The ten inch pogy swam frantically, only a few feet behind the prop wash of the 250 hp Mercury outboard, apparently targeted by a massive kingfish down below. The large pogy was the largest one that we had secured with our cast nets earlier that morning. In fact, we had saved this premier kingfish bait just for the right tide, the first of the incoming.
Now, the incoming tide was pushing stained inlet waters of Amelia Island, Florida's Nassau Sound, in close to the beach. This formed a very distinct tide line with clear water on the ocean side and dingy river water on the inlet side. This was without a doubt the best time of the day, high noon and tide, to hook into a monster kingfish. Just the day before we had taken several nice kingfish to thirty pounds while slow trolling this very same tide and tide line.
The frantic pogy began to jump out of the water. It was quite evident now that the lightening fast strike of a kingfish would soon follow.
Right on cue, a forty pound plus kingfish chased the scared pogy right into a mid air collision with a set of razor sharp mackerel teeth. My son, Terry David Lacoss, grabbed the deeply bent rod and began shouting instructions to the rest of our fishing party in hopes of clearing the remaining fishing lines and downrigger cables from the fast running king mackerel.
"Dad, turn the boat around and chase down this king, it's smoking this Penn live bait reel," T.D. said. "It's a "Smoker"!
Hurriedly, I turned the bow of the 34 foot Pro-Line on the kingfish and gave throttle to the Mercury outboard. Then, as fast as the kingfish strike had come, T.D.'s rod lost its deep bend. Disappointedly, T.D. began to reel in the limp fishing line and soon found that the big kingfish had tail whipped the fishing line, causing the line to part.
For the next hour or so we discussed how we could have avoided the kingfish breaking the fishing line. But in all cases of light tackle fishing for big kingfish, sometimes lines are broken, hooks are pulled or leaders are parted. However, there are fishing tactics that consistently put the odds in your favor when catching kingfish, from the strike to the gaff.
Amelia Island's Joe Bruce has a solid game plan for catching big kingfish, from the strike of a potential winning kingfish to securing his "Angling Pursuits" fishing team's catch with a long handled kingfish gaff. Joe is a past winner of the Southern Kingfish Association's Top Angler of the Year and has also won two Southern Kingfish tournaments with kingfish that have busted the fifty pound mark.
"Before the strike even comes, I set the drag at 2-3 pounds," explains Bruce. "This drag setting is often so light, that it's actually just heavy enough so that the kingfish does not backlash the reel during its speedy run. Once the kingfish takes the bait, I simply pick the rod up from the rod holder and allow the kingfish to set the hook by itself. I don't make any attempts to set the hook. Keep in mind that my kingfish hooks are very small and super sharp. The lightning fast strike of the fish is normally enough to give the hooks a good set. In many cases of fishing for giant kingfish with light tackle we fish with 15-20 pound fishing lines and #4-6 treble hooks. A hard hook set may well pull small hooks free from the kingfish or break the fishing line or wire leader."
Using such light lines and small live bait hooks is often the only fishing tactic for luring big kings into striking your live bait or lure. However, you can see that it also requires employing special angling tactics when that monster king is attracted to your bait and the light tackle battle begins.
"Our first order of business, after the kingfish is hooked up and running, is to hold the rod tip high so as to clear the line from any nearby fishing lines and downrigger cables," Joe said. "Once this is accomplished, I normally move to the bow of my boat while another team member points the bow at the kingfish and begins to chase the fish down. Naturally, it's important here not to have the boat run faster than I'm able to reel in the slack line. Giving the kingfish slack line is often the best way of losing your catch, either by a pulled hook or by having the fishing line wrap around the tail of the kingfish."
"During the 1997 Spring Kingfish Classic a big kingfish smashed our deep ribbon fish bait, right in the middle of Tampa's Egmont Key shipping channel," Joe said. "Buddy Hutchinson grabbed the steering wheel and began to chase the big king down while I positioned myself at the bow of the boat. Suddenly a large ship began to compete with us for the deep channel waters. Until this point we had not seen the ship, but now it was quite evident that it might run right over our fishing line. Keeping this in mind, Buddy increased the speed of our boat. I began to crank the handle of my 545 Penn live bait reel as fast as possible to keep the fishing line tight on the hooked kingfish."
"Fortunately, we were able to outrun the large freighter and secure our catch. The big king weighed just over thirty-four pounds and secured our fishing team a 2nd place finish in the Spring Kingfish Classic."
