May 08, 2013
It's just bad manners. Someone invites you to a nice spread of food; you don't eat and run. Clearly, the king mackerel skipped that etiquette lesson. In fact, eating and running or more accurately, running and eating and then running is what they do best.
Ferocious predators with the formidable dental equipment, kingfish are always on the hunt for their next meal. They'll attack just about any forage species they spot, but kings make a good living off the schools of scaled sardines ("whitebait"), threadfin herring ("greenbacks"), Spanish sardines and menhaden common throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
This eating and running can make staying on top of the kingfish a challenging proposition. However, their ravenous nature means that the ones you find will be ready to eat.
Find the Fish
Reefs, wrecks, rock piles and ledges are common kingfish gathering sites. Bait schools hold over these spots and kings will patrol the area to gobble any forage they spot.
Much of the action goes unseen below the surface, but the feeding frenzy often rises topside. Kingfish will round up a pod of bait and push it to the surface where the fleeing prey runs out of room and becomes an easy target.
Surfacing bait schools appear as dark patches and when they reach the upper boundary, their dimpling and flipping looks like rain on the water. That's usually enough for anglers to spot, but once the feeding begins, it's show time.
Waves of frantic baitfish leaping skyward, white water slashes and violent boils indicate that the kings are chewing. Such scenes offer clear visual reference for those seeking kings.
Click the image for kingfish photo gallery
The fracas also attracts seabirds that pick off the scraps left by feeding kings. Scan the horizon when starting your morning search and if you spot a cloud of birds hovering and shrieking near the surface, idle into the area and you'll likely find kings.
Bonito and Spanish mackerel will also chase bait schools in this manner, and the larger kingfish won't hesitate to crash someone else's party. If you're catching the smaller bonito and mackerel, troll the biggest baits you have outside the active area and if kings are around, they'll find the vulnerable prey.
When It's Right
Kingfish will feed throughout the day, but the dawn action - known as the "first light bite" - is usually the most intense. Kingfish are primarily sight feeders, so sunrise shines a spotlight on their quarry.
Ideal water temperature range is 68-75 degrees and good water clarity - the classic "king green" - presents a good scenario for bait schools and the predators they attract.
When kings feed many miles offshore, tides matter little. However, in the coastal zone, daily ebb and flow can play a key role in fish location. For one thing, current speed and direction positions baitfish predictably on their bottom structure. These little fish will hold tight to their habitat during swift water and loosen up when the current slows.
The other tidal effect occurs when the outgoing cycle pulls loads of baitfish through passes and river channels. This food flush delivers a concentrated feast of baitfish into coastal shallows and any kingfish in the area will be quick to capitalize on the opportunity.
Many artificial lures such as spoons, jigs and diving plugs will fool kingfish; however, you'll do best by slow trolling or drifting with live baits. Kings have been known to strike a variety of oddball baits from grunts to lizardfish, but the old "match-the-hatch" adage governs this game.
Capturing the same baits that kingfish are chasing is your wisest strategy. Cast nets enable you to grab large numbers in one shot, but the inherent squashing effect often leaves baits weakened, if not injured. Healthy, active baits perform best in a spread, so go with gold-hook sabiki rigs and use a dehooker to sling baits into your livewell without touching them.
In addition to the schooling baits, Gulf kingfish also love blue runners. This double-tough member of the jack family lives around reefs, rocks and channel markers, where a well-placed sabiki rig will snare several.
Now, it might sound improbable that kingfish would strike your baits when they may be looking at several thousand in the school they're attacking. However, predators instinctively grab the weakest and most vulnerable prey first, so trolling your baits around a school's perimeter gives the appearance of easy pickings.
Just don't be offended if the kings try to eat and run. Dress your baits with those wire rigs from Part 1 of this series and you'll put the brakes on these speedy predators.