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How to Catch Kingfish - Trolling

Trolling for kingfish is arguably the most dangerous thing we do fishing. There are lots of hooks flying around, the fish have big teeth they're quite willing to use, and the action (when the bite's on) is intense.

The other morning it was probably around 63F. outside my Saint Petersburg home, and the wind was absolutely howling from the east. Signs of Fall's arrival are starting. I had spoken with a close (Northern) friend of mine just the night before about seasons -- or what he felt was a lack thereof in Florida. I reminded him of one day last Fall when we were out on my boat during the height of our local fall kingfish run. That day we released twenty fish over 15lbs, and a few -- five maybe -- in the 30lb range. My friend asked me when he should come down to go fishing again. I told him soon and that I would be watching the water temps. When the water gets down to around 78 degrees, kingfish begin their migratory movement, and start moving through local waters.

Trolling for Kingfish

The angler on Captain David Rieumont's Sea Scrap Charters holds a good-sized kingfish. This fish is big, but not half the size of the species' maximum (known) size of 100lbs. The biggest fish we've ever taken on our boat was in the 50lb range.

So we're going to talk about kingfish here -- specifically how to use "trolling" to catch them.

Kingfish Basics

Kingfish are a mackerel. You can see one in our Species library (one of the newest features on the site). They're oily, and because of that, their value as food is somewhat frowned upon. Fortunately you can remove the fishy taste simply by soaking them in ginger ale (or Seven Up) and a little bit of white wine. There are some great recipes for them on the site. Personally, I find the Orange recipe is the best, but there are a few there for oily species like the kingfish. If you do want to eat one, keep the smallest ones you catch (five pounders are wonderful), ice them fast, and clean them as soon as you're off the water.

Kingfish are found and caught in the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Brazil, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico and are defined as a "coastal pelagic" species (nearshore in open waters). They are found from the beaches to about 300'. They can live for 20 years, and the old big ones show plenty of battle-scars.

Kings are voracious eaters. They search and track bait schools, most often Spanish sardines, cigar minnows, and threadfins. Like any open water predator, they chase bait to the surface where birds who see them feed on the parts and pieces (if not the whole thing) of the baitfish the kings are eating. If you see birds feeding on the open water, you've found something as predator fish are pushing the bait close enough to the surface for birds to grab them. Once our local waters cool into the 70s, there's a good chance you'll find kingfish. A king can reach 100lbs, though 30-40lbs is a very, very big fish, and is as likely to break off as anything you might hook.

This fish has a high commercial value because it lights up the cash-registers of local recreational tackle shops and bait stores. Kingish season gets a lot of people on the water -- many of whom own tackle they purchased just for the species.

Finding the Fish

Open water predators can be found in one of four ways.

  1. Structure. You can find kingfish where bait lives year-round or stops for rest while migrating from one place to another. Structure is defined as shapes, humps, ridges, artificial (or real) reefs, and anything else that changes the shape of the bottom. You might think you have great numbers where fish are, but the numbers mark bottom structure. Fish don't know the actual addresses of the restaurants they frequent.
  2. Birds. Kingfish chase schooling baits. Those schooled baits -- when attacked -- scatter first towards the surface and then away from the center of the action. When the bait gets close to the surface, it attracts birds. Some of them (pelicans) are big enough to eat the now-surfaced-baits dozens at a time. Others (terns) are only able to eat small chunks dislodged by the teeth of the ravaging predators. So if you see a bundle of birds dropping from the sky into the water, there are predator fish underneath chasing that bait. The "Bite" is on.
  3. Electronics. You can find schools of fish from the bottom up -- through what are called the "Water Columns" (layers of varying temperatures) -- with electronics. Fish finders send a pulse down towards the bottom. If something gets in its way (like the topside of a 40lb kingfish) the signal bounces back and tells you the fish are there by displaying a black or gray (or colorful if you're richer then me) shape. Schooling predators show as clouds if there are enough of them.
  4. Trolling. Trolling means dragging something behind your boat. You can drag metal, plastic, dead bait (everything from squid to ballyhoo), or (best of all) live bait. You can drag stuff on the surface or all the way to the bottom.

Of all these methods, birds are the most reliable. If you don't see birds but have a feeling the underlying structure is holding fish, trolling lets you cover the most ground and is particularly well-suited (and effective) for Kings. Let's see what trolling does for your repertoire of fishing skills.

Trolling as a Method of Finding Fish

Talk to any seasoned professional or serious amateur who spends (or has spent) a good amount of time hunting, scouting and catching open-water predator fish and they'll be experienced bait draggers. Quite frankly, trolling's like any other kind of fishing in the sense that at times it can require a lot of patience (drag-drag-drag, turn, drag-drag-drag), and at other times be completely chaotic and dangerous. The ability to manage newbies during that crisis -- hooking big kingfish on three-of-four of the baits you're trolling, let's say -- separates the men from the boys (or the FishBabes from the girls) when running the boat.

Trolling for kingfish is arguably the most dangerous thing we do fishing. There are lots of hooks flying around, the fish have big teeth they're quite willing to use, and the action (when the bite's on) is intense.

Trolling incorporates anything from one rod to four rods(more on bigger craft, but four's about right) with their lines and baits being pulled through the water by the speed at which you run your boat. The faster you go, the faster the baits troll. Some fish are best caught at almost idle, no-wake speeds of a couple-of-knots. Others including Tuna and Kingfish love fast baits moving 4 or even 5 knots.

