In the summer, big king mackerel are all along the North Florida shore. But depending on which coast you fish, the distance you have to travel from the beach to the action can vary greatly!
By Rod Hunter
Even the most jaded angler is going to get excited when a "smoker" king mackerel starts sizzling line off a reel, and for North Florida fishermen the summer months are some of the best times to get in on the action. Just how far you have to travel to participate, however, is largely dependent upon whether you are chasing kings on the Atlantic coast or the Gulf coast.
Kings roam both coasts. But water temperature, water clarity and baitfish concentrations largely determine where the fish roam within those areas. In some cases, that may make kings very accessible. At other times, anglers may have to roam a bit themselves. Here's a look at how the two coasts stack up in July.
FIRST COAST For those with a small boat, or just a small gas tank, the upper east coast of Florida is definitely a very "user-friendly" place for July kingfish. In fact, on a calm day more than one angler has eased a 16-foot skiff out of the St. Augustine Inlet and nabbed a 40-pound king mackerel, virtually within sight of the inlet!
"When I am looking for the big smoker kings in July," says Capt. Dennis Goldstein, who has been one of the top guides in the St. Augustine area for the past 20 years, "I'm looking for fish on the beach. Under most circumstances, I'm going to focus my efforts in a water depth between 20 and 50 feet, and seldom more than a mile off of the beach. You can find the smaller 'snake' kings on the offshore wrecks and reefs between nine and 20 miles out. But the big kings are going to be in shallower water. The average size of these fish is in the lower 20-pound range, but 30- and 40- pound fish are common. Every year there are fish in the 40- to 50- pound range taken."
Just why the smokers forsake the deeper waters and pile onto the shallower beach areas may baffle some, but for Goldstein the answer is pretty simple.
Capt. Dennis Goldstein looks for "smokers" in 20 to 50 feet of water within a mile of the shore. Photo by Rod Hunter
"Everything a smoker king wants is within a mile of the beach in July," Goldstein notes. "You have a tremendous amount of forage in that area with both the baitfish schools and the by-catch dumped from the shrimp trawlers. In addition, you also have very favorable water temperatures. Kings on the east coast don't like water cooler than 77 degrees or much above 84 to 85 degrees. Anything outside that range can cause them to leave the area, and do it pretty quickly. But during July, the near-coast waters in this part of the state are normally in the 79- to 83-degree range that kings favor."
Those conditions can exist anywhere from Fernandina to New Smyrna, and Goldstein's approach is pretty basic.
"The first thing I'm going to do in the morning," he explains, "is cast-net a day's supply of pogies. Slow-trolling live bait is the best technique for catching these big kings along the beach, although trolling lures at a higher speed can be very productive for smaller kings on the offshore wrecks.
"You can normally find a number of pogy pods right along the beach, just outside the inlets," he continues, "and it doesn't take long with a cast net to put a hundred or so in the livewell. The ideal size pogy is one in the 6- to 8-inch range, and if the first cast from a pod shows them to be too small, I just find another pod."
Should pogies prove unexpectedly scarce, Goldstein notes that live mullet, cigar minnows, threadfin herring, lizardfish, croakers or blue runners in the same size range also work quite well. Another option is ribbonfish, which Goldstein catches on hooks and lines in advance, then brines and freezes for future use. This is one of the few dead baits he trolls, and he has found them deadly when dropped to the 20-foot range on a downrigger. He frequently employs one ribbonfish bait down along with his live bait surface spread.
While the bait type might vary from day to day, Goldstein's approach doesn't.
"If I didn't have any information as to where kings had been caught the day before," he says, "I would move straight out from the beach where I got my bait and start looking around in about 30 feet of water. The first thing I want to find is a temperature range of 80 to 81 degrees. That's probably the most important thing for kings. Once I find that range, I'm going to start looking for baitfish. Those pods up on the surface are important, but I also like to watch my depth recorder for submerged pods in the 10- to 20-foot depth range. The last thing I look for is clean water.
"Kings are sight-feeders," he explains, "and they normally prefer clearer water. When you put all three factors together - the right temperature, baitfish and clean water - you've got a good spot to start and it is worth spending some time to find that combination of conditions."
One exception to that procedure is when a defined tidal rip right outside an inlet mouth is evident.
"When an outgoing tide sets up a rip line outside an inlet," Goldstein explains, "it will be darker in color, and if it has been raining much, it will also be cooler. What you wind up with is a distinct water color and temperature break where this tidal rip meets the warmer Atlantic water. This can be a real magnet for big kings when it occurs, and I know anglers in 16-foot flat-bottom skiffs with a 40-horsepower motor that have caught 40-pound-plus kings within a half-mile of the inlet under these conditions. It's always worth checking the tide and then looking to see if a rip has developed. The same can hold true off of Mayport or Matanzas. The key is to work the clearwater side of the rip and tight to the tidal-rip line because the kings are going to roam this dividing line and pick off any baitfish that slip out of that darker water."
Regardless of where Goldstein starts his search, slow-trolling live bait is his preferred tactic and the rigging is precise.
Like most kingfish experts, Goldstein opts for soft-tipped fiberglass rods in the 6 1/2- to 7-foot range, and opts for star drag reels loaded with 20-pound line. To this he adds a 6-foot monofilament leader. The business end, for kings, is a 2- to 3-foot dark-colored wire leader in either 27- or 40-pound test. This is attached to the main line via a small black snap swivel.
For pogies and other live baits, he attaches a No. 6 4X bronze treble hook and then adds a short length of wire to carry another No. 6 hook. The lead hook is inserted in the bait's nose with one prong and the trailing hook is stuck lightly into the tail of the bait wit
h another single prong.
"Kingfish have fantastic eyesight," he explains, "and you want to keep all your terminal tackle - hooks, swivels, wire leader - as small and black as possible. Heavy terminal gear will cut down the number of strikes you get."
