- 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.
Imagine a rocket-powered silver submarine with a wicked set of teeth, an insatiable appetite and a general proclivity for biting. Monster machine? Nope, menacing mackerel. As in king mackerel—one of the sea’s most dentally accomplished denizens.
Although a single gulp suffices for small forage, kings typically immobilize their large prey by cutting it in half and then gobbling the pieces. For anglers fishing baits rigged with a single hook, this practice often results in “short strikes” in which a king chops off the bait’s back half and misses the metal.
A frustrating tactic, but not one without recourse. To counter the king’s slashing style, fish live baits on specialized “stinger” rigs, which consist of a lead single or treble hook with a secondary treble dangling via 3 to 5 inches of No. 4 leader wire. The idea is to put a hook at both ends of the bait so it bites back regardless of how a king attacks.
A stinger rig beats the kingfish at its own game by positioning a hook at both ends of the bait.
Typically, the stinger segment is attached to the eye of the lead hook and trails past its shank and below the bend. However, another option is to attach a small barrel swivel to the end of the trailing wire opposite the hook and then slip the swivel’s open end over the point of the lead hook. Some say this affords the stinger more mobility.
Wire is also used for kingfish leaders. For one thing, when you’re working against a king’s choppers, you’ll want all the bite protection you can get. Moreover, these fish have rigid tail fins that can wear through monofilament. See, when a hooked king takes off, it generally runs on a straight course with the line trailing alongside its body. During extended battles, “tail whipping” can abrade mono to the point of breakage. Experienced anglers remedy this by adding 3-5 feet of wire leader behind their stinger rigs. Those opting for shorter wire leaders usually supplement with 3 feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon leader.
Throughout their domestic range of Maine to Texas, kingfish zero in on local forage species such as menhaden, Spanish sardines, cigar minnows, goggle eyes, threadfin herring and blue runners. Cast netting quickly gathers large numbers of baitfish in shallow water, but for nabbing baitfish in deeper environs, nothing tops a string of small gold hooks tied on dropper loops and anchored by an ounce or two of lead.
Although drifting and anchor fishing produce plenty of kingfish, the preferred method is slow trolling.
When tossed toward channel markers, bridge pilings or bottom structure, the small hooks mimic tiny crustaceans as they flash in the water column. Baitfish become ensnared when they bite what they mistake for food.
The pace is slower with gold hook rigs, but your baits are generally livelier, as castnetting tends to bruise baitfish.
For netting or gold hooking, you can quickly coax bait pods within range by chumming with a mixture of jack mackerel, wheat bread and seawater. Dribble out small dollops upcurrent of a bait-harboring structure, and when the baitfish swarm in the chum line, sling the net or drop the gold hook rigs.
With a livewell full of baitfish, locating kingfish rises as the next challenge. The hunt may seem puzzling, but it all boils down to three elements: temperature, food and water clarity. Find water in the 68-73-degree range with plenty of baitfish and good visibility and you’re very likely to find kings.
Temperature gauges and bottom machines provide important information, but a lot of kingfish are located through visual cues. Chiefly, that means surfacing schools of baitfish, often accompanied by flocks of shrieking, diving birds. When threadfins, sardines and the like churn the water’s surface, that’s a good sign that predators below have pushed them topside. Troll around the perimeter of the activity and get ready for a strike.
Savvy anglers often grab a few baitfish from the school and immediately deploy them on stinger rigs. Logic being that the baits you see are obviously appealing to the predators. Thus, feeding kings will see your rigged baits as a little off balance and slower than the rest. In nature, predators instinctively focus on easy targets.
Whopper kingfish like this trophy will test every ounce of an angler’s resolve, as well as his tackle.
Now, many kingfish are caught by drifting and anchor fishing, but slow trolling is by far the preferred method. This technique enables you to cover a broad area or simply make repetitive passes across a promising structure. The key to slow trolling is keeping your speed at about half a knot. Barely creeping along ensures your baits swim naturally. Run too fast and you’ll drag them in a straight line. If they don’t drown, their unnatural look will spook wary kings.
Whatever method you choose remember this: Big fish don’t become so by being dumb. Other words, pay close attention to your baits and quickly rectify anything that lessens their natural appearance. A common vexation is floating grass. Kingfish don’t care for salad, so clear any debris immediately. Even if you can’t clearly see any vegetation fouling your baits, you’ll usually be able to detect a small wake pushed by the extra mass accumulating on the rig. You may also notice your bait swimming erratically as it struggles with the extra weight.
Chumming is also an integral element of the overall kingfishing effort. Kings rarely turn down fresh live bait, but they can’t bite what they can’t see. Ideally, chumming gets them looking in the right direction by creating a trail of scent and small edible bits that lead to your bait spread. Popular methods include:
• Frozen Chum Blocks: Concoctions vary, but the general formula is ground baitfish, mixed with fish oils and packed into bricks. When hung in a mesh bag from a midship cleat, the chum block melts in the current, releasing its contents and creating a cloud of scent and baitfish pieces.
• Menhaden Oil: This concentrated elixir squeezed from its namesake baitfish is one of the rankest substances you’ll ever encounter. To a kingfish, though, it smells like dinner. Dispensed from an IV style dripper bag, the oil’s buoyancy keeps it at the surface, but you can get the scent deeper by soaking dog food pellets or boiled macaroni in it. Scoop a cup of the oil carriers overboard and as they sink, the released liquid rises through the water column.
• Chopped Baitfish: With garden shears, snip frozen sardines or baits that die in the well into fingernail sized chunks. Toss out a couple of pieces every 30 seconds or so. If wind or current blows the chunks past your baits too quickly, throw the cut chum ahead of your boat to allow for more exposure in close proximity. Another trick is to drop chum bits directly into the motor wash so the props force them lower into the water.
Bringing a kingfish of any size within gaffing range is a challenging task.
Standard kingfish tackle includes rods with sturdy butt sections for putting the brakes on a big king, yet flexible, “fast” tips for maximum bait action. Spinning or conventional reels must hold at least 350 yards of 15- to 30-pound monofilament. The more the better as a king’s speed and endurance are matched only by its desire to display them.
On the strike, expect a blistering run of 100 yards or more, followed by some fancy footwork, another run or two and then defiant circles below the boat. Keep a steady hand with smooth, even pressure and no jerking. A king’s mouth is thin and delicate, so excessive pressure will dislodge the hook. Once the king surfaces, a boatmate can lay a long-handled gaff across the fish’s back and pull it firmly into the mid-dorsal region.
If your fish is too small to keep, or if you’ve reached your limit, try to release your catch with minimal contact. Grab smaller kings by the tail and lift them to the gunnel long enough for a hook removal. Larger fish aren’t so easily handled, but a sudden jerk of the rod tip will pop the hook loose and the fish swims away with nothing more than a sore jaw and a bruised ego.
When keeping kings for the table, ice your catch immediately. Grilled, baked, broiled or smoked, kingfish offer tasty filets that more than justify the effort of their capture.