During the height of Roman imperialism, a common post-conquest practice was to leave a regional governor and a garrison of soldiers onsite to keep the locals in line. King mackerel have a similar practice.
Along the North Suncoast and all of the Central Gulf Coast, kings mostly pass through the area during spring and fall. Offshore anglers, however, will quickly tell you not all these toothy sentries march on with the rest of the army.
In fact, summer offers a largely underutilized king mackerel fishery for those willing to make a run.
Considering today's high fuel costs, running 30 miles or more for scattered kingfish bites may not be the most cost-effective plan. However, if you're out for grouper, snapper and other summer delights, keep in mind that a biting bonus may be lurking close by.
Change of venue
During the spring and fall runs, kings like to chase baitfish in shallow coastal brine where the catching is easier. These prime seasons find coastal and nearshore waters measuring 68-75 degrees — the king's preferred range.
Kings aren't terribly complicated. They want plenty of food and comfortable habitat. The first part is easy, as the central Gulf Coast holds acres of threadfin herring (greenbacks) and scaled sardines (whitebait) in all but the coldest of months.
The problem is heat. Summer finds shallow waters measuring too high for kings.
Traditional theory holds that Gulf kings migrate north in the summer and spend the sweltering months in cooler northern Gulf waters. Most kings, especially the millions of juvenile "schoolie" fish that flood the area in spring and fall, probably do the road trip thing during their formative years because instinct tells them.
However, it seems the larger, more experienced fish locate food-rich deep water environments for their summer homes and transition to more of an east-west migration, rather than long north-south runs.
Look for summer kings around the same reefs, wrecks and ledges that yield gag grouper, snapper (red, mangrove, yellowtail) and amberjack.
The Gulfstream Natural Gas Pipeline running from the Northern Gulf into Tampa Bay sports several mitigation sites — artificial reefs built to offset natural habitat loss. With loads of forage, these large structures are summer king sweet spots.
Bait and tactics
Kingfish feed like kingfish no matter where they roam. That said, stick with large live baits whenever possible. Spend a little time netting greenbacks or whitebait inshore before heading deep.
The other option is harvesting offshore baits at your fishing site. Sabiki rigs or small fish-finder rigs baited with squid strips will yield blue runners, small bar jacks and vermilion snapper (beeliners) — each an attractive kingfish offering.
A king's teeth remain sharp all year, so present baits on the same wire stinger rigs you'd use during spring and fall.
Slow trolling offshore sites will produce summer kings, especially with baits run low on downriggers. Kings will rise topside, especially when they detect the scent of chum blocks and menhaden oil. Reaching deep, however, is often essential for reaching the fish.
Because kingfish numbers are lower in the summer than during spring and fall migrations, a concentrated effort may not merit a full day's time. If you mark large bait schools on your sonar or if you spot kingfish busting bait schools, then troll the area vigorously.
Otherwise, simply integrate a kingfish element into your structure fishing routine. While on anchor, freeline a live bait 100 feet behind the boat. If you want to keep your baits at the surface, attach a chunk of Styrofoam or a small balloon above the wire leader.
In any season and at any location, expect hooked kingfish to blister your reel with several long runs. Stay calm, keep your rod tip high and subdue your king with steady, even pressure.
While you're fighting your fish, keep another live bait deployed for possible follow-up strikes. Big summer kings are usually more solitary than the younger schooling fish, but a good offshore site could host several smokers.
When it's time to gaff a kingfish, some aim for the latter end to pull the fish's "motor" out of the water, while others prefer a swift head shot to stop a king in its tracks. Either extreme has its risks of missing, so compromise and aim for the thick shoulder area between the back of the head and the primary dorsal fin.