I remember when I was about 15 years old and caught my first big King Mackerel. I was on a drift boat out ofMiamimarina and was drifting a dead ballyhoo on a large feathered jig in about 100 feet of water over a deep reef. What I remember most was the initial strike as I made the mistake of keeping my reel in free spool with my thumb as the only tension on the line. Man! Did that burn when the line began ripping off the spool. Since then I have caught more King Mackerel than I can count and always suggest them as a great entry in to ‘kind of’ offshore fishing for those friends who have just gotten their first boat or just started upping their game when it comes to salt water fishing.
King Mackerel, also called Kingfish make there way up and down the coast ofFloridaand depending upon where in the state you are you can be pretty sure about what time of year the King Fish run in your area will take place. In the summer months the northern Gulf of Mexico and areas near the panhandle will have good numbers of fish, while during the winter monthsSouth Floridaand the Keys are prime King Mackerel fishing regions.
These members of the Tuna family are great fighters and I can definitely confirm from my first ever King Mackerel hook up that they will peel line off your reel at an amazing speed. Because the are usually found in good numbers and in relatively shallow water (60-250’) off South East Florida’s reefs and wrecks, (the gulf side might require a bit more running to find deeper water and structure) they are a very popular quarry. Trolling and drifting baits are the most common methods to catch King Mackerel with live bait fishing being my favorite.
Trolling spoons or feathers rigged with Ballyhoo are generally the most used methods but rigging the ballyhoo properly is the key to being successful using this method. It is vital that the bait resembles a fish swimming normally and not spinning. There are many products on the market that can assist you in getting a rigged bait out with a natural action or you can also buy pre-rigged frozen ballyhoo and just put a skirt (plastic or nylon covering) over it. Spoons and other types of deep running lures can work as well. Many people use planers, downriggers or various types of weights to work different areas of the water column when trolling. You can also troll live baits, but its very important to remember that you are now slow trolling for Kingfish and may even consider bumping your engine into neutral from time to time to let the bait swim and drop a bit deeper. When trolling or live baiting for Kings you also have the chance of catching numerous other types of game fish including sailfish, Dolphin and lots of other fun creatures.
Since I mostly do catch and release fishing when it comes to King Mackerel, I prefer to use a 2/0 to 3/0 circle hook, this can vary a bit depending upon the size of the fish that have been reported but it allows me to pretty much let the fish hook itself and is much easier to unhook as well. It’s very important to use a few a length of wire leader to your hook, at least 6-12 inches (although people prefer even longer) as Kings are known for their razor sharp teeth. Connect the wire to your monofilament with a small barrel swivel. If you are drifting dead Ballyhoo then just try and hook the bait through both lips or sideways through the bony part of the nose after you have snipped off the beak. The key is to have it drift naturally and almost like a wounded baitfish. If you are using live baits such as Pilchard, Pinfish or the like, the three most common hooking points are through the lips, sideways through the nose or just in back of the where the gills and body merge underneath. Keeping this bait lively and swimming is key. Some people like to place what’s called a stinger hook on a piece of wire attached to the main hook and then into the bait near the tail for fish that bite short. Since I practice catch and release, I’m not a big fan of this method.
These fish can range anywhere from a few pounds over 50 lbs so the range of tackle used can be wide. My preference is to use pretty much anything that can handle a good amount of 20-30 lb test line. Some people prefer heavier spinning rods while others like more conventional type tackle. With the stronger thinner lines available now no matter what your choice you should be able to have enough line to handle deep diving fish without sacrificing strength. If the fish seem to be finicky you can try lighter leaders and shorter wire. For trolling a good 30lb class outfit should serve you nicely.
To find fish, just always keep searching the horizon for birds diving on bait, this is always a good sign that fish are near. Tide lines and changes in water color are also a great place to try. Just remember to take notice of the depth, direction and area your are fishing when you do hook a fish as King Mackerel are likely to hold over a certain structure or water feature. Keep an eye on the GPS fish/depth finder so you can return to a spot that is producing and better understand the patter that is working. The same goes for drifting baits at certain depths and bottom will hold more fish.
Lastly, be very careful when unhooking or gaffing these fish as we have stated they have incredibly sharp teeth and can get a bit nutty when brought on board. Many a fisherman has suffered a nasty injury from a berserk Kingfish. These fish are great sport and reasonable table fare but not my first choice, great when smoked which is why large Kings are called smokers. If you want to get out and try some entry level off shore fishing of the coast ofFlorida, King Mackerel are a great way to begin.