The exception to that rigging is when Goldstein is pulling a brined ribbonfish. In that case he uses 60-pound solid wire leader and a 1/4-ounce jighead in the nose of the bait, hooked upward through the jaw from the bottom lip as the lead hook. This keeps the mouth of the bait closed and prevents it from spinning in the water. The trailing wire, tied to the jighead eye, features several No. 4 4X strong trebles and is measured to the length of the ribbonfish. One hook is hay-wired onto the end of the trail wire, and four to five others are just slipped into the bait along its length.
"By rigging a ribbonfish this way," he says, "you can slip the trail wire hooks into the body with one point and space them every three to four inches apart. The jighead at the nose keeps the bait from spinning and the hay-wired tail hook catches all the others when a fish strikes. It's the simplest and quickest way to rig a ribbonfish."
While Goldstein prefers to work his baits within that 20- to 50-foot near-shore range, there is one condition that sends him to deeper water.
"A hard west wind that blows for several days can create a thermocline along the beach waters," he notes, "and that can drop the water temperature into the 76- to 77-degree range virtually overnight. That's too cold for these kings and they move quickly to find warmer water."
A thermocline is bad news for beach king fishermen, but there can sometimes be a bright spot in the picture. On the First Coast, a thermocline normally moves from south to north, and not all the nearshore waters are affected at the same time. The water off Matanzas Inlet could be 76 degrees, but St. Augustine and Fernandina may still have warmer water. Tournament king fisherman are quick to note water temperatures and often move northward ahead of an approaching thermocline. Since that is also the way the kings are moving to avoid the cooler water, a happy meeting can result. Even a modest-sized pocket of warmer water can become a haven for both kings and the anglers who pursue them. Should the entire First Coast be blanketed, Goldstein has a backup plan.
"The wrecks and live bottom areas within nine to 25 miles of the coast still have good water temperatures when the beach gets hit with a thermocline," he notes, "and a lot of the big kings just move out to that deeper structure. You can slow-troll live bait, drift dead bait over the wrecks, or troll plugs at a faster clip. All work, and until the beach water warms back up, you find some good fish out there."
For those who might want to learn a bit more about First Coast kings, Capt. Goldstein can be reached directly for charters at (904) 501-8898 or at Comachee Island Sportfishing Charters at (904) 825-1971.
BIG BEND While First Coast anglers regard a 20-mile run offshore as an inconvenience in response to unusual water conditions, Gulf of Mexico anglers would love to be so "inconvenienced." For them, July kings can often require runs of up to 60 miles!
"July is not the best month for kings in the Gulf," says veteran tournament angler Pat O'Neal who lives in Gainesville but is so enamored with the Gulf that he maintains a second residence at Cedar Key. "Kings don't like water temperatures above 85 degrees, and by late July, and certainly in August, the Gulf is like a big warm bathtub. If you want to consistently find kings during July, you need to head to the deeper water in the Middle Grounds."
That can be a major endeavor, since the Middle Grounds are about 66 miles from the Whistle Buoy outside of Seahorse Reef. But water depths in the 100- to 125-foot range are where temperatures are within the kings' preferred range. Get to that place when there is an abundant supply of baitfish and it is as close to "kingfish heaven" as one finds in the Gulf during July.
The area is a large one, with a lot of rock and live bottom. O'Neal simplifies his search by looking for the same things the kings are - forage.
"Baitfish schools on the surface are one of the most important things I look for," he explains. "I watch my recorder for submerged bait pods, but my experience has been that if they are down, then there are no predators in the area actively running them up. Surface activity is a key, and it doesn't have to be kings running the bait. I like to see Spanish mackerel or bonito feeding on top, because kings eat those, and if you have them feeding on bait then the chances are good that there are some kings in the area feeding on them."
Once activity is seen, slow-trolling live bait is the preferred tactic, and the basic rig is no different than that used on the First Coast. But the bait often is.
"Cast-netting bait in the Gulf is not quite as easy as throwing on pogy pods on the east coast," explains O'Neal, who often fishes tournaments in northeast Florida. "Sometimes you can find mullet or Gulf Menhaden and cast-net them. That would be my first choice in live bait. But oftentimes we have to rely on big cigar minnows, blue runners in the 8- to 10-inch range, or threadfin herring, and those we normally jig up around channel markers on Sebiki rigs. It pays to have those rigs on hand, because that's sometimes the only way you will collect any live bait."
In the event live bait is not available, O'Neal trolls dead bait. That may be brined ribbonfish, legal-sized Spanish mackerel, or any of the above-mentioned species that have become deceased. His rig is, essentially, the same as the ribbonfish rig used on the First Coast, but with one important exception.
"I want a Christmas-tree-type 'duster' slid onto the wire leader and riding right on the nose of the bait," he says. "This is a Mylar teaser with red, blue and white streamers. It adds an important bit of flash that I feel will attract more fish."
While a 60-mile run is a normal way for Gulf kingfish anglers to begin a July day, it is not always necessary. Sometimes the kings move shallower and may be found in 40 to 50 feet of water. But it does take the right combination of environmental conditions.
"If you get a southwest wind blowing steadily for a few days, it can move cooler water closer to the coast," O'Neal explains. "What you want to find is a temperature break below 82 degrees and above 75 degrees. I use an Internet temperature sea scan service called Terrafin SST- View, which provides an infrared satellite scan of the Gulf. It will show those coolwater pockets that can attract kings, and it's a much faster way to locate them than just running around looking at the temperature gauge.
"If you get a break from the weather," he concludes, "you can often save yourself a long run. But most of the time you need a decent boat with good range to handle July kingfish in the Gulf, because the most consistent spot is going to be the Middle Grounds."
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