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Missile attack

11/13/2009

ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Christmas features the "must do" saltwater fishing excursions along the coasts of the United States. Between now and year's end, we'll present a bucket list of fishing trips any angler would love to receive.

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Imagine a Tomahawk missile with teeth. And we're not talking about the painted stuff — picture a real set of really sharp dental daggers on a sleek silver frame capable of reaching blinding speeds and inflicting mucho damage.

Got the mental image? Great, that's a king mackerel.

Call 'em kingfish, kings, or even "smokers" when they grow to 30 pounds or better. Just know that these dudes are amped-up, streamlined killers that'll come in hot and put the chomp on just about anything they decide to eat.

Kings won't bump yellowtail snapper or mahi-mahi off anyone's dinner plate, but theirs is a decent tasting meat, especially when lightly grilled or smoked.

The real attraction of kingfish comes from their aggressive strikes and blistering runs, along with the remarkable level of finesse essential to their capture. Despite a fierce nature, kings have delicate mouths with no lips, so hooks pull easily with excessive pressure. That means light line, light drags and lots of skillful rod work make up the requisites details.

Big kings certainly won't make the game easy, but they can be had. You just have to know that you're fishing for a species that won't let any grass grow under its feet, nor will it yield many second chances. You can't just hit the water and hope for the best – bring your A game or don't bother.

Find 'em and ring the dinner bell

Fall finds massive schools of kingfish migrating south along Florida's Gulf Coast. A small percentage of the eastern Gulf fish will spend the cooler months in deep offshore haunts, but most turn their noses toward the Florida Keys once autumn's shorter days and sliding temperatures hint of winter's approach.

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The migration rate varies each year with weather patterns. Fall 2009 began unseasonably warm, but once the inevitable cold fronts begin marching southward, that cracks the whip on some kingfish fannies.

During the fall push, popular kingfish ports are Tarpon Springs, Clearwater, Madeira Beach, Treasure Island, St. Petersburg Beach, Cortez, Sarasota, Englewood, Boca Grande, Fort Myers, Naples and Marco Island. By Christmas, running out of the Lower Keys will be your best bet.

Kingfish like their water reasonably clean and somewhere in the 68- to 75-degree range. They'll tolerate a little murkiness and a few degrees on the cooler or warmer side, but they won't budge on one point — food. Kingfish anglers live by this rule: Find the baitfish, find the kings.

Prime targets are wrecks, reefs and rocks — often the same stuff that holds grouper and snapper on the bottom. The difference is how you target the pelagics.

Kings are highly mobile and when hooked, they'll show you just what highly mobile looks like. That's why slow trolling is the preferred tactic. You can cover lots of water to find active fish and quickly transition into pursuit mode when the missile launches.

In addition to specific hard bottom sites, shipping lanes and river channels can also be productive, especially when outgoing tides stack baitfish along their edges. Working figure-8 patterns around channel markers usually produces.

The king's feeding periods are sudden and intense, usually coinciding with changes in tidal flow. Guided by instinct, kingfish feed with a vengeance, but often cease as quickly as they start. During the lulls, effective chumming can stimulate local fish and call in others from afar.

Most basic is the commercially processed frozen chum block. Made of ground baitfish and enhanced with added fish oils, the blocks come in mesh bags, which are tied to a cleat and hung at the water's surface. As wave action melts the block, tiny bits of chum disseminate and form an oily scent trail behind the boat.

Serious kingfish anglers strengthen the scent trail with extra menhaden oil — a concentrated baitfish extraction of pungent properties that clearly charm toothy predators.

Some use customized dispensers with faucet valves, but most opt for medical IV-style dripper bags hung from a cleat. The bag's narrow tube dangles inches from the water, with a valve near the head adjusting the flow. Go with a drop every few seconds.

Whatever your chum preference, distribute the stinky stuff at least amidship. The further forward the chumming, the better deployed the scents will be as they pass the stern. Also, forward chumming allows part of the scent trail to run beneath the boat where the props force the aroma downward through the water column.

