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Menhaden: The Premier Kingfish Bait

Terry Lacoss

Kingfish definitely have a keen sense of smell, which is often proven by a healthy chum slick, including menhaden oil and ground chum. More importantly, successful king mackerel fishermen have learned to use live baits that attract the foraging instincts of nearby kings.

Most skilled king mackerel fishermen will even go out of their way to catch live baits, which offer a strong scent trail. How far out of the way? How about a fifty-four mile round trip boat ride, just to catch enough menhaden to fill your live bait well and cooler for chum!

'We made a fifty-four mile round trip this morning, just to catch pogies," said Joe Bruce.

Bruce was fishing out of Amelia Island, Florida and made a twenty seven mile run north to Georgia waters before finding schools of menhaden. With the lack of rainfall at Amelia Island and many parts of northeast Florida, most of the big schools of menhaden had moved into the estuaries or out into deep water. However on the other hand, Northern Georgia had plenty of rainfall, which kept the big schools of menhaden in close to the beaches and inlet mouths.

During the 1999 Golden Isles Kingfish Tournament, rain fell during the entire two days of competition. The large schools of menhaden were also thick, just off the beaches of Georgia as well.

Bruce amd long time fishing partner, Al Torrans, were fishing in the 1999 Yamaha/Contender Kingfish Classic, which was being held out of Jacksonville, Florida. Departing from the St. Mary's inlet, the "Angling Pursuits" team began to run north and along the beaches of Cumberland Island. However, it wasn't until Bruce reached Jekyll Island, Georgia before spotting several schools of beach menhaden.

After tossing a ten foot net over a school of menhaden, Bruce filled his live well and cooler, then headed back to northeast Florida. After a twenty-seven mile run, Bruce finally pulled the throttles back on his team Donzi boat and began king mackerel fishing.

Later that afternoon, the "Angling Pursuits" fishing team landed a 35 pound kingfish and captured second place honors in the tournament. Certainly the fifty-four mile boat ride was worth the time and cost of fuel.

Why do skilled king mackerel fishermen go out of their way just to catch menhaden? There are virtually hundreds of baits in the sea that will attract the strike of a nearby kingfish. Included are ribbonfish, Spanish mackerel, greenies, mullet, cigar minnows, Spanish sardines and many more.

However it might just be the strong fish scent that menhaden produce that makes menhaden so attractive to the foraging instincts of the mighty king mackerel. Menhaden have been harvested since the early 1920s for their oil and fish meal. At one time, there were over forty menhaden plants on the east coast of the United States. All of these thriving plants processed menhaden. They were a valuable commodity and still are today, simply because of their abundant fish oil.

Menhaden also range from Tampa, Florida to the state of Texas and from Daytona Beach, Florida to the state of Maine. They thrive best where wide expanses of marshlands join the ocean through tidal estuaries and inlets.

Menhaden oil is used for a wide variety of products, including an oil base for cosmetics. Menhaden is also shipped overseas, where it is used for cooking oils and margarine. The U.S.D.A. recently approved menhaden oil for human consumption in the United States.

Menhaden deposit their eggs during late spring and early summer at inlet mouths. The tides pull the fertilized eggs into the backwaters and bays, where the eggs hatch and the fry move into the fertile estuaries and bays, producing a new school of menhaden. The juvenile fish begin to feed on plankton until they reach adult size, then they migrate out into the ocean to spend the rest of their life cycle.

Menhaden can weigh over the one pound mark and are a treasured bait by any seasoned king mackerel fishermen. The larger menhaden are female and can weigh well over the one pound mark. These fat females are often referred to as "Horse", or "Turbo" pogies. "Pogy", is a common nickname for menhaden.

Obviously the oil content of menhaden is a big attraction for nearby kingfish. Kings rely mainly on their sense of smell when tracking down an easy meal. Once a bait fish has been injured and the fish oil begins to seep out into the ocean, it doesn't take long for kingfish to pick up the scent trail. For this one reason, successful king mackerel fishermen have used menhaden for many fishing seasons now to produce ground chum. Once the menhaden are ground up into chum, the ground chum is deposited into a mesh bag and attached to the gunnel or transom of their fishing boat. As the ground chum begins to seep out into the ocean, it actually acts like an injured bait school that has been cut into by a predator game fish. The scent of the chum slick drives kingfish into a feeding frenzy and ultimately brings them within striking distance of the fisherman's live baits.

King mackerel fisherman also deploy menhaden oil into the water by hanging an IV bag, similar to those used in hospitals, over the side from a gunnel cleat and allowing the menhaden oil to drip slowly into the water. This forms an oily sheen on the surface of the water and also helps the fishermen monitor the position of their chum slick.

Although menhaden are plentiful from the coast of Texas to Maine, they can become difficult to find and often promote a long boat ride before your day of king mackerel fishing can begin.

"The water salinity is a major factor when locating menhaden," explains Jim Corbitt. Corbitt operates a family run menhaden plant, located in Fernandina Beach, Florida.

'During dry spells, big schools of menhaden would often move into nearby tidal rivers and bays, or out into deep water, making them extremely difficult to find. Often, it would take a heavy rain to move the menhaden out from the backwaters into the ocean. Or from their hideout in deep water, to the shallows of the beach. Water temperature is also another factor, because when the water temperature gets too hot in the summer months, menhaden schools will also migrate north to cooler water temperatures.

Like highly competitive king mackerel fishermen, Corbitt and his Nassau Fertilizer company were ready to travel great distances, just to get their nets on a big school of menhaden.

"During the summer months, we have run as far north as South Carolina in order to make a set on menhaden," said Corbitt. "This often created a smelly situation without any refrigeration on the boat and two days at sea with several tons of dead menhaden!"

When normal amounts of rainfall occur and the water temperature is less than eighty-five degrees, menhaden can be found schooling in close to beaches, inlet mouths and live bottoms. Look for the schools of menhaden to move In shallow during high tide periods and then to drop back into deep water as the tide falls.

One of the best cast nets for menhaden is a ten foot 3/8 inch mesh, mono net. This is especially true if the menhaden are scattered and difficult to net. If the menhaden schools are thick, most cast netters will prefer an eight foot, 3/8 inch mesh, mono net. Always approach schools of menhaden from up wind. Menhaden often swim into the wind and will swim right into your cast net, if you position your boat on the up wind side of the school.

The most popular tactic for rigging live menhaden for kingfish is the double menhaden setup. Here, a three foot section of #3 wire leader is rigged with a #1 live bait hook at the tag end of the wire leader. A second, ten inch section of #3 wire leader is also hay wire wrapped to the eye of the first live bait hook and a second #1 live bait hook is wrapped to the tag end of the second wire leader. Finally, a six inch section of #4 wire is then hay wire wrapped to the eye of the last live bait, with the tag end hay wire wrapped to a #4-4x treble hook. The first hook is then barbed through the nose of a large menhaden, the second hook is then barbed through the nose of a smaller menhaden. The reason for egging the large menhaden in front of the small menhaden is so that the stronger baitfish keeps ahead of the smaller one, avoiding any tangles. The stinger hook is allowed to swing freely alongside of the live menhaden or can be lightly pinned in the back of the bait.

Another popular menhaden setup, is the single menhaden fig. This is simply rigged in the same manner, except leaving out the first live bait hook.

Although menhaden are still plentiful in many areas of the southeast, their numbers are declining, During the 1940's, there were over forty menhaden plants, which were located throughout the south east. Today there are only three.

Menhaden may have created a big stink, but that horrible smell, makes fish scents of course!
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