The kingfish should be here, according to the thermometer.
Wisdom among the old salts of west coast kingfishing is that the spring run of the species arrives when the water temperature climbs to 68 or above, and most of the fish continue on to the Panhandle when it exceeds 75. As of Thursday, the water temperature off Clearwater/St. Pete Beach varied from 69 to 72, so that should be in the kingfish comfort zone.
It’s also the wisdom of the old salts that kings usually show up in our area around St. Patrick’s Day. That would be tomorrow.
Both bits of wisdom seem to be off a bit this year.
The main run of kings still appears to be well to the south, mostly around Fort Myers and off Lower Pine Island. The Gulf-run fish spend the winter off the Florida Keys and along the Atlantic shore of the state north to about Palm Beach, according to state researchers, then follow the baitfish runs back to the northern Gulf in summer.
In any case, there are a few here already, and the main push could come on short notice with a couple of hot, sunny days.
The National Marine Fisheries Service reported that Gulf king mackerel stocks have increased steadily from around the turn of the millennium, rising from about 4 million fish then to an estimated 17 million today. The annual catch, according to the NMFS, averages about 2.27 million pounds by commercial anglers and 2.9 million pounds by recreational anglers. Biologists say the improvement is primarily because of reduced harvest mandated by federal law in the commercial and recreational sectors.
When the fish do show up, odds are the first place to look for them will be over the well-known hard-bottom areas off beaches, near offshore wrecks and ledges and, for larger fish, around the big passes such as Egmont, Southwest and Clearwater.
Kings generally segregate themselves by size. “Schoolies” are 7 to 12 pounds and travel in schools of hundreds and sometimes thousands. “Smokers,” 15 pounds and up, usually are found alone or in small pods of similar-sized fish. The species can exceed 100 pounds, but the largest fish commonly caught are around 40 pounds, with a few 50-pounders taken every year.
Kings are incredibly fast, able to exceed 40 mph in short bursts. Biologists say they exude a Teflon-like slime when frightened or feeding that allows them to slip through the water with minimal drag.
Finding the fish is often a matter of finding the fleet. When the run is on, pods of 10 to 20 boats will be found circling the schools, trolling 5-inch spoons or live threadfins behind No. 1 or 2 planers. This action typically takes place from a quarter-mile off the beach to 10 miles out. To get in on the action, you simply join the circle of boats, following the path that rings the school. Cutting through the center will put the fish down and ruin the action for everybody.
For larger fish, most anglers slow-troll with big live baits including blue runners or ladyfish, with action often best on the “break line” around the major passes on an outgoing tide. The break forms when the dark water from inshore meets the green water from the Gulf. The two do not mix for a considerable distance, and it’s common for a rip to form where they touch, with floating weeds and debris marking the line.
Kings often run along the clear or green side of this line, picking off anything that comes across their path. Many of the largest kings caught each year around the state are caught from this sort of water.
Offshore shipwrecks, channel buoys and coral bottom areas also often hold kings. Anything that attracts baitfish is likely to attract kingfish.
The preferred tackle is heavy spinning gear with microfiber line of 50-pound test or so, tipped with a couple feet of No. 6 single-strand leader wire. A ball-bearing swivel is a must for trolling. Many anglers slow-trolling live baits add a “stinger” hook, a No. 6 extra-strong treble, on a short length of wire trailing along the side of the baitfish.
The minimum size for kings is 24 inches to the fork of the tail, and the bag limit is two daily. Consumer-safety advocates recommend that kings longer than 30 inches not be eaten because of possible high mercury content.