The changing colors of the leaves may signal cooler temperatures for the rest of the country, but here in Florida, we mark the arrival of fall with the annual kingfish migration. The king mackerel, fat from spending the summer months in the fertile northern Gulf of Mexico, are headed south to their winter breeding grounds off the Florida Keys. Anglers may run as far as 100 miles to the Middle Grounds in search of these tackle busters, but when the east wind blows, you will find these prized sport fish within a sinker's toss of the beach.
Watch the weather
Fall is one of the toughest times to fish for big kings. The Suncoast area typically has a half dozen tournaments scheduled for October and November, but success is usually measured with a roll of the dice.
The weather may be picture perfect for weeks, then a cold front blows through, muddies the water and scatters the bait.
"It has been tough," said Steve Papen of Fintastic Inc. Fishing Charters, who placed sixth (26.74-pounder) in last weekend's Southern Kingfish Association tournament out of John's Pass. "Bait was really tough to find and that makes all the difference in the world."
Live bait is the key
Successful tournament anglers often fish exclusively with live bait.
They use blue runners, shad, scaled sardines (commonly called whitebait), threadfin herring (commonly called greenbacks), cigar minnows, ladyfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel.
Most anglers carry two 12-foot (1-inch mesh) nets and one 12-foot (3/8-inch mesh) net.
If you are fishing with shad, you'll need a wider, 2-inch mesh net. Gold-hook rigs are used during the tournament to add bait to the livewell.
Where to find them
Veterans such as Papen use depth recorders to mark patches of "hard bottom," the large limestone outcroppings that tend to attract bait. Even the smallest patch of rock can hold bait. And where you find bait, you will find kingfish.
Most of the gulf's wrecks and artificial reefs also hold baitfish this time of year, but these well-known spots tend to get hit hard during the week.
So it is doubtful you will see any anglers fishing this weekend's Old Salt King of the Beach tournament at any of the more popular spots close to land. When big money is on the line, these tournament warriors may run as much as 50 miles across heavy seas to fish a spot that has not been worked by other anglers.
Old-timers, however, have their own way of finding kingfish. They look for flocks of seabirds. Birds mean bait. Bait means kings.
Most anglers prefer trolling, live bait or artificials, but some like to anchor and get a chum slick going.
When trolling live bait, speed is the key. Too fast and the bait looks like it is being dragged through the water. The trick is to make the bait appear as if it is swimming naturally.
Sometimes, when anglers feel as if the boat is moving too fast because of wind or current, they drop a couple of 5-gallon buckets behind the boat to slow it down.
Many a big king has also been caught when the boat is at idle speed. Gene Turner, the legendary king of Florida west coast kingfishermen, won many a tournament after he anchored up and waited for that one big fish to hit.
These big fish, females 30 pounds or more, take the top prizes. A 38-pounder won last week's SKA tournament, but it is not uncommon, especially during the spring, to have several 40-pounders weighed in at one event.
Anglers call these big fish "smokers" because they burn up the drag on a fishing reel. Smokers are often found close to land, sometimes within reach of the beach.
Over the years, several west coast tournaments have been won by anglers actually fishing east of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
The big fish tend to be loners or rogues that hang around the passes, where they can feed on the bait being swept to sea on an outgoing tide. These big fish are fat and lazy, and they don't want to work too hard for their food.
But the average angler usually doesn't get a chance to hook into a big one. They usually catch the smaller kings, 8- to 15-pounders called "schoolies," which tend to concentrate in deeper water.
These smaller fish are attracted to structure, such as wrecks and artificial reefs. While these common kings won't win a tournament, they will hit just about anything that moves. When the schoolies are biting, it is not uncommon to catch 20 or more in a day.
But now and then, you will find one big fish mixed in with the smaller ones. Then all you can do is hold on.
Just in case you are wondering, the world record Scomberomorus cavalla weighed 93 pounds and was caught in San Juan, Puerto Rico on April 18, 1999. The Florida record fish weighed in at 90 pounds.