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The King Mackerel is a highly sought after game fish that take up residence on the Florida Keys reefs in the winter months. While the mackerel is a member of the tuna family, they don’t compare in stamina but do have incredible speed, especially on the initial hook up. King Mackerel in excess of 30lbs are considered “smokers” due to the dramatic speed on initial hook up and the screaming of the reel as the line peels off. This is the reason why king mackerel are a popular fish sought after in fishing tournaments such as the Southern Kingfish Association.
King mackerel are outfitted with extremely sharp teeth which makes rigging baits a very critical component on successfully hooking up and landing these fish. King mackerel feed on various baits such as ribbonfish, herring, squid and shrimp. The common bait in South Florida and Florida Keys in the winter months is Ballyhoo. King mackerel and cero mackerel can be seen at times dive bombing on schools of ballyhoo which creates quite a disturbance on the water in addition to identifying their location.
King Mackerel are structure oriented fish. They hold on the edge of reefs such as the Elbow, Carysfort, Conch or Alligator reefs from north Key Largo to Islamorada and throughout the entire Florida Keys. Kingfish also like deep wrecks or offshore humps and the larger Kingfish or “smokers” tend to hold on the deep wrecks in 100 – 300 feet of water.
King mackerel can be caught by various methods that include trolling spoons, buck tails with strip baits and large deep diving lures. The most common and effective technique for catching the larger Kings and “smokers” is slow trolling with ballyhoo. Two methods of slow trolling with ballyhoo is to troll it as live bait or cut the backbone out of the ballyhoo so it trolls very natural as a rigged dead bait.
The rigging of ballyhoo is performed by utilizing a 2/0 to 3/0 hook which is hooked through the mouth of the ballyhoo. The main wire leader length is 3-5 feet. The connection from the mono to wire is accomplished with a very small barrel swivel. The key is to utilize as small a diameter wire leader as possible to ensure the slow troll appears natural and the wire is not obvious to the line wary fish. The wire utilized is approximately rated at 30-40lb. In addition, a stinger treble hook, size 4x is also attached by wire from the front hook and then placed in the back of the ballyhoo. Kingfish have a tendency to be able to cut off baits behind the hook especially in clear water conditions which is why the stinger hook is a necessary component to effectively catching Kingfish. The reason for the long main wire leader is that is common to have another Kingfish cut off your catch during the retrieve. In addition, Barracuda, Sharks and Amberjack can be problematic in cutting off your catch during the retrieve as well especially when fishing near wrecks since the entire food chain of fish is prevalent in these locations. This food chain of fish can be seen by the readings or echoes on a high quality graph. The graph will typically show fish at various depths from the surface to the bottom.
An effective way to catch Kingfish is by slow trolling rigged ballyhoo. This is done by bumping your motor in and out of gear maintaining some forward movement and or very slow speed. When slow trolling for Kingfish, It is necessary to get the baits down to varied depths to reach the bait and Kingfish. This can be accomplished by putting a dropper loop in the main fishing line about 30 feet ahead of the bait. Utilize a snap swivel with several ounces of lead attached to it. The snap swivel and weights will act as a downrigger that can be removed by removing the snap swivel from the dropper loop during the retrieve. Once the swivel and weights are removed, the angler can then wind the small dropper loop back through the reel. This process can be accomplished when utilizing either spinning reels or level winds. Downriggers can be utilized as well, but this inexpensive method works very well.
Like most species of fish, Kingfish will acquire a feeding pattern based on current conditions, wind direction and water clarity. Once a hook up is accomplished, you will probably find that additional hook ups will occur by utilizing the same trolling pattern that you hooked up on previously. Be attentive to the conditions and patterns. Pay close attention to the trolling speed, depth or amount of weight utilized that created the initial hook up. Check your graph to find the depths that fish are holding. When fishing wrecks, you will find fish holding at various depths.
The rod and reel utilized for Kingfish is considered light tackle. The most important key is a high quality fishing reel that holds a lot of line with a good drag system that holds 20–25 lb test. The rod and reel selection is primarily based on the angler’s comfort and confidence level. A medium to fast tip rod is also recommended since catching Kingfish is about finesse. Spinning rods or boat rods are both effective. The smaller line diameter is important to getting more hook ups for line wary Kings during the initial hook up and first run. It is critical to not increase the drag until the fish has tired or slowed down. The initial drag setting should be set to about 1/3 the line test or less.
Good luck and tight lines