Yep, it’s that time of year. With the warming waters of the Atlantic, the king mackerel are beginning their migration into shallower water, and with them come the anglers who love to chase these lightning-fast fish. They often do so in professionally run tournament events that can pay the winning boat thousands of dollars. One such organization is the Southern Kingfish Association (SKA), which runs tournaments in most of the states on the Southeastern coast of the United States, as well as the Gulf of Mexico.
I had the opportunity to talk with two anglers who fish SKA events and get an idea of what it takes to be successful at chasing king mackerel. They also shared the methods they use in chasing these magnificent fish, which can weigh up to 40 pounds and more during the summer months.
David Futch captains the 23-foot Contender center console “A Salt Weapon” powered by twin 200-hp Yamaha outboards. He is a regular on the SKA trails in both Georgia and South Carolina. He generally operates out of his home port of Shellman Bluff but will trailer his big rig anywhere to be a part of the tournament scene.
His record speaks for itself. In 2006, his second year on the SKA trail, his team placed second in the “23 Foot And Under” division in South Carolina.
“We placed in the top 5 in points for 2012 and 2013 and scored first or second in several tournaments in 2014,” said David.
They finished 2014 by winning the 23 Foot And Under division on points and ahead of several boats in the Open Class, which has no maximum restrictions on boat size.
Capt. Dave Massey Jr., of Midway, is also an SKA regular. His boat, “Hot Spot/NOS Energy,” is a 31-foot Fountain center console powered by twin Yamaha 300s. Dave typically fishes out of Yellow Bluff but will go wherever he needs to (inside tournament boundaries) to find big kingfish.
“We have been blessed to win many awards over the past two seasons, but our most prestigious is the ‘Director’s Award,’” said Dave. “This is one of the highest honors a team can receive from the SKA at the national level.”
The team also placed No. 1 last year for Georgia in the SKA points system. Dave has been fishing the Georgia coast for king mackerel for almost 30 years, and his combined team has more than 60 years of offshore experience under their belts.
Both teams use high-end Garmin electronics, and this sophisticated gear is a must to compete at the highest level.
Both anglers also recommend Shimano reels. David relies on the SpeedMaster series and TLD series, depending on conditions. SpeedMaster reels have very high retrieve ratios, and that can be a big advantage. Both prefer 7-foot, medium-action, Shakespeare Ugly Stiks or Strike-Zone rods. Reels are spooled with surprisingly light 20-lb. test Momoi mono and coupled with about 12 feet of 30-lb. test Momoi fluorocarbon leader (line size may go a little heavier under tough conditions).
The terminal rig consists of a 50-lb. Spro swivel with AFW seven strand wire leading to two to four No. 4 or 4X treble hooks attached with snell knots. A live-bait hook is used as the first hook of the rig to connect to the bait’s nose. The rigs are run either naked or with a colored skirt. A particular favorite skirt of David’s is called the Bling from C & H lures in Jacksonville. You can find them at www.candhlures.com.
A good gaff is a must, and it helps to have a short one of about 8 feet, which you’ll use most of the time, and a longer one (12 feet) for when fish stay just out of gaffing range.
Timing and Bait
Normally the king bite heats up when water temps offshore reach 70 degrees. This generally occurs in early to mid May. The tournament schedule runs from June to late August, and kings will remain in our area until hard cold forces them south in late November and into December.
Kingfish tend to be a little farther offshore in June and can be caught with a variety of live baits. Dave’s preference is menhaden or pogies. David uses pogies as well but adds blue runners to the mix.
Both anglers reference Lee’s Live Baits as a great supplier. They serve most of the tournaments in Georgia and Florida, and good baits are critical to good results. Having a way to transport them to your boat, if delivered by land, is critical. Proper care on the water, with a good livewell, is also very important.
Approach & Locating Fish
According to both captains, local weather, surface temperature, thermoclines, bottom structure, ledges, moon phase and currents all play an important role in fish location. David said he researches weather patterns and sea-surface temperature charts before heading out to fish.
“There are companies such as Hilton’s or Roff’s that provide all this data to you for a fee,” says David. “Studying it in advance helps narrow the search for where to start on tournament days.”
Once he picks an area that has good temperature breaks and falls within the range kings like, he locates spots with good bottom structure or ledges that he has previously fished. David, like most serious anglers, keeps a log of GPS coordinates and previous results of locations where he has had success. He checks his electronics for activity in the water column, such as the presence of bait or fish and structure that typically holds kings.
“If the bite is slow, I will use sabiki rigs to jig bait off the bottom and determine the species,” said David. “If I find the type of bait kings prefer, such as blue runners, Boston mackerel, Spanish mackerel, porgies or vermillion snapper, I will work that area hard. If I catch lots of black bass, sharks or amberjack, I usually move to another spot.”
David also continues to scan an area looking for surface activity, such as bait breaking or birds feeding. These signs can be excellent indicators of where to try.
David said he usually starts with three lines on top spaced from about 75 to 150 feet behind the boat. He then puts down two downriggers, one a third of the way down to the bottom, and the other at about two thirds of the way down. During the day, he adjusts the spread and depth of the baits to whatever seems to generate the most strikes.
Fishing for kings is generally a slow-trolling method. The average speed is normally around 5 mph, just enough to keep the boat moving in a desired direction. This allows the baits to swim naturally without looking like they are being drug through the water.
“I even take the motor out of gear briefly and just drift when over good-looking bottom structure,” said David.
Most anglers create a slick by chumming as they move along slowly. The chum is made by grinding fresh pogies and dropping them into a chum bag constantly during fishing. Some anglers also use pogie oil or menhaden milk in a drip system to constantly put out scent. The combination of fresh lively baits, chum and the scent trail creates a powerful attractant for hungry kingfish.
A great area to fish along the Georgia coast is in 80 to 100 feet of water on the numerous snapper banks that are so prolific in the area. These banks stretch from Brunswick to north of Savannah.
“These deep-water spots seem to produce larger fish for me,” said David. “However, a little closer in, Grays Reef (a live-bottom reef about 16 miles east of Sapelo Island) has produced more tournament-winning fish than anywhere else along the coast. But it usually has more boats fishing it than deeper water, so competition for fish can be tough.”
Even closer to shore, the Savannah shipping channel, Brunswick shipping channel or the “D” buoy off Altamaha Sound have all produced some winning fish. It seems that locations close to the shore are effected more by changing weather conditions, however. Farther offshore, water temps, salinity, etc. remain more constant and tend to make fishing more consistent.
If you are just getting into king mackerel fishing, you should consider joining the SKA. Following tournament results can also provide a great deal on information about fish activity along the coast. If you decide to fish one of the tournaments, don’t be afraid to ask other anglers for advice. It can take years of experience to become proficient. You can learn more from one of the older anglers in a few conversations than you can learn on the water in dozens of trips. Use what they tell you in combination with what you learn on your own, and you will start to develop your own list of locations and techniques that will pay off.
Tournament angling is competitive and sometimes intensely so. But take the advice of both of our captains: prepare, work hard and try to catch the biggest king you can, but do not forget that having a fun, safe day on the water is much more important than what you catch.
If you gather a crew who all enjoy each other’s company, you will find that spending the day on God’s great ocean is reward enough.