Big King Brigade


Saltwater Sportsman - - Table Of Contents / Features - By George Poveromo


For­tu­nately, it ceased run­ning af­ter emp­ty­ing three-quar­ters of the spool. Now my fear was it would swim be­yond the ledge and part the line on the coral. Re­mark­ably, that didn’t ma­te­ri­al­ize ei­ther. With the big king rea­son­ably un­der con­trol, our fear shifted to the sharks. And through it all, I was hop­ing the 30-pound ti­ta­nium leader and small hook would hold.

We were an­chored off Bi­mini, and the yel­low­tails had shut down due to a wolf pack of sharks mov­ing in. How­ever, some cero mack­erel ap­peared, and I be­gan drift­ing baits back for them. And that’s when I hooked the big king. Over the years, we’ve bested kings as large as 66 pounds aboard my MARC VI, with sev­eral in the 50-pound class, but I never saw this one com­ing, a 55-pounder un­der se­ri­ously chal­leng­ing con­di­tions.

Mirac­u­lously, in lieu of th­ese ob­sta­cles, we landed the big king.


Kings ex­ceed­ing 25 pounds are im­pres­sive preda­tors and ex­tremely chal­leng­ing on 20-pound-class and lighter tackle. And should you score, they’re quite de­li­cious when smoked and even par­layed into a dip. School kings are fun too, but I’ll take one big smoker over a bunch of snakes.

Un­like school kings, the smok­ers mi­grate to the beat of a dif­fer­ent drum­mer. Dr. Bob Shipp, Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Ma­rine Sciences at the Univer­sity of South Alabama, re­ports that the king mack­erel mi­gra­tion in the north­ern Gulf used to par­al­lel the co­bia run, with schools of 10- to 20-pound-class kings ar­riv­ing in March or April.

“That cer­tainly has changed over the last 20 to 30 years,” says Shipp. “It was wa­ter tem­per­a­ture which drove the mi­gra­tions of the larger kings, as it still does for the smaller ones. But now, for the big kings, it’s all about for­age. They’re not as migratory in our re­gion any­more. In­stead, they hold at the rigs, wrecks, struc­tures and ar­ti­fi­cial reefs where the for­age is. Struc­tures hold­ing bait year-round will also hold big kings year-round.”

Off Alabama, a 1,200square-mile per­mit­ted area holds abun­dant ar­ti­fi­cial reefs, ce­ment pyra­mids and other en­vi­ron­men­tally com­pat­i­ble ma­te­ri­als. And nearly ev­ery one of th­ese reefs holds bait and big king mack­erel.

Find the struc­tures hold­ing masses of bait and there should be some big kings around them, says Shipp.


Key West Capt. Mark Sch­midt echoes Shipp’s sen­ti­ments for Gulf-side kings.

“In the Gulf, big kings gather around struc­ture as small as troughs and rock piles,” says Sch­midt. “It’s all about the for­age. Yel­low­tails are a huge part of their diet. Big kings will be on any troughs, wrecks, shoals, rock piles or ledges that hold ’tails on both the Gulf and At­lantic sides.”

Gulf fish show in num­bers in late Jan­uary or Fe­bru­ary, whereas the At­lantic stocks show up in Novem­ber. “It de­pends on our cold fronts,” says Sch­midt. “A cou­ple of strong ones back-to-back, or lack thereof, and the fish may move in early or lag be­hind longer than nor­mal.”

March is a solid month for big kings off Key West, though some are around ev­ery month of the year. A lot of the old-timers still catch big kings right out front of Key West. They refuse to burn gas and run any dis­tances. But for those who aren’t afraid to travel, the largest con­cen­tra­tions of big kings still mi­grate well west of Key West, from the Mar­que­sas to the Dry Tor­tu­gas. Credit that to vast amounts of bait, struc­ture and lighter fishing pres­sure.


Some of the largest king mack­erel thrive in Bahamian wa­ters. It’s be­lieved th­ese big kings don’t mi­grate but are rather ter­ri­to­rial along stretches of reefs where they find a con­stant sup­ply of yel­low­tails, blue run­ners, jacks, tin­ker mack­erel, chubs and cero mack­erel as food sources. Com­pared to their longer and slim­mer U.S. cousins, big Bahamian kings are of­ten shorter and stock­ier.

