Kingfish are starting to show up. They are seasonal, like some of our other species. In the fall they run south and in the spring they head north, similar to our snowbirds and right about in the same time frame.
The king run used to be very predictable. We went by water temperature — between 65 and 72 degrees, there would be feasible numbers of kingfish around. Now it seems anywhere from 70 to 75 degrees is when they are better. I’m not really sure what the change is about, but as I write this the Gulf temperature is about 74.
There are two basic types of kings to fish for, although they are both the same species. Smoker kings are the trophy-size 30-plus pounders. The smaller more abundant schoolies, at 10 to 15 pounds, are better for eating.
With large kings you are fishing for only a couple of fish a day, so don’t expect fast action. But it’s amazing when you hook one — the power and speed of their runs is awe-inspiring (and gave them the name “smokers,” because the drags of more primitive reels can actually start to smoke under the pressure). These fish tend to be loners or in pairs.
Trolling or drifting is a standard practice for any size king mackerel. It’s where you fish that changes. Large kings are usually found around passes or off the beaches in less than 30 feet of water, sometimes even as shallow as 15 feet. Following the lines of crab pots is a good starting point, or try the edge of a pass.
Artificials for both are similar. A large depth-specific lure such as a Rapala X-Rap Magnum 20 is a must. This lure will dive to 20 feet without any extra hardware, covering the deepest section of the water column. A No. 1 planer with a large spoon or midsize lipped plug will dive down about 6 to 10 feet, covering the middle part of the water column. In case the fish are feeding near the surface, a cedar plug or large spoon without a planer is also used.
Now, how do you know where the fish will bite? You don’t, so it’s smart to hedge your bets and troll all three.
When trolling, the right corner of the boat gets the deepest lure, which is fairly close to the boat (let’s try 75 to 100 feet). The left corner gets the middle lure, which is out about 50 feet farther than the closest. In the middle is the surface runner, which is 50 to 75 feet farther than the second.
The baits are staggered in depth so as to cover the whole water column, and also in distance to prevent your spread of lures from tangling. Trolling speed varies from 4 to 8 miles per hour, but don’t be afraid to slow down or speed up.
Trolling or drifting live baits for large kings is fun also, but the baits must be trolled a little slower at 2 to 5 miles per hour. Most people use blue runners or threadfins, but some of the largest kingfish I have seen were caught on ladyfish. Frozen ballyhoo are also excellent and available in most bait shops.
While you troll, remember to watch your bottom machine for future bottom fishing spots — especially along a crab trap line. Crab traps usually are on some kind of hard bottom, since there aren’t many stone crabs on bare sand.
If you want more action and better eating, target schoolies. Head to the local reefs, or look for schools of bait or free-jumping fish. Troll a lure spread as discussed earlier. You can drop the baits down in size if you want. A No. 1 or No. 2 planer is a great way to get down a bit deeper with smaller lures or spoons. Drifting live baits or frozen work very well also. Stay on the outside of the reef. Barracuda love mackerel, so be ready to lose a couple.
Spanish macks are a common bycatch when targeting kings. Be careful with your IDs; a small king and a large Spanish look very similar. Check the first dorsal fin (the one on the back, right behind the head). If it’s gray or silvery, with no black, it’s a kingfish. If it’s black or partly black, it’s a Spanish.
Spring is here and it’s warm out there most days, so make sure you have lots of ice and properly care for your fish. Kings and Spanish are best enjoyed fresh. Unless you’re planning to smoke them, take only what you’ll eat today or tomorrow. Don’t freeze them.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor and at 14531 N. Cleveland Ave. in North Fort Myers. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.