- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
Living and fishing in the Florida Keys for three decades has allowed me to tackle most of the 50 or so sportfish that swim these prolific, American Caribbean waters. The sportfish that makes my palms sweat, muscles taut, hair mat down clammy-damp on my forehead, and gives my heart a jogger’s workout is the king mackerel.
Two seconds! About a double click on your watch's second hand is how long 30 yards of line lasts on your reel when a kingfish bites. Kings are shaped like arrows and they fly underwater just about as fast. Razor sharp teeth, all muscle and the large sizes that kingfish reach make it a favorite quarry of anglers in the Gulf and on the entire southern East Coast down through Florida, including the Florida Keys as well. Once hooked, a king makes you feel that perhaps you will never get them to boat, before they either cut your line or rip the hook free. A cool head and a properly set reel drag are musts for kingfish.
Few fish can rip off line as quickly as a kingfish, making it a true challenge on light tackle.
Kingfish look and act like cats pouncing on a mouse when they skyrocket and slash down on a trolled ballyhoo or a trolled or kite-fished live bait. You can actually see their catlike expression as they come down hard and fast on their quarry. Often when trolling live ballyhoo for sailfish the king’s cut you off, as there is no wire used in a live bait trolled for sailfish.
When I fish for kings in the Keys, I check out the chatter on the marine radio and head for where the big-boy captains are into them. I head way back in their chum slick, way back (don’t crowd them, it’s not polite) and drop a 3-ounce red and white, mylar tail jig, with a ballyhoo strip or a complete smaller size bait fish, and jig it up and down. Many kings have fallen for this technique, including a few 40-pounders.
According to winning anglers and fishing captains I spoke to who follow the Southern Kingfish Association tournament trail, the hard and fast action of a kingfish strike is what offers them some of the biggest and fastest thrills in their lives. A very few of the lucky ones enjoy the money, too.
According to Capt. John Holley, who fishes from Grand Isle, La., to and through Panama City, Fla., and also the east coast and Florida Keys, getting baits in advance of fishing for big kings is part of the formula for success.
"Basically I fish the structures we have here in the Northern Gulf. I don't sit too long at one spot,” he says. “We call it ‘run and gun.’ If I fish a spot more than 15 minutes and the kings aren't biting, I move on quickly. Fish hear you coming and they come to the boat, so the first bait out might not get more than 20 feet from the boat before it's eaten. My primary bait is the blue runner, large ones. We call them hard tails up this way.”
Whether in competition or just or fun, kingfish are sought by a growing number of anglers.
Large ribbonfish are also used when Holley cannot get blue runners. "My hookup rig consists of No. 3 wire to the front short-shank bronze 3/0 single hook; then behind this I use two No. 2 treble hooks. However, I move up to as high as a 1/0 treble hook depending on how aggressive the fish are. If the fish are tentative or hook shy, I go to a No. 4 treble hook. This is also dependent on water clarity. We call the best water ‘kingfish green.’ If water is real clear I use lighter terminal tackle, the greener the water the fish cannot see as well, and I stick to my 3-3-2-wire combo.”
Holley also turns to an array of artificials or a dead bait on occasion. One example is the King Getter, sort of an upside down banana shaped spoon. But his tournament favorites are dead ribbonfish and Magnum blue back/silver Yo-zuri lures (great imitations of baby bonita), as well as mackerel-colored Rapalas, green with black stripes.
Holley says most kings caught on lures are “just for fun fishing,” and that natural bait is king for big kings in his book. Early in the year, big kings begin moving down the beaches, but don't settle down and hang around structure until April when the water temperatures get 70 degrees and above. Once water warms up, fish slow down in their travels and take up residence around structure where the predator’s food is congregating. Most fishing is done in 60 to 200 feet, but ideally the fish are found around 120 feet of water.
As a captain, Holley fishes almost daily so he has a handle on where fish are congregating, but casual anglers who fish every few weeks or so should start fishing in that 120-foot range around oil rigs, artificial reefs and natural rock formations. Holley doesn't fish without downriggers. He uses and loves Scotty's electric units with a 12- pound ball. He fishes anywhere from the surface to 5 feet off the bottom, trolling "livies." To target the big kings in structure, he first runs baits on the surface, because other fish live around structure like amberjacks and groupers, and to lose a big bait down deep to them in a tournament is a waste of time and good bait.
A king’s signature is a good strong run and then another run. So if Holley feels a fish bulldogging on the bottom and he’s fairly sure it’s not a king, he cuts the fish off quick so he can get back to the business of hooking and catching a 40- to 60-pound brute (most tournament winning Kings have been in and around 55 pounds or so). Holley starts with heavier gear such as a Shimano TLD-25 with 30-pound test and then works down to smaller 20-pound gear if they are finicky about striking.
Holley catches bait using 6- to 8-pound test Sussix low abrasion line that’s fairly new on the market. With an ultra-light spinning outfit, the hard tail blue runners try and cut you off on barnacles on oil rig feet, etc., yet he ties directly to little small white jigs of about an ounce.
Although artificials will fool their fair share of kings, the biggest fish are typically caught on natural bait.
A top kingfish angler, Steve Shook and his two-year-in-a row, award-winning angler wife, Ginger, have traveled a quarter distance to the moon or two and a half times around the earth (60,000 miles) fishing kingfish tournaments. The Shooks use 10-pound test monofilament with small diameter leaders. With this terminal tackle it takes 20 to 25 minutes to land a 30-pound plus fish. But Steve says, "We use teamwork. The best fisherman is Ginger; she takes her time and doesn't horse the fish no matter what the size. She has the touch!" Some more tips from the Shooks: “In clear water we go with light line, usually 10-pound test; in darker water, 12-pound test. We go very light in the wire department and use small hooks and always bury them in our baits.”