King Mackerel Fishing
Fishing for king mackerel is exciting, fun, and rewarding. Nothing quite gets the adrenalin pumping like a smoker king peeling line off the reel, and the feeling when you first see that silver flash is hard to describe. In this article we will discuss the nature of king mackerel, how to choose the right gear, fishing techniques and tips to make your outing more successful, and how to cook your catch.
King Mackerel: The Fish
King mackerel belong to the family Scombridae, or mackerel family (as you may well have guessed). They prefer to live in the coastal zone, preferring water temperatures between 68oF and 85oF, though in my experience they generally don't start showing up in good numbers until the water temp hits ~71oF. They will stay in temperatures down to about 65oF if there is plentiful food around.
Kings normally average between 8-60 lbs, with fish in the 10-20 lb range being the most common, and safer to eat (more on this later). They feed primarily on squid and fish, in particular small forage fish such as menhaden, herrings and sardines. Smaller king mackerel also feed on crustaceans such as shrimp and small floating crabs. The fish are generally found in water from 40-200 ft deep, and though they are nomadic they are somewhat structure-oriented. They will travel from one structure to another—be it a reef, floating buoy, or pier—always on the lookout for food.
They feed day and night. They can be caught with live baits anytime, but trolling artificials at night is a losing proposition. Kings generally feed near the surface at dawn, dusk and night. In bright sunlight they feed somewhat down; on rainy days or overcast days the fish will feed near the surface all day long. Schooling fish are generally smaller fish, often called "snakes," that average about 10 lbs, and are more structure-oriented than larger fish. Larger fish generally travel alone or in small groups of two or three.
King mackerel have 30 sharp triangular teeth, necessitating the use of very heavy mono or wire leaders to catch them.
Information is power; the more you know about king mackerel the better your chances of catching one. Here's more about the fish from the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Tackle for King Mackerel Fishing
This is the tackle and gear I prefer when fishing for smoker king mackerel.
You don't need to spend a fortune on tackle. You will want to suit your gear to your style of fishing. If you plan on doing a lot of trolling (recommended) then you will want trolling-type rods and reels. If you plan on drift fishing, then you will want spinning-type reels to allow for farther casting.
I recommend high-capacity reels, designed to hold at least 250yds of 12-lb test. I personally prefer around 350yds of 15-lb test. My preferred reel is the Penn 330GT2. It is auto-level-wind which is nice when fighting a fish that swims at 30-40 mph at you, and it has a great drag system. It holds up to 350lbs of 30-lb test, so if you want to go heavy you can. These reels perform well for lighter bottom fishing: red snappers, black sea bass, other smaller reef fishes. Just don't expect them to handle amberjacks or groupers on a regular basis.
When it comes to spinning reels, I like to use Penn's 5500 series of spinning reels; they also feature a high line capacity and great drag system.
When fishing for kings, you want a rod rated medium to medium-heavy. This type of rod allows the king some give during the strike, and also gives you a little backbone to fight the fish with. Good ones are made by Penn and Shakespeare. I have used both Penn Slammer (for trolling) and Shakespeare Ugly Stik (for casting), and have found both work very well.
Other Tackle You Will Need:
- Single strand wire, coffee-colored or brown, for making rigs. King mackerel have sharp teeth and will chew through most mono leaders.
- A good pair of needle-nosed pliers, or a de-hooking device. You do not want to stick your hand in a king mackerel's mouth—ever. Not even after it is dead. Just trust me on this.
- A gaff. A gaff is preferred over a landing net, because of the size of the fish, and because tyou are generally using multiple treble hooks when fishing for king mackerel, making a net a pain in the rear to use. King mackerel will also take off at the sight of a net, and this can lead to lost fish.
- Treble hooks, lots of them. The hooks need to match the size of the bait or lure you are using, and should be bronze or black, though red is acceptable.
- Replacement skirts for your lure. If you use jet heads, the kings will eat up the skirts, and from time to time you will need to replace them.
- Dusters. You will use these if you pull dead baits while trolling. I prefer black, purple, silver or blue, or a combination of those colors.
