Biology – king mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla)
King Mackerel is known for his reel smoke tracks, toothy mouth and large size. Also called Kingfish, or Kings, they are among the most sought after species on Gulf Coast piers. King mackerel is one of the largest species targeted from the jetty. They range from a small snake king of around 5 pounds to large smoker kings that can easily grow to 40+ pounds. Although you probably won’t encounter such a large king mackerel on the piers, they are capable of reaching 93 pounds and 72 inches in length.
A migratory species that normally appears in the waters off Texas to central Florida from April through November. Although they have been known to be caught off the docks until December. During the winter months, they migrate south to the warm waters of Yucatan in Mexico and southern Florida.
Their arrival generally follows closely the arrival of the Spanish mackerel. Both hunt migrating baitfish and squid along the coast to the northern Gulf. Even though they are related, kings have no problem eating smaller Spanish mackerel. With plenty of smoking kings caught in the spring on 12 inch flat spanish mackerels.
When the young king mackerel looks a lot like the Spanish mackerel. Kings will have brown spots on the sides when young, which will fade with age. So make sure the mackerel you keep is not an undersized king mackerel. You don’t want to keep a bunch of little kings by accident thinking you have a legal Spanish limit.
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To target king mackerel, you want to have a medium-heavy spinning rod 8-9 feet long with medium action in the tip. While you can go longer with the upper if you want, you don’t want to go shorter. You need the length for the casting distance from the end of the pier.
For the reel, you want something decent quality with a smooth drag capable of handling 300 yards of 15-20 pound monofilament line. Use monofilament line, as a braided line can cut other people’s lines under pressure. For a reel, I fish a Penn 706z. But there are many more modern options available. The important factor here is the capacity of your line. Kings are capable of long, fast runs. Getting spooled by a big smoking king is a possibility. Drag pressure is not as important as having a smooth drag. Kings are soft mouthed, so a jerky drag would pull the hook and too heavy a drag would also pull the hook.
For the last part of your rig, you want to have a single or seven strand yarn in the breaking strength range of 27 lbs to 41 lbs. This will be your bite boss to prevent the king’s sharp teeth from cutting you. The choice between a single strand and seven strands depends on your personal preferences. Solid is stiffer but with a lower profile with the added benefit of a clean end that won’t cut you. But it takes more work and time to prepare a leader using a whack twist. The seven bracket wire leader is flexible and can be attached to a leader very easily and quickly. But on the downside, it cannot be straightened if bent, and the ends of the knot tags are very sharp.
A small black swivel is needed to attach the line to the mainline. At the swivel tie an 18″ length of wire to the end of which you tie either a #2 treble hook, a large casting spoon, or a large casting plug.
The most popular method of targeting trevally on the jetty should be to use small fish as bait. The most commonly used bait is the Cigar Minnow, either live which you have caught using Sabiki rigs or dead cigarettes which you can purchase in 1lb or 5lb cans at most cigar stores. ‘Fishing equipment.
Anyway, the platform is quite simple; a #2 treble hook attached to an 18″ length of single or seven strand leader that is attached to a small black swivel that you also attach to your main line. Stinger hooks can be used, but most locals don’t care.
If you’re fishing for live bait, cast it as far as you can and let it swim off the pier to hopefully be found by a hungry king mackerel. For a dead minnow, clip the tail to reduce drag and toss it as far into the wind and current as possible. Then let it drift in the current across the front of the pier. As it drifts, be sure to take in some slack as it forms and shake the bait occasionally to mimic a dying baitfish. You need to be careful where your bait and line are placed so you don’t get tangled up with other people fishing off the end of the pier.
The final method of targeting kings is to use artificial lures, such as large throwing spoons and X-Rap Longcast plugs. The rig is still the same, but this time you’re usually fishing away from others. This is to avoid stepping over other people’s lines. Using lures gives you longer range than bait, but it’s more work and you have to be very careful of others around you. For the spoons, throw them as far as possible, then let them sink to the bottom and then roll them up almost to the surface. Keep repeating this action until you are back at the pier. King mackerel will often hit the spoon on this long drop. For corks, toss them again and roll them up with occasional jerks and pauses to induce a reaction strike.
So once you hook and fight a king to the pier. There is the subject of landing king mackerel and bringing it to the top of the pier. This will require a jetty gaff, in which a large, multi-pronged gaff is dropped and brought under the king to bring him onto the rail. But don’t rush and grab one right away, almost always someone will have a goof and will probably be ready to help you. Listen to their instructions when this happens and you will have your prize. But if by any chance you lose your grip there, keep trying. Most fish are lost on the goof, it’s just the nature of things.
Kings are often looked down upon as table food, they have grayish fatty flesh that freezes poorly. People often say it’s sleazy and undesirable. I think this is an unfair assessment. The first step to a good fish dinner is taking care of your catch. They must be bled, iced, and gutted fairly quickly after being brought to the deck. Using ice slurry with salt water is the best way to cool them down quickly. The high fat content of meat causes them to develop off flavors and spoil quickly.
The best ways to eat them would be fresh, their high fat content makes them forgiving for most cooking methods. Excellent grilled as steaks, fried or my favorite smoked. Once smoked, the pieces can be broken up and made into an excellent fish dip.
King mackerel can be incredibly fun to fish and catch from the pier. When the bite is hot, you will see several people hooked at the same time. People were running all around the rail with bent rods. Each person trying to navigate around others to avoid tangles and breaks. It’s a team effort, with people cleaning the rail and others goofing fish where they can. Other times, it can take hours of staring at the emerald waters of the gulf waiting for a fish to show up. Maybe a few people are lucky that day and catch a king.
Spring and fall are usually the best times to target kings. Storms can also be productive with shoals of mackerel ignited by bubbling water. Although it also involves a risk that you carry a 9ft long lightning rod. In the middle of a storm a quarter mile from the beach 20 feet above the surface of the water. During the summer, your best bet will be to get to the end of the pier before the sun comes up. Those few hours just before and at daybreak will usually be your best bet during the scorching summer days.
Either way, it’s fishing and there are no guarantees. Just enjoy your time on the water, pack cold drinks and be friendly with your neighbors on the rail. Talking to regulars and watching how they fish on the pier is hands down the best way to learn.