deep to tap into that reserve tank. I'd already done that.

But still I had to dig. I had been at it for a full 10 minutes when I had an awakening. I wanted whatever was on the other end of that line in the boat. The only way to do that was to reel it in.

Once the fish was about 30 feet below, he made another run, but this one was half-hearted. The tightened drag of my reel wouldn't allow it.

Once he was back on top, I had to be careful to manipulate the rod tip, maintaining pressure on the king and turning him toward Capt. Downey. This one wasn't going to be gaffed and snatched onto the deck.

"He goes at least 40 pounds - easily," Capt. Downey said, planting the gaff through the top of the mackerel's back and hoisting him into the boat.

No time to rest. Another line stretched in the current, the rod tip took a sharp dive and the distinctive sound of that drag captured everyone's attention.

"Got another one," Capt. Downey said. "Fish on! Looks like another king."

Bounding over, cupping the rod and setting the hook, it was a familiar feel. But this one felt bigger than the king mackerel stretched out behind me on the deck.

But it wasn't. This one would take another full 10 minutes to land but went just 25 pounds.

Just as Doc recovered, it appeared our fun was over. Dark clouds had moved in from the southwest. We could see a waterspout. I grabbed my camera and shot the scene. It was off at a distance, but a spectacular sight. The pictures from my 80mm lens didn't do it justice. As it grew closer, we knew it was time to head for home.

On the way in, Capt. Downey wanted to troll and see what we could pick up. The waterspout had dissipated and there was only a light rain. Soon we even ran out of that.

We spotted a grass line, so Brandon set out a planer with a skirted cigar minnow. It wasn't long before we had a strike. It was another king and a nice fish, but a bit smaller than our others. He was a little over the 18-inch size limit. Without measuring him, we let him go to grow and fight another day.

The drizzle was catching up to us, but along with the tiny drops hitting the surface of the calmed water was evidence of the presence of fish. A whole school of them were feeding along the grass line.

Just off the starboard bow there was a splash. Capt. Downey grabbed and distributed some light tackle. As we began casting near some floating plantain, a strike came right away. I went up top to get a better look.

"Mahi-mahi!" I screamed. "They're all over the place!"

The scramble was on. Brandon pulled out more light rods and some 1/4-ounce bucktail jigs. In less than a minute we had a solid white jig and a solid pink jig out among them. Doc had the white on, jerking it through the water. The dolphin were tearing it up. They were small - around 2 to 3 pounds - but there seemed to be hundreds of them.

After landing about a dozen or so in the rain, Capt. Downey announced it was time to head in.

We were satisfied. It was a good day. We'd caught some fish and created more fish tales.

To contact Capt. Robert Downey about booking half-day or full-day king mackerel fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico, call Should'a Been There Fishing Charters at (251) 949-7307 or (251) 942-9677.

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