It’s king mackerel time. The southbound migration of the Gulf of Mexico stock of king mackerel flows through the coastal waters of Southwest Florida each fall. It’s not an “all or nothing” deal, where the run is either on or off. The torrent of migrating fish usually starts as more of a trickle when stray early kings arrive, then builds up as more and more schools of kings join the southbound parade, then dwindles back down as latecomers scurry to catch up with the rest of the gang.
The timing of the run varies from year to year, and so does the duration. There are years that the bulk of the fish come through over a few weeks, and there are years that slowly traveling fish are caught for several months as they trickle on through. But over the years, there are some repeating trends to the king mackerel runs. One of these is that early November is usually near the peak of the fall run.
In addition to the timing, the location of the best fishing also changes from year to year. Some years, more fish are found closer to the beaches. Other years see more fish caught dozens of miles offshore. Historically in our area, a good number of fish are found in water depths between about 20 and 50 feet.
However, there are plenty of exceptions. Some years when salinity in Charlotte Harbor is high due to limited rainfall (like this year), kings will venture several miles into the Harbor in good numbers, especially when bait is abundant. And on the other hand, some kings will be caught 50 miles or more out into the Gulf.
Southwest Florida anglers eagerly wait for the king run each year, and there is always excitement when the first fish are found. Then the speculation begins about how this year’s run will progress. Like most things fishy, it’s largely a guessing game. We know about some of the factors that can influence the king run — but not all of them.
We know that kings don’t like a water temperature much less than about 68 degrees, so they’ll hustle southward more quickly if there is a solid dose of early wintry weather in the northern Gulf. We know that they prefer clear water over turbid water, so if the inshore waters are muddy from high surf they may swing further offshore as they travel.
We know that kings like to eat, so the presence or absence of big schools of bait in an area can affect how long the fish will linger on their way through. We also know that they don’t like the smell or taste of red tide, so if there’s red tide near shore along the beach then kings will tend to stay further offshore as they travel south.
And there’s still another complication to the equation of predicting where to find good kingfish action: Kings swim really fast, so they can be here today but many miles away by tomorrow. So when any of the above conditions change, or if other conditions that we don’t fully understand change, then kings are prone to react by moving out in search of greener pastures.
King mackerel are well known for their short duration speed bursts, but they are also proven long-distance swimmers. When they’re motivated, a school can move 50 miles in a day. This creates a challenge for anglers and explains why it’s impossible for this column, which was written several days before you are reading it, to provide accurate information on the status of the current run.
So what should a hopeful king mackerel fisherman do to find these fish? There’s an old saying: “The only kings that you know for sure where they’re located are the ones you’re looking at.” Which means that there is nothing as good as getting out there with lines in the water. But there are other things we can do to hedge our bets.
Since most of our kings are traveling north-to-south along the coast, we can get some hints about the progress of the run by looking at fishing reports “uphill,” to our north. If the guys off Bradenton, Sarasota or Venice are catching a ton of kings in 50 feet of water, it’s reasonably likely that we’ll soon have that same experience here.
Lacking that kind of intel, get out and cover some ground, looking for surface-feeding fish or clusters of boats fishing where you wouldn’t expect to see boats gathered over reefs or wrecks. Look for birds too. Diving, feeding birds are a great sign, but birds cruising slowly can be a clue too because sometimes they’ll track schools of kings that aren’t feeding yet.
And any time you find large schools of bait, either at the surface or at the bottom, kings may be around too even if they’re not showing on top. Since there’s almost always a bunch of small fish hanging around offshore structures (artificial reefs, patches of hard bottom, ledges), fishing blind for kings around your favorite offshore snapper numbers is sometimes a good bet for kings too.
Good luck, and let’s go fishing!
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.