No­table mon­ster-king haunts in­clude the At­lantic­side reefs near Bi­mini, down through the Rid­ing Rocks, and up into North­west Providence Chan­nel from North Rock to the Ginger­breads. How­ever, wher­ever thriv­ing reefs ex­ist, big kings re­side, par­tic­u­larly in the far, less-pres­sured reaches of the Ba­hamas.


Palm Beach Capt. Greg Bog­dan says his best king­fish­ing runs start late March and last through June. “They’re mi­grat­ing with all the bait,” says Bog­dan. “The steep drop from around 110 to 140 feet of wa­ter be­tween Lost Tree Vil­lage and Juno is alive with bait. I’ve done dives along this drop; there are loads of speedos, bonito, run­ners and such — prime for­age for big kings. I’ll fish along its outer edge and where there’s a cur­rent wash­ing over it.

“Wrecks are ex­cel­lent too, es­pe­cially dur­ing the win­ter. Big kings hang on them for the bait. And within 3 miles of Palm Beach In­let, there are 11 wrecks, all pro­duc­tive. They’re close to the in­let and that 110- to 140-foot drop, all bait-rich zones.”


“It’s a cliché, but big baits catch big fish, and that cer­tainly goes for big kings,” says Shipp. “Off Alabama, the rigs have plenty of 1½and 2-pound hard­tails (blue run­ners); they’re the best big-king baits up here.”

Sch­midt also fa­vors large blue run­ners and le­gal-size yel­low­tails for big kings. Off the At­lantic and Gulf sides of the Keys, and Florida’s south­ern and cen­tral west coasts, some of the largest kings fall to live Span­ish and cero mack­erel. Bog­dan prefers live speedos and bul­let bonito when gun­ning for the big ones.

Fishing tech­niques are re­gional. Yet an across-the­board knock­out tac­tic on big kings is to slow-troll a pair of Span­ish or cero mack­erel around those schools, or bump-troll them out over patch reefs and bot­tom struc­ture. Use down­rig­gers in deeper wa­ters.

A po­tent tac­tic in South Florida, the Florida Keys and the Ba­hamas is to first an­chor and chum for yel­low­tails. Af­ter about an hour of ’tail­ing, free-line a Span­ish or cero mack­erel or a le­gal-size yel­low­tail

well back in the slick on a bal­loon float. Place the rod in a holder and re­sume yel­low tail­ing. Sooner or later, that live-bait rod will scream. Big kings are also suck­ers for baits splash­ing un­der­neath a kite; keep this in mind when live-bait­ing at drift or an­chor.


Light sin­gle-strand wire lead­ers and diminu­tive tre­ble hooks are be­lieved to draw more strikes be­cause they’re less no­tice­able than stouter rigs. How­ever, very light drag set­tings are re­quired to keep th­ese hooks from pulling or straight­en­ing. In short, a big king is forced to run un­til it ex­hausts it­self — not a good sce­nario for re­leas­ing un­wanted fish.

I con­tinue to en­joy suc­cess with a dual cir­cle­hook rig fab­ri­cated with 50-pound ti­ta­nium or 60-pound sin­gle-strand wire and 4/0- to 6/0-size hooks. Embed the lead hook in front of the bait's dor­sal, with the trail­ing hook left dan­gling. With a large bait such as a mack­erel, embed the stinger cir­cle lightly in its mid or aft dor­sal-fin area.

Once floated into po­si­tion on a bal­loon, the rod goes into a holder. When a big king hits, the rod bends and sets ei­ther the lead or trail­ing cir­cle hook. If the rod straight­ens back up af­ter the strike (a missed hook-set), im­me­di­ately free-spool; pro­vid­ing the re­main­ing bait por­tion floats back naturally, the king should cir­cle back for it. When the line speeds up, en­gage the drag, wind to set the hook, and en­joy the fight.

Once a cir­cle hook sets, it’s not com­ing out. Fur­ther­more, the hooks are large enough to with­stand pres­sure from a 20-pound out­fit. Should we choose to re­lease the fish, it won’t be hooked deeply with a cir­cle hook, and it should have enough en­ergy to swim away. The sin­gle cir­cles are also much safer to the per­son re­leas­ing the fish.

STEP UP: Tro­phy-size king mack­erel — smok­ers — de­mand honed strate­gies.

CLOSE IN: Nearshore ar­ti­fi­cial reefs hold for­age that draws king­fish.

HOT REEFS: When king­fish con­gre­gate over struc­ture, be ready for mul­ti­ple hookups.

STUNG: Mack­erel hit the tail of a bait first; se­cond-guess them with a stinger rig, be­low.

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