- Downriggers are especially important if you aren't a morning person, as you will need to get your baits down deeper to increase the odds of getting hits.
- Outriggers of course allow you to fish more baits at once, which is nice, though seldom needed when fishing for king mackerel.
Making King Mackerel Rigs
Now that we have the tackle we need, its time to start making gear.
Many lures come pre-rigged and ready to fish, but my advice to you is to cut the rig up and make your own. It's not hard, and your own rigs will last longer during a long fight more than pre-rigged tackle. This isn't to say that all pre-rigged lures are put together poorly, I just trust my own rigging more. At a minimum, at least sharpen the hooks yourself (unless they are chemically sharpened) before you start fishing.
How to Make a Stinger Rig for Mackerel Fishing
The standard rig for king mackerel fishing is the two-hook stinger rig, made from 37# coffee-colored wire and two treble hooks. I like to use the 4x strong treble hooks when fishing, as these generally don't break even with the largest king mackerels.
- Cut a length of wire (about 18 inches) off the spool.
- Haywire-twist one end into an open loop, and the other end onto the first hook.
- Now take another 3-4 inches of wire (or longer to match your bait; you want the trailer hook 2/3 of the way down the back of the fish)
- Twist the piece of wire onto the first hook, and then again to a second hook.
- Cut/break the tag ends off.
Voila, you are now holding a "stinge"' rig for mackerel fishing. If you don't know how to haywire twist, or just can't get it down, you can use seven-strand wire instead, but I've found that in clear water this tends to lower your hits somewhat.
Using a cheap styrofoam cooler is a great way to store your rigs before use. Space the rigs out along the top and hook each rig to the lip.
Before leaving the dock, you are going to want to make anywhere from 10 to several dozen stinger rigs, depending on the number of people fishing and the local limits. The reason you twist an open loop at the end is to allow quick changes of the stinger rig, by use of high quality snap swivels. This allows you to simply leave the rig in the mackerel's mouth after catching him, rather than risking getting bit trying to remove it. Just snap one off, drop him in the cooler, and snap on your next rig.
Sometimes, the mackerel just won't eat on the wired baits, and you will have to switch to mono. Typically I use 80-lb fluorocarbon leaders in these situations; just be warned that you will lose fish to bite-offs.
For jet-head type lures, use about an 18-inch piece of wire and twist on a single J-hook. The size depends on the size of lure you are pulling; I recommend a 6-8 inch lure with a 6/0 Mustad hook. Then twist a loop at the other end.
A quick note on dusters: dusters should be attached to the line before the free end is looped, and it doesn't really matter which way you put them on. Some guys actually prefer to rig them backwards, claiming it gets more hits, but I don't have any proof of that.
Other than that, there's not a whole lot of rigging involved when king mackerel fishing. In fact less is better (as in most fishing), so keep your rigs clean and uncluttered.
And one final bit of advice: if your wire gets kinked during fishing, replace it. Otherwise you are just asking for it to break and let your trophy king mackerel go free.
King Mackerel Fishing Techniques Compared
So now that we know a little bit about the king mackerel and the gear required, we can begin fishing for them.
There are two primary ways of catching king mackerel: trolling and drift fishing. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages, and both can be divided into subtypes. A successful angler will use both methods in an effort to find and catch more fish.
First we will cover trolling, which breaks down into three categories: live-bait trolling, dead-bait trolling, and artificial lure trolling.
1. Live-bait trolling is simply that, trolling live baits in a "spread" to entice the fish to bite. This can be very effective, assuming you are actually in an area that has fish. Common baits for live bait trolling are sardines, herrings, hardtails (blue runners) and larger finger mullet. These baits are either purchased from a live bait boat or caught using either cast nets or gold hook rigs. When trolling a live bait, I usually hook the bait through the nose with the lead hook, and leave the trailing hook free, to allow the bait the most freedom of movement and prevent pulling a bait sideways through the water. King mackerel have a bad tendency to "short strike" a bait, which is why the trailing (stinger) hook is important.