Florida has some of the finest fishing in the world, and contrary to many opinions it is still part of the United States and relatively simple to get to. If you are traveling to the state and are not a part –time or full time resident here and have no boat then your best bet is to charter one of the fine captains in the area and head offshore for a day of blue water, blue skies and hopefully lots of action. If you have your own boat and have long dreamed about leaving the sheltered waters of the bay and heading offshore in search of the many game fish that call these South Atlantic waters home but are not sure how to get started than this article is for you! If you are an accomplished offshore angler, adept at rigging baits and following thermo clines then pass this by, as you know this stuff already. I mean c’mon! We can write a whole article just on what knots to use!
To start off, ask yourself the question, “am I experienced enough to fish offshore and is my boat adequate for the adventure?” If you are not sure, then do not go offshore, or at least not without an experienced person on board. It is also a very good idea to carry a PLB or personal Locator Beacon, this is a device that when activated will send a signal to the search and rescue teams to come and get you, immediately. The great thing about fishing off the coast of Florida is that you really don’t have to go that far to catch a variety of species such as Sailfish, some Tuna species, King Mackerel, Dolphin and Wahoo to name a few. While there is a resident population of these species present pretty much year round, some times of the year are better than others. I’ll give a brief rundown of the usual suspects.
Sailfish can be had pretty much year round, but the best fishing is usually in the winter and early spring. When South Floridians feel those cold fronts of November and December you can be certain that the Sailfish wont be far behind. You don’t have to run as far offshore as one may think for them, as although they can be caught in almost any depth, they are typically caught between 90 and 200 feet of water. The simple way to catch them (remember this article is for the offshore newbies) is trolling with rigged ballyhoo, place a skirt in front of this and troll a few rods at varying distances behind the boat and you’re in business. When you get a bit more experienced you can also drift live bait such as Pilchard and Goggle eyes and if you really get going you can learn to fish with a kite to dangle your bait on the surface making it an enticing treat for a variety of game fish. Have a pair strong gloves and a pair of pliers to remove the hook while the fish is still in the water and pull him along until he regains strength and watch him swim away. This of course is after you all lean over and take pictures!
Dolphin, also known as Mahi Mahi can be caught year round as well with the best fishing taking place in spring and early summer. The methods used to catch Dolphin are pretty much the same as for sailfish or any of the other species we will mention with the subtle differences primarily coming in depth, color of skirts and thickness of leader or wire line. If you are not skilled at rigging, a newbie to this type of fishing can just purchase rigged ballyhoo at the bait shop and be done with it. Slip a skirt over the rigged bait and go for it! Don’t forget to buy some non rigged bait as well because small to medium sized dolphin travel in schools and if you troll one up, keep him in the water for a bit and look for some of his friends to be lurking near the boat. If so, tie a hook to the end of a line, place a chunk of bait on the hook and you can limit out in just a matter of minutes. Dolphin are usually found in deeper, cleaner blue water, and although they can be caught blind trolling along currents and just about anywhere, they do prefer weed lines and flotsam. Larger dolphin can be caught with live bait under the weed lines and around floating objects trees, cargo pallets and even abandoned crab trap buoys.
King Mackerel or Kingfish as they are sometimes called are another year round resident but as with most of our South Florida Game fish, some seasons are better than others. They can be caught using the same methods as Dolphin or Sailfish but require a wire leader as they can bite through most lines like they were butter. King Mackerel are predominantly found in 60-200 feet of water and tend to hang around structures or changes in the bottom contours which cause current variations. In Summer months when trolling seems to work best you may try using a planer or trolling weight to get your baits down a bit further, but during the spring there is nothing more fun than drifting live baits while listening to some tunes and munching on some chips. If you have trouble finding live bait (pilchards, Pinfish, etc.) dead ballyhoo will produce as well. Wahoo can also be caught in the same areas you fish for all these fish; they are incredible fighters and one of the tastiest fish in the ocean. You would need a bit more expertise to actually target them with bigger rods and lures. To target Wahoo, many anglers do what is know as High Speed trolling, in excess of 12 knots with lures covering the surface and deeper into the water column. Wahoo seem to be most active around the full moon.
As for Tuna, most of the species that you will catch in the areas you can safely fish will be Blackfin Tuna; they are tasty, great fighters and can be part of a mixed bag while fishing for the above-mentioned species. For the bigger Yellowfin Tuna, well, if you are reading this article, you are probably not ready to go out on your own, as they require long-range trips, better equipment, bigger boats and a good crew. But the thrill is amazing as line rips off the reel and you are holding on until that initial run has subsided. When fishing the far offshore trips there is also the possibility of running into a big Blue Marlin or a White Marlin, but that’s for another story!
So, You have some basic information now on how to fish for some of South Florida’s favorite offshore game fish. Keep in mind that in most parts of South Florida the depths you will fish may be only 2-5 miles from shore. Pick out your favorite rods in the 20-50 lb class grab a friend and some rigged baits and head out for a great adventure! A friend once asked me when is the best time of day to catch Sailfish and the others, my reply was quite simple, “anytime you can get out there!”