When summer arrives on Florida's First Coast, the king mackerel act like tourists! Here's how to take advantage of their move to the beaches. (August 2008)
Tom Brooks caught this king in the St. Augustine Ancient City Tournament. The fish was good for fifth place.
Photo by Ron Brooks.
Who rules the beach?
In northeast Florida this time of year, it's certainly the king mackerel. The summer months bring kingfish in close to shore both for feeding and in preparation for spawning.
Kings are carnivores and eat a variety of baitfish and invertebrates like shrimp and squid. In the south end of the state, surveys have shown that their primary forage fish is ballyhoo.
But in the northeast, though ballyhoo are sometimes present, the king mackerel's most prevalent foods are Spanish sardines and menhaden.
The sardines tend to be offshore over bottom structure and wrecks. Menhaden are historic beach dwellers, with huge schools moving up and down the coast all summer long.
During August, the keys to finding -- and catching -- kingfish are proper water temperature and available food. Find the two in the same area, and a supply of kingfish should be there as well.
Kings prefer water temperatures above 68 degrees and are seldom, if ever, found in water any colder than that. Up to a point, the warmer the water, the better your chances of finding fish.
If the water temperature tops 85 degrees, however, king mackerel will move out.
The good news is that the primary food fish for kings also seek out the warmer water. So, water temperature plays an extremely important part in finding catchable kingfish.
Kingfish are caught year 'round off of northeast Florida. In colder months, they stay well offshore, around deep wrecks and reefs and seeking the warm-water influence of the Gulf Stream. It's the warmer summer months that find kings lurking along the beaches.
As the water warms in the spring, menhaden -- which local anglers call pogies -- begin to migrate north.
The kings move right along with those baitfish. As the menhaden move north, from the beach you can see huge schools of them, flipping on the surface just beyond the breakers.
By the summer, the migration has reached the First Coast of the Florida peninsula, and kingfish anglers know the pogies are the sign that beach kings are also arriving.
Since the kingfish are keying on the menhaden, those baitfish are also the ones that anglers use most often to attract the kings.
The cutlass fish, known locally as ribbonfish, could actually be the most productive bait for big kings, but they are difficult to find and catch on your own. Also, they tend to be expensive at local bait shops. Frozen ribbonfish sell for as high as $6.00 apiece during kingfish tournament weeks.
The method for catching some of these beach kings is really pretty easy, and it can yield an enjoyable, relaxing day on the water.
Your relaxation will be interrupted only by an occasional screaming drag when a kingfish strikes.
Bait is the first order of the day. Heading out from St. Augustine or Mayport, skippers can be heard on VHF channel 68 or 69 hailing other fishermen, looking for bait.
Calls similar to "Anybody out there on bait out of St. Augustine?" usually draw replies that bait pods are north -- or south, or off the pier.
But another way to find the baitfish is to watch for pelicans and other diving birds while you run the beach beyond the breakers.
Even without birds, pods of pogies are easy to spot on a reasonably calm day. They come to the surface and create a "ruffled" area
Pogies have a habit of flipping their tails on the surface, which creates that "busy water" -- a telltale giveaway of their presence.
Run to the pod, but as you approach, slow to idle. Or even cut your engine and allow the boat to drift into the school of bait.
They may sound, but since you're likely to be in only 10 to 15 feet of water, you can see the school under the boat on a good depthfinder.
Ordinarily, using a 7- to 12-foot, 3/8- to 1/2-inch mesh cast net can provide more bait than you need for a day of fishing.
Live menhaden need to be kept in a bait tank that constantly circulates fresh seawater. Pogies die quickly without lots of fresh seawater and oxygen. Your bait tank also needs to be round, because pogies tend to nose themselves into the corners of rectangular tanks. This produces "red noses" and eventually kills them.
Rectangular tanks can be quickly modified by inserting some sheets of bendable plastic that will "round off" the corners and keep the bait swimming in circles.
Live pogies can be rigged on a No. 4 or 5 treble hook with a pink or chartreuse nose skirt, on a 5-foot 40-pound-test wire leader. An additional 4- to 5-inch leader then is wired to the treble hook, with a second treble hook attached. This second hook is referred to as a "stinger."
The first treble is hooked across the nose of the pogy. Take care placing the first treble so that the pogy can open and close its mouth to breathe.
Some anglers allow the stinger to simply dangle free, while others put this hook into the back of the pogy. Either way, the idea of the stinger is to snag any kings that are striking short. Otherwise, they would take the body of the bait only, leaving its head on the front hook.
Along the beach, another excellent bait is ribbonfish. As noted, they tend to be expensive, but they also draw strikes from larger kings.
Almost any tackle shop in the St. Augustine or Mayport area sells frozen ribbonfish. On some days, they may even have fresh ones.
Ribbonfish are rigged in a similar manner, except there may be as many as four additional trebles, each on a slightly longer stinger leader. These additional hooks are sequenced along the back of the ribbonfish.
With either of these baits, an ideal trolling setup consists of five lines. Two are free-lined about 40 yards behind the boat. Two more are on downriggers on either side of the boat and take the bait down about halfway to the bottom. Any ribbonfish you have they should be on the downriggers. The fifth bait usually is on the surface, close to the boat in the motor's prop wash.