So you can see, it is extremely important to run your hooked kingfish down as fast as possible. Often times your team will not have any other choice but to run the fish down in a hurry to avoid any nearby fishing boats, ships, channel buoys or nearby fishermen that have hooked fish on at the same time. Naturally, you will need to coordinate the speed of the chase with the angler, so the angler can reel in the fishing line fast enough to keep pressure on the hooked fish.
"I really like the big handles on my Penn 545 reels for cranking in a lot of fishing line in a hurry," Joe said. "This is very critical when you're chasing down fast running kingfish, just like the one that tried to tangle us up with the Egmont Key channel freighter. The 6:1 gears in the Penn 545 also allow me to recover several yards of fishing line in a hurry."
Once the "Angling Pursuits" fishing team catches up to their hooked king mackerel, they often try to keep the fish right off from the bow, clear from the lower units of the Mercury outboards.
"When we get within 20-40 feet of the kingfish we try to get as close as possible to the hooked kingfish," explains Joe. "Often times the kingfish has run so hard and so fast, that it has simply spent all of its energy. Without any more steam, the kingfish will simply lay on its side where it will be easy to gaff. But this isn't always the case, and a strong kingfish will often either make another run or swim down deep at this point. If they choose this fighting tactic I will simply allow the fish to run off more fishing line without putting any pressure on the fish, and in all cases, the drag setting is never adjusted."
Bruce elects to leave the drag setting at 2-3 pounds throughout the battle. If he has to put any pressure on the fish, he will simply thumb the spool of the live bait reel.
"To put pressure on a kingfish which has taken the battle down deep, I will reel down and then place my thumb on the spool of the fishing line," Joe instructs. "By holding the line with my thumb, I can slowly increase the rod pressure to the fish. This often wears the fish out in a hurry. But if the fish elects to take off on another run, I'll take my thumb off the spool. This allows the kingfish to run on the preset drag."
Once the kingfish has stopped his run, Joe simply begins to pump the fish in by reeling down, placing his thumb on the spool of the reel and lifting up. This pumping action will eventually tire out the hooked mackerel.
"It is extremely important here to increase the rod tip pressure slowly," explains Joe. "Keeping in mind that your kingfish may be hooked by just a few membranes of skin, any sudden jerks of the rod will almost always tear your live bait hooks free."
In most cases of chasing down "smoker" size kingfish, kingfish that normally weigh more than 35 lbs., you will normally get to see your hooked kingfish up close before the battle ends. Often times the kingfish will simply swim up close to the boat and angler to see where all of his troubles began. This gives the angler a chance to see how well his kingfish is hooked before the smoker takes off on another run.
When this close-in encounter happens, like many successful king mackerel fishermen, Joe Bruce looks into the water with a good pair of sunglasses and tries to see where the hooks are set in the kingfish. If the hooks are deep in the fish's mouth, you can increase your rod pressure without any big worries. However, if you see that the hooks are embedded on the outside of the head and in the skin of the kingfish, you might choose to play the kingfish with kid gloves.
"If the hooks are barely hooked in the kingfish I may decide to back off on the drag even more," Joe instructs. "From this point on, it will take plenty of patience. If the kingfish swims down deep, we'll simply back off from the kingfish and try to get another angle on the fish. This often allows the kingfish to come back up to the surface. When this happens we'll motor up to the kingfish once again and hope to capture it with our ten foot gaff."
Unfortunately, many kingfish become foul hooked when they strike live baits. This often results in the hooks becoming embedded in the side of the fish. When this happens, you will also need to display a lot of patience and some angling expertise.
"If the fish is foul hooked you'll need to back away from the fish and pull on the fish from different angles," explains Bruce. "Pulling straight on a foul hooked kingfish is actually giving the advantage to the kingfish. However, if you back off and use different angles to apply fishing rod pressure you won't be pulling directly on the weight of the kingfish and the fish will tire out a lot sooner."
Naturally, securing your "Smoker" king mackerel is the final step in claiming your catch. I would recommend having two sizes of kingfish gaffs aboard, an eight foot and a ten foot. The ten footer is used when you approach a hooked kingfish that is lying right on the surface. The eight foot gaff works best when you have to gaff a kingfish that is straight under the boat.
"I like to reach out over the back of the king mackerel and strike the gaff between the dorsal fin and the tail," explains Bruce. "You'll be more apt to miss a main artery when gaffing your kingfish towards the tail. However if it's a big fish, we'll take the first opportunity that we have to gaff the fish, whether it's behind the head, in the midsection, or in the tail section of the kingfish."
If a main blood vessel is punctured by the gaff, skilled fishermen like Joe Bruce will stick either cotton or a tampon in the hole to stop the bleeding. The kingfish is then deposited into a fish bag and iced down. You have now won the battle!