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Kingfish are experts at eating on the run

Anthony Cellemare, left, and Joe Maisano caught this big kingfish west of Treasure Island.

DAVID A BROWN | Special to the Times

Anthony Cellemare, left, and Joe Maisano caught this big kingfish west of Treasure Island.

Etiquette says it's not polite to eat and run, but no one ever told that to a king mackerel. In fact, eating and running, or running and eating are what they do best.

Fall finds great numbers of kings pushing through the waters off West Central Florida. These ferocious predators with the formidable dental equipment are always on the hunt for their next meal, but autumn brings cooling temperatures and this sends massive schools of baitfish southward to warmer climates.

Kingfish make a good living on these schools of scaled sardines ("whitebait"), threadfin herring ("greenbacks") and Spanish sardines, so when the food moves, so do the kings.

Where to look

Reefs, wrecks, rock piles and ledges are common kingfish gathering sites. Bait schools hold over these spots and kings will patrol the area to gobble any forage they spot.

Much of the action goes unseen below the surface, but the feeding frenzy often rises topside. Kingfish will round up a pod of bait and push it to the surface where the fleeing prey runs out of room and becomes an easy target.

Surfacing bait schools appear as dark patches and when they reach their upper boundary, their dimpling and flipping looks like rain on the water. That's usually enough for anglers to spot, but once the feeding begins, it's show time.

Waves of frantic baitfish leaping skyward, white water slashes and violent boils indicate the kings are chewing. Such scenes offer clear visual reference for those seeking kings.

The fracas also attracts seabirds that pick off the scraps left by feeding kings. Scan the horizon when starting your morning search for a cloud of birds hovering and shrieking near the surface.


Along the North Suncoast, October-November is prime time for kingfish. These fish will feed throughout the day, but dawn action — known as "first light bite" — is usually the most intense. Kingfish are primarily sight feeders, so sunrise shines a spotlight on their quarry.

Ideal water temperature range is 68-75 degrees. Clarity matters too, so look for the classic "king green" and avoid the turbid water that washes around after the windy cold fronts common to fall.

The predators can actually tolerate murky waters, but the fragile baitfish they seek cannot. The formula is simple: no food, no kingfish.

When kings feed many miles offshore, tides matter little. However, in the coastal zone, daily ebb and flow can play a key role in fish location. For one thing, current speed and direction positions baitfish predictably on their bottom structure. These little fish will hold tight to their habitat during swift water and loosen up when the current slows.

The other tidal effect occurs when the outgoing cycle pulls loads of baitfish through passes and river channels. This food flush delivers a concentrated feast of baitfish into coastal shallows and any kingfish in the area will be quick to capitalize.

Bait up

Many artificial lures such as spoons, jigs and diving plugs will fool kingfish; however, you'll do best by slow trolling or drifting with live baits. Kings have been known to strike a variety of oddball baits, but the "match-the-hatch" adage governs this game.

Capturing the same baits that kingfish are chasing is your wisest strategy. Cast nets enable you to grab large numbers in one shot, but the inherent squashing effect often leaves baits weakened, if not injured. Healthy, active baits perform best in a spread, so go with gold-hook sabiki rigs and use a dehooker to sling baits into your livewell without touching them.

In addition to the schooling baits, Gulf kingfish also love blue runners. This double-tough member of the jack family lives around reefs, rocks and channel markers, where a well-placed sabiki rig will snare several.

Now, it might sound improbable that kingfish would strike your baits when they may be looking at several thousand in the school they're attacking. However, predators instinctively grab the weakest and most vulnerable prey first, so trolling your baits around a school's perimeter gives the appearance of easy pickings.

Kingfish like easy pickings. Just don't expect them to stick around for long. Eat and run — that's the way of the kingfish.

Next week: Wired for success

Kingfish are experts at eating on the run 10/02/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 2, 2009 4:30am]
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