The ideal trolling speed for kings with live baits is between 1-3 knots. This is usually attained by "bumping" the boat in and out of gear. This allows the fish to swim naturally and keeps the bait alive longer. A typical spread is three baits: one short on the down rigger (or a large trolling weight) about 2/3 of the way to the bottom, one long, and one medium. With outriggers you can deploy even more baits, but it is rarely needed.
Set your drags fairly loose: often times a king mackerel gets hooked in the skin near the head and too tight a drag will simply pull the hook out. If a fish strikes and misses, sometimes dropping back the bait (opening the spool for a few seconds) can induce a second strike and a hookup.
The primary disadvantages of live-bait trolling are the time it takes to gather bait, the limited amount of baits most boats can handle, and the relatively low trolling speed limiting how much area you can cover.
2. Dead bait trolling is almost identical to live bait trolling, with the exception that the baits are dead and usually require some sort of weight to keep the bait down in the water. This is normally accomplished by using a duster, which keeps the bait down in the water and adds additional color and 'flair' to your baits. When hooking a dead bait, I spin the bait around in circles to break the backbone (do this gently or you may break the bait) allowing the tail to move freely and imitating a live fish.
While still limited to a fairly low trolling speed, dead baits do give you the option of carrying many more baits, and frozen baits are generally much cheaper than live baits.
3. Trolling artificial lures is my preferred method for kings, as it allows you to cover more ground faster, and can be done while on the way to other fishing spots for other species. Trolling speeds can be as low as 2 knots or as high as 8 knots and still provide good hook-up rates; much higher, though, and you won't get as many strikes, since king mackerel are looking for an easy meal and won't chase a bait for too long.
The same spread used for live bait trolling is used with artificials. I've found that the best lure for catching kings near the surface is a purple/black or red/black jet-head type lure. These are consistent producers for me, Down deep I use a larger Yozuri Bonita or a deep-diving crystal minnow. Artificial lures have the benefits of allowing you to cover a lot more ground in the same time, and it's easy to switch out a non-productive bait for something else, whereas in live-bait trolling your choices are usually limited. Also king mackerel appear to be reaction strikers, and a fish may ignore a live bait but strike at a noisy shiny jet head moving along at a brisk pace.
The key to drift fishing is patience; if you know the fish are there, you know they will eventually bite.
Two of the biggest advantages to drift fishing are 1) it saves gas and 2) it allows the use of menhaden, which is like mackerel crack. A menhaden in front of a king mackerel is nearly irresistible. Other good baits include herrings, sardines, mullet, and hardtails (blue runners). Sometimes shrimp (live or freshly killed) can be productive, especially for smaller fish or around shrimping boats (imagine that).
Drift fishing for kings can be divided into two types: using dead or live bait.
1. Chumming can be effective for kings, but if you are in a good location it is seldom needed. A sea anchor (a parachute-type anchor that slows drift) is useful in strong currents. While mackerel will take dead bait, they generally shun eating chunk bait, so use the whole fish.
2. Drift fishing with live baits is slightly harder to do than with dead baits, since the baits will want to swim back to the boat for protection, or down into the reefs or structure. When drift fishing, you can use bio-degradable balloons to keep the baits up in the water, or small weights to sink the baits.
How to Find King Mackerel
We talked about how to catch them, but how do you find the kings in the first place? Obviously this depends on your location and the local fish population, but some general areas to start are
- near-shore reefs in 30 ft of water or more,
- sea buoys,
- water "rips" (where the current is interrupted, or meets a tide line or another current),
- large schools of bait, and
- diving birds.
Mackerel are nomadic, traveling from structure to structure looking for an easy meal, so if two spots are relatively close you can troll between them and do figure eights circling them. You'll be surprised how many kings you will catch in open water between two structure points. Anything under a mile works; if you deal with a pair of structures further apart, you may end up wasting too much time in dead zones.
Contrary to popular belief, mackerel swimming free have little fear of dolphins, and sometimes feed alongside dolphins. However, once that king is on your line it's a different story, as Flipper will often steal your prize right off of your hook. To avoid this, allow the king mackerel to run with as little drag as possible, and gaff the fish as quickly as you can.
