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Kings of the Big Bend

Kings of the Big Bend

Join the author and Capt. Brian Smith in looking for king mackerel on the Middle Grounds of the Gulf of Mexico. The action is fast and furious for these aggressive predators!

By Sandy Huff

The reel screamed. I jumped, startled. My rod was bent into an arc, and the reel still sounded like the loudest alarm clock in the world.

The cause of the commotion was a king mackerel - a big one. The fish was heading away from us as fast as its powerful body could move.

Capt. Brian Smith snatched up the still-screaming rod and reel and then thrust them at me. I could tell his heart rate was a lot slower than mine.

"That's the most exciting part about kings," he said with a smile. "The initial strike is startling. Now keep the drag loose. Once this initial run is out of the way, pump and wind and get it close to the boat. Your fight isn't over yet."

He was right. The king was running hard, leaving me wondering if there was enough line on the reel, or if every inch would vanish into the deep green water around us.

When the line finally slackened, I cranked as fast as I could. For a few minutes the rod raised and lowered like a piston.

After a spirited tug of war, the fish was within five feet of the boat. The torpedo shape briefly darted toward us, and then it flipped around and ran. The sudden yank on the rod was so strong that I almost lost my grip.

The kingfish on the Middle Grounds can put a bend in even heavyweight tackle. Photo courtesy of Big Bend Charters

Capt. Smith just kept smiling. His heartbeat was definitely slower than mine now.

"Kings do that," he said helpfully. "Once the fish comes up to the boat, you think it's over, but the fish sees the boat and takes off again. It's predictable. They hate boats."

This particular fish had a deep-seated neurosis about boats. Four times it got close enough to see the white hull and then headed back out.

By the fifth time, the mackerel was tired enough to stay beside the gunwale. By then I'd circled the center console several times, and my arms felt like spaghetti.

"This is a good one!" Brian crowed as he gaffed the fish. "Most kings run 10 to 15 pounds. I think this one will weigh in at 30-plus."

I smiled weakly and massaged my aching left arm. Like Snoopy's complaining body parts, it was arguing with my right hand about which of them had worked the hardest.

Brian was sympathetic for about three seconds, but he quickly got back to the business of hooking up a total of 14 kings for the day.


When I stepped aboard his boat that morning, my first question to Capt. Smith had been "Where the heck are the Middle Grounds?"

"Look here on the chart," he said, unrolling a chart. "See all those contour lines stacked up about 80 miles southwest of Steinhatchee? That's the Middle Grounds. Lots of dropoffs on the bottom, some of them 30 feet high. It's a very unusual area, and it's full of kings."

Now I knew a little bit about the normal spring and fall runs of king mackerel. Around April and May, they come close to the coastline, following the schools of baitfish. Like many other fishermen, I head about 5 to 15 miles off the west coast for king mackerel in April and May. But Capt. Smith goes out even farther than that in the summer.

"My normal deep-water trip is 40 miles off Steinhatchee," he explained. "But if you're looking for kings in the heat of summer, you have to head to the Middle Grounds. It's a good 80 miles, but kings remain there all year 'round."

At the end of our run, we dropped anchor in the dark, translucent waters of the Middle Ground.

"We're in about 80 feet of water here, so I'm putting out 30 feet of chain and 150 feet of line," the captain said as he pulled rope out of the locker.

The next thing Capt. Smith did was set up two sets of rods - one for topwater fishing and the second for those mackerel hanging out near the bottom. He dubbed the system "double dipping."


To book a king mackerel trip to the Middle Grounds, contact Capt. Brian Smith at Big Bend Charters in Steinhatchee at (352) 498-3703, or via e-mail at

For more information, check out their Web site, located at



King mackerel usually roam near the surface, but not necessarily close to the boat. To correct this, Capt. Smith had a trick up his sleeve.

"We'll put out a chum bag and float some free-line bait in the chum slick," he explained. "You can troll spoons and plugs for kings, but generally I try to kill two birds with one stone and chum them up to the boat. It doesn't take long to get those kings coming in."

He then produced a 5-pound block of chum acquired at a local fish house. Within minutes it was in an old mesh dive bag, trailing behind the stern of the boat.

"That will last 20 to 30 minutes," he noted.

The captain next rigged up two lines, one with live bait and the other with a strip of white bait, and let them trail behind the boat.

"Sometimes I even use a cork, and let it float behind the boat on the chum slick," he said. "It normally doesn't take too long to attract fish once you've established a slick."

For this fishing, he uses medium- to heavy-action spinning rods about 7 f

eet in length.

"What you look for is line capacity, which means one of the bigger spinning reels," he explained with regard to the reels he matches to these rods. "Kingfish will run, so you have to have lots of line so you don't run out of string. Set your drag fairly loose. You want it to go out easily."

The reels were strung with 20- or 30- test monofilament. Leaders were 3- to 5-foot lengths of single-strand No. 5 piano wire. The wire leaders are necessary to handle the abundant teeth found in a kingfish's jaws.

Smith uses no weight on these rigs, since he wants them to stay up in the chum slick. The rig is tipped on the end with a No. 2 treble hook.



"Now let's see what's hungry on the bottom," Capt. Smith offered. "Usually we pick up grouper, red snapper and mangrove snapper. Once in a while we get some huge porgies."

While waiting for king mackerel to show up, he has his anglers do a bit of bottom-fishing. The rigs of this action have 4- to 8-ounce weights - just enough to hold on the bottom, depending on water and weather conditions. The leader is 100-pound test green monofilament, connected to 50- to 60-pound-test green line. At the end is an 8/0 hook.

Squid and Spanish sardines are the usual baits, but if a bonito is caught, Capt. Smith cuts 2x6-inch strips from its belly for cut bait. These baits are dropped to the bottom and then cranked up just off the seabed.

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