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Author: Ken Schultz
It's a mystery to me who first termed the largest mackerel in the western Atlantic Ocean "kingfish," but it's no secret that this species has exalted status, that it is widely abundant from the Carolinas to Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, and that a lot of people enjoy catching and eating it. Last October I went to what might be the king mackerel capital of the Atlantic Coast - the Cape Fear region of North Carolina - to see why this is such a hotspot, and why fishing for them is so popular with area anglers.
Gotta Get Bait
My local introduction was with Horace Sikes, of Wilmington, one of the most accomplished king mackerel anglers around. Co-founder of the relatively new but already successful Greater Wilmington King Mackerel Tournament, Sikes is captain of the Carolina Hydra Sports King Mackerel Team and a prominent kingfish tourney competitor.
He keeps his 10,000-pound boat and trailer on land, preferring to tow it to the water when he's ready to go fishing. And when his white 27-foot center-console boat, powered by twin 225 outboards and holding 300 gallons of gas, is launched into the Intracoastal Waterway here, Sikes' range is pretty extensive.
So at mid-morning we headed offshore from Oak Island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, after launching near Wrightsville Beach. We cruised past Southport and through the marked channel between Bald Head and Oak Islands into the Atlantic Ocean, where a series of shoals, particularly 22-mile-long Frying Pan Shoals, have been ship hazards and mackerel magnets.
The first task was to get fresh live bait. After cruising along the beach looking for gull and tern activity, we found a pod of menhaden, or bunker, being pursued by several other boats. Horace grabbed his cast net, threw it over the starboard gunnel, and moments later about three dozen bunker were aboard. The 7- to 8-inch-long baitfish were deposited into a highly aerated circular livewell, and Sikes allowed that we got lucky right off the bat, as sometimes it can take up to an hour to catch bait.
Live Bunker Trolling
We moved offshore to 15-Mile Rocks, where Horace pulled out his bait-trolling rigs. Although many anglers troll with plugs and spoons (and heavy tackle) for mackerel, Horace and other top anglers are partial to slow-trolling with multiple live baits, set at varying distances behind the boat, and fished on non-levelwind conventional reels. This is what consistently catches the largest kings, which is what wins tournaments. It usually takes a 40-pounder or better to win an event.
Sikes uses a two-treble hook bait rig that sports a short length of wire between the two trebles, and a tinsel skirt ahead of the lead treble. One hook of the lead treble is impaled through the bait's nose, and one hook of the trailing treble is placed into the bait's anus. We set four such rigs at intervals of 10, 30, 75, and 150 feet behind the boat.
Suddenly, there was a splash behind the furthest bait. I grabbed the rod and let the fish go. "Don't set the hook," urged Horace. "Let him run. When he stops, start playing him. If he runs toward you, reel like mad. That's why we use high-speed reels. No slack." The drag was set very light. When the long, streamlined fish was near the boat, it suddenly switched into turbo mode and made a blistering run. A short while later we landed a mackerel of about 8 pounds.
That afternoon we caught four king mackerel, the largest about 15 pounds, and lost two that were on momentarily. All were good fighters and provided a lot of fun.
One of the mackerel we caught took a bunker trolled right behind the boat in the prop wash. Sometimes kingfish take the bait and rocket 6 feet out of the water, which is a real heart-thumper. That did not happen to us, but I saw the swirl when the fish attacked close. It's impressive that mackerel will come that close to the boat with the motor running.
Also impressive is the scorching run of the fish. It's obvious why you can't use a levelwind reel, because the levelwind mechanism would probably not stand up when line is departing so fast. So you also have to troll with the clicker of the reel on to help alert you to a strike over the sound of the motor.
The Fishing Season
King mackerel are voracious and grow fast, and they're constantly on the move, like other members of the mackerel family and like tunas, to which they are related. Kings prefer 68- to 72-degree water, and it was 70 when I visited in October.
Off the Cape Fear Coast, king mackerel are theoretically available all year long, although the fishing season is generally from late March or early April through December. Kingfish start moving closer to the beach in April, generally in the 10- to 15-mile range, and by Memorial Day are usually close enough to get crowds of boats going through the river channel after them. In December the fish start moving back well offshore, and in winter they're about 35 miles offshore, though few bother to make that journey then.
Peak fishing occurs from June through October, largely because of favorable winds and because the fish are close. Midweek is best because it's not as crowded; weekends can draw the traffic, some of which is stimulated by tournaments. On average here there's a king mackerel tournament every weekend through summer.
Ken Schultz is Fishing Editor of Field & Stream and author of the books Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia (IDG/John Wiley & Sons), North American Fishing (Carlton Books), and the forthcoming Great Fishing Sites of North America (Carlton, Jan. '03). For information about his books, visit www.kenschultz.com.
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