They're heading for winter vacation and they're eating everything in their path. This is the time of year that all the king mackerel depart their summer playgrounds in the northern Gulf of Mexico and turn their noses toward Southwest Florida.
Declining water temperature provides part of the motivation, but so does food availability.
As huge schools of baitfish migrate down the Gulf Coast, kings follow. Day after day, the predators munch on this mobile meal plan in preparation for their cool season travels to the Florida Keys.
Most years see kingfish schools blazing through North Suncoast waters from early October through about mid November. If October coldfronts arrive early, the chilly and blustery weather will usher baitfish and their pursuers on their way.
Where to look
Reefs, rocks, and ledges in 15-60 wield yield plenty of fall kingfish action. A lot of the same spots that bristle with gag grouper each fall will also become attractive to the transient kings. The key ingredient will be baitfish.
With a local chart and/or a list of GPS numbers for hard bottom sites, start in about 15-20 feet and work the area thoroughly. If you don't find the fish in about an hour, move deeper.
Often the sea will point to its bounty, so watch for large pods of baitfish "raining" at the surface. This is a good sign of predators below.
Also watch for tight groups of birds hovering near the surface. The feathered scavengers follow feeding kingfish and pick off the scraps left by their feeding.
Find the birds and you'll usually find the kingfish.
Know your opponent
Table manners rank low on the king's priorities. This is a grab-and-go predator with a single-minded obsession: eating.
Kingfish are among the sea's fastest fish and they use their speed to blast through schools of baitfish so quickly their prey has practically zero chance of escape.
This fearsome fish also packs a mean set of choppers that make short work of most anything they hit. Slicing and dicing baitfish on the run, a king's initial attack seeks to immobilize prey for a followup pass.
Such feeding often results in "short strikes," where kings nip off the bait's tail and miss the hookup. You may see a rod flex and feel a short tug, but slack line will tell of a missed strike.
Wired for action
To beat a king at his own game, rig your kingfish baits on a "stinger" rig, comprising a 2/0 short shank lead hook with a No. 4 treble dangling from the bend on a 4- to 6-inch piece of No. 4 wire. An 18- to 36-inch piece of wire leader links the lead hook to a swivel tied to your main line.
The stinger rig eliminates short strikes by placing a hook at both ends of the bait. If king hits the bait dead center, the wire segment repels the sharp teeth long enough to pull the stinger hook into the attacker's mouth.
When anglers encounter large kings, lengthening main leaders to 4 feet or more will minimize "tail whipping," in which a king's rigid tail fins beat against the line as it trails next to its body during a long run.
On the menu
Migrating kings chase schools of threadfin herring ("greenbacks") and scaled sardines ("whitebaits"), so feeding the fish what they are used to seeing makes sense. Catch your bait en masse with a cast net or snare them a few at a time with gold-hook sabiki rigs. Either way, look for the biggest baits you can find and troll them at about 1 knot or less.
Blue runners, cigar minnows and Spanish sardines — usually caught in deeper water, over wrecks and reefs — also tempt kings.
Whatever you troll, enhance your spread's appeal by chumming with thumbnail-sized chunks of fresh baitfish, drops of concentrated menhaden oil and/or a frozen chum block. Place the latter in a mesh bag and hang it from a cleat amidships.
As wave action melts the block, the oils and bits of ground baitfish drift down current. The resulting chum slick stimulates local fish and calls in others from afar.
Trolling "hardware" — spoons, jigs and shallow diving plugs — will also produce fall kingfish. Generally it's tough to fool the older, experienced kings with artificials, so look for more of the juvenile "schoolie" fish this way.
On the other hand, you can troll artificials faster than you can live baits so this is a good way to search broad areas or probe specific structures to test the local potential.
Once you score a couple of hookups, mark the area on your GPS, or toss out an anchored float, and then slow troll live baits for big kings.
Kingfish of any size will strike hard and run fast, so use rods with flexible tips and reels loaded with at least 300 yards of 20- to 30-pound monofilament. Loose drags will help you avoid pulling hooks from a king's delicate mouth.
During the fight, keep the rod tip high and the reel handle still while the fish runs. Gather line with a smooth cadence of reeling down and pumping up, but stay ready to react in case the king launches another blistering run or dives beneath the boat.
When a tired king rises topside in the characteristic circling routine, gently guide the fish to the surface so your boat mate can gaff your catch. Remember, always gaff behind the line so you don't break the leader if the fish lunges forward.
Kingfish offer great challenge and great sport with the bonus of good table fare. Grilled or smoked, kingfish provides a memorable conclusion to their annual migratory appearance.
For optimal flavor, be sure to ice your catch immediately to maintain freshness and marinate the meat in Italian dressing for two hours after cleaning.