King mackerel are hard to pinpoint on fish finders, but bait pods aren't. So keep your fish finder on and your eyes open. When fishing a structure, start your trolling pattern (usually a figure 8) or drift about 250 yards from the structure, as the mackerels are often on the outskirts of the structure rather than directly on top of it like a barracuda.
The best time to catch a big king is in the early morning, the closer to dawn the better. The second best time to catch kings is dusk, and the tactics for catching mackerel at dawn and dusk are the same. Cloudy or rainy days are also good.
You don't have to give up on the fish if you can't get out there at dawn, you just have to change tactics as the day goes on. On bright sunny days the best thing to do is get your baits down deep in the water, halfway down or deeper. Also if your boat is equipped with a decent depth finder/fish finder, look for schools of bait balled up near the bottom; odds are good that a mackerel or two is near that same bait ball. Use darker-colored artificials in the daytime, and lighter colors around dusk or dawn.
In the middle of a bright sunny day is one time where chumming can be effective, as it will bring mackerel up in the water a bit more. But live-bait chumming can be a pain, and you can usually still catch plenty of fish without it.
Trolling for mackerel at night is not real productive, but fishing live baits over structure can be very rewarding. Dead baits also work at night.
Recipes and Cooking Tips
Risk From Eating Large King Mackerel
All mackerel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, "good fats." However, king mackerel, like other top predators, concentrate mercury from pollution in their bodies. The larger and older the fish are, the higher the mercury content. Mercury is toxic to the human brain, especially the developing brain. Although king mackerel less than 33 inches long (10 pounds) have been considered safe to eat, the USDA now recommends that pregnant and breastfeeding women and small children not eat king mackerel.
King Mackerel Recipes and Cooking Tips
For those who are neither pregnant nor small children, king mackerel can be prepared in a variety of ways: steaks, deep-fried, and as backbones.
The best way to prepare king mackerel is to cut it into steaks one to two inches thick and then grill it over charcoal. Mackerel are oily fish and may be a little strong tasting to some people. To get rid of some of the "fishy" taste, soak the steaks in milk for at least two hours prior to cooking. I prefer not to marinate mine at all, but if you want Italian dressing is always a good bet.
Spray one side of the steak with a butter-flavored non-stick spray, and set that side down on the grill—no foil needed. Cook for three to four minutes or until a spatula slides under the steak easily, and then turn it. Now is the time to sprinkle a little salt and pepper or lemon pepper on the steak. Cook on the other side an additional two to three minutes and it is done enough to eat. If you want it more "well-done," then leave it on the grill a minute or two longer. Squeeze a little lemon juice on top and serve with your favorite sides and maybe an adult beverage.
When eating the steaks, do not eat the skin, just eat the meat in the middle. Also, avoid the bloodline, which will appear much darker than the rest of the meat.
Another good way to prepare king mackerel is cut into nuggets and deep-fried. Bread with your favorite fish batter and fry it up. I prefer to cut the nuggets into slivers one inch by one-half inch, and then bread them in either a beer batter or a honey batter.
For a beer batter, simply mix corn meal, salt, pepper, lemon pepper, and maybe a pinch of sugar or crushed red peppers (or both). Then pour in the beer, mixing until you attain a pancake-batter consistency. Dip the mackerel nuggets into the mix, shake off excess batter, and drop into hot oil. Cook until the batter is golden brown, and serve.
A honey batter is delicious and has a sweeter taste. Make the mix just as above, but instead of adding beer, dredge the fillets in honey and then dip into the dry mix. Before cooking, set the nuggets or fillets in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes to chill them; this helps keep the batter on the fish. Then cook just like you would the beer-battered fish, and enjoy with your favorite sides.
If you do fillet a mackerel, don't waste the backbone! The backbones are delicious battered and fried, just be careful eating around the bones!
Hopefully you have found this page useful. Leave me a comment or question at the end please, and thank you for reading my article on king mackerel fishing.