It’s about a month later than usual, but the main run of king mackerel has finally arrived in Bay area waters.
Anglers from Clearwater to Venice have reported lots of action in the past week.
“The biggest schools are mostly a few miles west of the Whistler Buoy on Egmont Channel,” said captain Scott Moore, whose son, captain Justin Moore, posted a photo of a 35-pounder caught by John Mathews on a trip this past week.
“The trick is, you find the bait and you find the fish. Go to the hard bottom areas where you catch grouper and look for bait schools, and there will be kingfish there, too, for the next few weeks.”
Some anglers dropping live shrimp for mangrove snapper and hogfish have been tangling with big kings, too.
Moore said there are fish inside the Whistler Buoy, as well, along Egmont Channel all the way to the Sunshine Skyway. The deep hole at the north end of Egmont Key is always a likely area, as is the “Pan” or deep flat just east of Egmont.
Captain Ed Walker, fishing a tournament last weekend, turned in a kingfish that exceeded 50 pounds, reportedly caught south of Sarasota.
The fish follow the vast schools of bait that migrate north from the Florida Keys to the Panhandle in spring. Those baitfish typically move north when the water temperature hits 75 degrees, and stop when it reaches 68 to 69. Eventually, of course, the whole Gulf gets much warmer, but chasing the comfort zone seems to keep the migrating feast moving.
The Gulf temperature off St. Pete Beach is 73 to 74, while at Pensacola it is 68.
Most tournament fish are caught by slow-trolling large blue runners, ladyfish or Spanish mackerel rigged on No. 6 wire leaders, with a single 2/0 in the lip and a size 4 to 6 triple-X strong treble dangled along the flanks. The aft treble prevents kings from chopping the baitfish in half and missing the hook.
These baits are typically trolled around reefs, wrecks and along the color break of the larger passes on outgoing tides.
For those more interested in kingfish steaks than kingfish trophies, anchoring and chumming over hard-bottom areas with good current flow and plenty of bait can be an effective tactic. Anglers use a mix of chopped threadfin, dog food and menhaden oil, typically sweetening the scent trail with fresh-cut pieces of threadfin or scaled sardines. Some anglers use bait grinders to keep a kibble of fresh baitfish going into the current.
It’s not uncommon for kingfish — and Spanish mackerel — to follow this scent trail in from several hundred yards down-current. You’ll often see them skyrocket or leap as they come racing up the scent slick.
The most effective bait for this type of fishing is typically a large scaled sardine or “horse” threadfin, nose-hooked on a size 2/0 to 3/0 short-shank live-bait hook, again with a length of No. 6 coffee-colored wire to prevent cut-offs. This is fished unweighted, or with a small float to help keep track of it. Heavy spinning tackle with 40- to 50-pound-test braid will do the job on even the biggest kings, though many anglers still rely on lever drag conventional tackle in 3/0 to 4/0 size.
Plenty of school kings are also caught by trolling Drone spoons 5 to 6 inches long behind No. 2 planers or downriggers, and large diving plugs are also effective for this duty. While live baits are fished slowly, artificials usually have to be moving pretty fast to fool kingfish; 5 to 6 knots is typical.
Often in kingfishing, the early bird gets the worm. Schools typically feed on top at dawn, drawing clouds of gulls that make it easy to find them. They drop back deep as the sun gets high.
The limit on kings is two per angler per day more than 24 inches to the fork of the tail.
Kingfish do not tolerate handling well, so fish not intended for consumption should be unhooked quickly and go back into the water as rapidly as possible. They seem to survive best when released in a strong, nose-first push downward; otherwise, they have a hard time starting to swim again. A pair of long-nosed pliers or de-hooker is a must to keep fingers away from the razor-like teeth of these fish.
For more on king mackerel and other Bay area fishing, visit www.moorefishing.com.