Dragging - Kingfish Trolling

Pulling something from behind your boat can potentially put the right bait in the right place at the right time -- assuming you take care of the details. A story like this can get you started, but nothing is ever a substitute for time on the water. There's no time like the present, as we're about to enter into the height of the fall run. Keep this article marked for April -- when the whole thing starts all over again during the species' spring northern migration.

As you can see from the picture above, the lip on the diving plug (A MirroLure deep diver) causes the pull to impart pressure on the lip of the plug. The pressure pushing onto the lip causes the bait to wiggle hard and dive deep. The faster you go, the deeper the bait runs. A normal plug or live bait will drag near the surface, and you need to make sure it behaves properly. There are several different ways you can get a bait deeper under the water.

Finding the Depth of the Feed

Having four lines out allows you to literally fish four different 'levels' or "water columns" of the target area. So not only can you cover acreage, you can cover different depths simultaneously to find where the fish are gathering.

Trolling Basics

This image shows you two different lines; #1 are "inside" and the #2 lines are "outside". You can run as few as one line or as many as four. Four is an optimal number if you're on a boat capable of dragging them. Outriggers found on larger boats can dramatically expand the "width" of the outside (#2) lines.

The fish are going to be found at a specific water column. Although you may find fish dragging one bait close to the bottom and one at the top, there are going to be more fish in one column than another because schools of predators tend to sit on specific columns.

StrikeZone Bar

If the fish are close to the bottom you need to get baits to drag in that column. This is often impossible to do with a diving plug. That's where Planers and Downriggers come into play.

Deep diving plugs are the best way to get a bait under the surface water column (where it wants to be as soon as you start moving the boat). The first are "Torpedo" weights. Effective but very clunky, they were the first trolling tool -- and can be found in ancient artifacts. They were originally thought to be solely for use as a braid-line in a net, but it became apparent that they were also used to drag baits deeper in the water behind the guys rowing the boat.

Leads

Clumsy but effective, these #8 torpedo weights are tied into the line. That means when you hook a fish, you never get rid of the weight. They work though, and if put about 4' above a small silver spoon, can prove deadly for Spanish macks as well as Kingfish. But they're not the best choice.

Planers

Once you move beyond simply tying a sinker above your leader (use a Swivel if you do; twisting spoons can twist all the fun out of your day, as you tangle one reel after another until none are left), you move into the world of planers and eventually downriggers.

Planers are simple to understand, but take a little time getting used to. You can either tie them into the line (with a swivel like you do a torpedo lead) or you can tie them to a heavy line (cotton, nylon, or soft heavy braid; mono will cut your hands off) and drag them alongside the boat. The planer acts much like the lip does on a deep diver; the water forcing itself against the "wing" of the planer makes it swim down. The bigger the wing, the deeper it swims as you move the boat faster. They are not easy to use, but very, very effective for getting baits deep into the water column:

Planers

When the planer is correctly position (the round ring slides up on the wire and the "Wing" faces down), it essentially "flies" down into the water column. When a fish hits and pulls the wing up (pointing towards your rod tip), the pressure is off and the fight's on. Again, they're not easy, but very effective. Tied inline a big planer is difficult to fight along with the fish.

Downriggers

The best option for putting baits down in the deeper water columns to find those kingfish (or grouper) is a downrigger. A downrigger is a large lead ball that hangs directly down underneath the boat. It has a winch on it, so you can turn the handle (or press the button on the high-end ones) and the ball falls to a specific depth.

Connected to the heavy ball is a spring clip -- much like is used with outriggers on big billfish boats. As you let the ball down in the water, the line goes alongside it. When a fish strikes the bait, the line is released from the clip, and you're fighting the fish free from terminal tackle, unlike when using a torpedo weight or small, inline planer. (unless the planer is being used like we used them as kids; as "poor boys' downriggers).

Downriggers

If you fish nearshore or offshore with any regularity -- whether for kingfish or grouper or anything else that lives out there -- downriggers are an eventual "must-have". They let you drop the attached fishing line to 80' or 200' without ending up with pounds of potentially terminal tackle between you and the fish.

The Short Version of Trolling for Kingfish

Trolling is a great way to find kingfish. Find anything but sand -- like spongy limerock you see all over the place in our local Gulf waters -- and drag stuff behind your boat to see if you can find the fish. You will oftentimes be successful at finding them by dragging baits.

kingfish 1

Kingfish Baits

  • Nose-hooked Live baits like threadfin
  • Nose or (in the case of Squid) tail-hooked dead baits
  • Metal. Kingfish LOVE shiny metal spoons. Ones with colored inlay in shiny patterns (milky white best of all!) work very well
  • Deep diving plugs. The faster you drag them the deeper they go, but the harder they are to handle

Reaching the Fish

  • How deep do I drag them? Try everywhere from just above the bottom to the surface. To get live or dead baits (and metal or regular plugs you already love and trust) deeper, you have to either put lead weight in the line or a planer in the line. For relatively shallow depths (like to about 20' at 3 knots) using small inline planers isn't much of a problem. Bigger, deeper, and faster they're better tied to quarter-inch manila rope and tied to a cleat with a release clip holding your fishing line. When you find the fish, match the method that hit them, and put both or all four lines at the same depth. The fish will respond.
  • Use a downrigger or a planer. For spoons just below the surface (where you will often find the biggest fish and the most fish) an inline lead weight works fine.

This video about using Canon downriggers on a small bay boat should help :) Enjoy, and please register on our forums to share your fishing stories and images!

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READ MORE: Top 10 Tips for Catching Kingfish



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