Thanks largely to the professional anglers of the Southern Kingfish Association, a 25-pound king is a minnow today.
A couple of years ago, SKA national champion, Dave Workman, checked in at the weigh-in of the organization's Suncoast Classic in Sarasota and just shrugged his shoulders. He'd had plenty of action, but his name wasn't going up on the leaderboard.
"We caught six kings from 22 to 25 pounds," he said. "But it won't do us any good. You need a 30-pounder at this tournament just to make the leaderboard."
What the SKA pros did was come into the area and show the locals that the Gulf of Mexico, off Sarasota, is a veritable paradise when it comes to kings. "We feel Sarasota is one of the better stops on our tour," said Jack Holmes, SKA executive director at the time. "It's a great fishery, and our guys like coming here."
These days, it takes a king of about 45 pounds to win the event. Local anglers were quick to pick up on the techniques the pros employ and put them to good use. The main method is slow-trolling with live bait - a technique that produces more kings over 40 pounds than any other.
Tackle includes 8-foot, whippy rods, conventional reels and monofilament line ranging from 12- to 20-pound test. Terminal tackle consists of a professional "stinger rig," a short-shank live bait hook connected to a small treble hook via coffee-colored wire. The bait is placed on the first hook, with the "stinger" trailing. Most often, the kings are hooked on the trailing hook.
The whippy rods act as shock absorbers and help prevent the hooks from ripping out of the king's mouth at the strike or during the battle. Top baits include threadfin herring, Spanish sardines, cigar minnows, mullet and blue runners.
"If you're fishing for a large king, you want to use a large bait," said Larry Hoffman, an SKA pro and guide based out of Treasure Island, Fla. "Of course, you probably won't catch as many fish, but you have a good shot at a large fish. And that's the name of the game."
Obtaining bait is a key to success. You don't want to take to the water without a day's supply of bait. That's why SKA pros spend much of the night prior to an event, netting and catching baitfish. While castnetting is a favored technique, you can also catch bait with a multi-hook Sabiki rig, a Japanese invention that is very effective. Sabiki rigs, which feature up to 10 small, gold hooks (size 10), can be purchased or made by hand, with the commercial versions perhaps a little more effective.
Of course, you've got to find the bait before you can catch it. That can be easy when the baitfish are on the surface and quite evident. Then all the skipper has to do is to put the boat within a cast of the baitfish and allow his anglers to go to work. The most effective technique is to cast the Sabiki rig into the school and allow it to sink to the level of the bait. Remember, though, that the rig has several hooks, and by being patient, you can nab several fish per cast.
You'll want to have a large, aerated livewell onboard in order to keep your bait alive. There's nothing worse than discovering the mother lode of kingfish, only to find out that your bait is dead.
Other places to find baitfish include bridges, artificial reefs, buoys and navigation markers. When the baitfish aren't on the surface, you can rely on your depth finder to show you the fish.
On many occasions, you'll find kingfish in the same area as the bait. These silvery, pelagic battlers will often follow the bait on their northern and southern migrations. Kings migrate in late winter and early spring, then again in late fall. During the spring run, the kingfish are moving from south to north. It's opposite in the fall.
Artificial reefs are great places to find kings, and there are plenty of those in the Gulf of Mexico off Sarasota. The M (mid-range) reefs long have been known to hold kings during the run. It's at those reefs that Sarasota guide Rob Roberts likes to fish for kings. Rather than slow-trolling, Roberts, one of the top offshore guides in the area, prefers to "liveline" the live baitfish. He'll drift a likely area and have his clients cast baits out and let the baitfish work their magic.
On many occasions, Roberts will forego wire leader for monofilament and long-shank hooks. "I'll lose a few fish, but I get more hits," he said. "The water during the king runs is usually clear, and the fish can get leader-shy. When they do, I switch to monofilament (usually 40 to 50-pound test). It has worked well for me over the years."
A kingfish strike is something to behold. The fish will swoop in on a bait, take it on the run and pull line off the reel with ease. About the only thing an angler can do is let the fish run.
Hoffman slow-trolls with all rods placed in holders. When a fish strikes, the angler removes the rod from the holder and makes his or her way to the bow. Then, Hoffman will follow the fish, which allows the angler to gain line. "I'll continue until the king is right under the bow," he said. "That's what we want. We're using light line and we don't want to take a chance of the king breaking the line with its tail."
SKA pros will often employ green monofilament that can be seen quite easily. And that comes in handy when the boat's skipper is trying to follow the fish.
Other top spots in the area include the Egmont Shipping Channel from its beginning in the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Sunshine Skyway in Tampa Bay. And the largest kings of all (often called smokers) are found just off the beaches.
Thanks to strong conservation efforts, kingfish have staged a remarkable comeback. The population was decimated in the winter of 1975 by commercial over-fishing, and it was difficult to catch a king for about 10 years. But they've rebounded strongly, and kingfish action is perhaps as good as ever. And, as the SKA pros have discovered, there are some mighty hefty kings in the Gulf of Mexico.
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