Feed 'em right
If all you're after is fast-paced action, then dragging artificials will keep the rods bent with juvenile "schoolie" kings of about 10 to 15 pounds. Trolling large plugs like Magnum Rapalas, MirrOlures and Rebel Jawbreakers or spoons and jigs run behind planers is a sure bet for the young-and-dumb. Once kingfish reach about 20 pounds, they're harder to trick, so keep it real with live bait.

Forage species vary geographically, but common options include menhaden (aka "pogies"), blue runners, goggle eyes, cigar minnows, Spanish sardines, threadfin herring and pilchards.

Castnetting will gather large loads of menhaden, threadfins and pilchards, while gold hook "sabiki" rigs are the preferred tactic for baits in deep water. Weighted with an ounce or two of lead and jiggled in the water column, the string of shiny hooks dressed with quills or small skirts will nab just about anything but menhaden.

A few larger baits often employed include ladyfish (long, slimy inshore fish with large eyes resembling tarpon), mullet and ribbonfish. Caught on cut bait, small Rat-L-Traps or netted along with menhaden, the latter are frozen and fished dead — usually on downriggers.

Stick it to 'em

Now, say you load up on top-notch baits and carry them to a promising kingfish spot. All your effort will amount to exactly zilch without a clear understanding of a king's feeding habits.

Unlike the drop-and-pull routine of grouper and snapper pursuits, kings attack at top speed, usually slashing forage fish in half and returning to gobble the immobilized meals. The problem for anglers is that this hit-and-run strategy means a kingfish will almost invariably miss a single hook set through the nose or head of a bait.

Savvy kingfish hunters avoid such frustrations with the "stinger" rig — a lead hook trailing four to six inches of wire dangling a No. 4 or 6 treble hook. With the lead hook planted in the bait's snout, the secondary hook rides along the aft portion, thus ensuring the bait bites back from any angle.

For larger baits, simply add subsequent stinger sections — one about every four inches. Some anglers like to maximize their grabbing power with trebles on both ends of a baitfish, however, a single 2/0 nose hook proves less stressful on the bait, plus it's less likely to pick up grass or floating debris.

Two- to 4-foot wire leaders, supplemented by up to 10 feet of stout but invisible fluorocarbon prevent "tail-whipping" where a king's stiff tail fins beat against bare fishing line during the chase.

Most kingfishermen along Florida's Gulf Coast run No. 3-4 wire for leaders and stinger sections, however, anglers in Key West and in the northern Gulf, where jumbo kings in the 50-pound range are more common, scoff at the light stuff in favor of No. 5-9 wire.

Whatever the rig, most kingfishermen run a standard spread of six baits — two flat lines, two on downriggers, one close in the prop wash and one far back in the "shotgun" position. The latter is ideal for a "double trouble," rig consisting of two baits pinned on subsequent nose hooks, with trailing stingers. Often, small clusters of baitfish swimming alone outside the main group entice big kings.

The ideal kingfish outfit comprises a 7-foot medium-action rod with lots of backbone and a "fast" (flexible) tip, a high-speed reel (no level winds) and at least 300 yards of 20- to 30-pound line.

The key to beating these fish is to forget about beating these fish. You don't bring a kingfish to the boat, you take the boat to the kingfish. That means the angler stands at the bow with rod tip at 10 o'clock and simply winds in the line as the helmsman idles forward.

Kings will make two or three monster runs and then settle into stubborn "death circles" near the boat. Stay patient on the rod and gently guide the fish to the surface a little closer on every pass. Long-handled gaffs are best for nabbing the king as soon as it breaks topside.

Resist the urge to reach below the surface, as water distortion will make you look silly. Also, always gaff behind the fishing line, so if the fish gets a second wind before you strike, it won't break your line against the gaff handle. The best gaff spot is the thick, meaty back area, just behind the head.

Once the fish hits the deck, clip off the leader and sling your king on ice. It's always cool to hold up a big fish for photos, but remember, those teeth remain sharp whether they're wet or dry.