The trolling speed is literally as slow as your boat can move in gear. On some boats, even idle speed is too fast, and a drift anchor is deployed to slow the movement. The boat needs to move only fast enough to keep the baits to the stern of the vessel.
The tackle most often used for these beach kings consists of either baitcast or spinning reels, spooled with several hundred yards of 20-pound-test monofilament. Rods are 7-foot flexible trolling models.
While trolling, use a very light drag. After the king strikes and runs, you can adjust the drag to apply more pressure. A light drag prevents the small treble hooks from ripping free on that first powerful run.
The first run after a strike can take 100 yards or more of line from your reel literally in seconds. Allow the fish to make several runs and wear itself down before ever thinking about bringing it in the boat.
Kings in the 40- to 50-pound class are commonly referred to as "smokers" for two reasons: because of what their first runs do to the reel and line, and also because that's the best way to cook them. They can take 30 to 40 minutes to boat, mostly because of the lighter line and comparatively light drag.
Long-handled gaffs are not required to boat a big king, but they do come in handy.
From Fernandina to Crescent Beach, kings can be found from one or two miles off the beach to as close in as just beyond the breakers. It all depends on the bait and the water temperature. Their ideal temperature is 78 degrees, but factors other than temperature can be important. Bottom structure, baitfish availability, and water clarity all play a role.
Out of Fernandina, you should head around the south jetties and start looking for bait pods. If menhaden are close to the breakers, chances are the kings will be there too.
Out of Mayport, kings frequent the "Chum Hole" just north and east of the jetties, and the "Southeast Hole" southeast of the jetties and almost directly off the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier.
On any weekend day, you can find kingfish just by looking for where the other boats are congregating.
Usually, a tidal rip and a well-defined color change are created by the flow coming out of the St. Johns River at Mayport. On an outgoing tide, that rip runs toward the Southeast Hole. Trolling along that rip, moving back and forth across the color break is a good tactic.
Generally, in any of the locations, look for thermoclines or temperature breaks. These often attract bait -- and kings.
If no such temperature breaks are apparent along the beach, start your search in water that's 35 to 40 feet deep. In most areas, this is half a mile off the beach, but it may vary. Just watch your depthfinder and keep your boat over that depth.
If the water temperature is warmer than the ideal 78 degrees, move out to a little deeper water. If it's slightly cooler, move in closer to the beach. Keep up your search in 10-foot deep increments until you find the right temperature.
Major changes in water temperatures will send the kings much farther offshore. During some years, severe coldwater thermoclines have kept the water as cold as 60 degrees in June and July, which can kill the inshore action.
When that happens, the king mackerel head offshore to warmer water. On the other hand, the bait tends to head north or south to find warmth.
Moving south along the coast from Mayport, look for the area known as "Red Tops." A series of condos along the beach have red-tiled roofs that you can easily distinguish from a boat near shore.
Beyond that is "Shanty Town," is the area of huge expensive estate homes on the beach. They're easy to see because they stand out so well.
South of this area is "The Desert," also an easy area to find because it's composed of miles of barren beaches with no structures.
Next comes the "Gate Station," named for the Gate gas-station sign visible on the beach road from any boat.
Even farther south is the "Captain's House." This large round structure is unusual and sits among other houses along the beach, about two miles north of the St. Augustine Inlet.
All these names are important to kingfish angling. Because king mackerel may hang out in an area for several days at a time, when you visit the local tackle shops you're likely to hear that the fish are "at the Captain's House," or another of these locations.
South of St. Augustine is Matanzas Inlet. The water coming out of this pass on a falling tide and moving south toward Crescent Beach has more current and thus, gets deeper more quickly than off the beaches to the north. That means the 35- to 40-foot depths you are looking for may lie much closer to the shore.
South of Matanzas, the bottom also has a different make-up, with coquina shells and rock formations not found to the north. Often a simple bottom change like this attracts more fish.
In all of these locations, start by trolling seaward to the 35-foot depth, then start moving north and south parallel to the beach.
If you're not getting any action, check the water temperature. Then move closer to or farther from the beach to find the ideal conditions.
If the area is loaded with trolling boats -- and if the bite is hot and the fishing reports have been naming the location, it will be -- then try moving away a few hundred yards.
Thirty or 40 boat engines running in the same area can tend make the fish move. But since they're in the area to feed on menhaden, they aren't going to go far from their food.
You might try moving away about a quarter mile, shutting down your engine and drifting.
You may have to reposition several times before finding the mackerel, but kings that have moved away from those noisy trolling engines may be sitting nearby waiting to eat. You just need to locate them.
One bonus of this near-shore action is that on a calm day, just about any size or kind of boat can get you to it. In August, expect to see everything from 60-foot charter boats right on down to kayaks targeting the kings.
Capt. Fred Morrow caught the winning kingfish in 1995 in the Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament while fishing from a 15-foot skiff named Little Yvonne. He was targeting the Chum Hole just a couple of hundred yards from the St. Johns River jetties.
Both the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier and St. Johns County Ocean Pier at St. Augustine Beach are also noted for having produced numerous smoker kings.
In the summer months, live bait fished two or three feet under a big float or balloon off the end of the pier is an ideal way to catch your smoker without a boat.
Regardless of where you fish along the First Coast shores this August, king mackerel action is close at hand just off the sand!