Kings are attracted to structure and especially like livebottoms. Formations such as artificial reefs, shipping-channel jetties and even fishing piers can be hotspots. These fish draw a lot of attention from serious anglers as well as novice fisherman who are seeking to meet the king of summer.
The king mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla) is a large and fierce-fighting fish. They enter our nearshore fishery in the spring and fall, and they can be caught offshore all summer. They offer a test on both medium and heavy tackle, with the mainstay being 20-pound class tackle and line. The allure of these big fish is not only a great fight or fine dining, but if an angler is entered in one of the many king mackerel tournaments, perhaps thousands of dollars are at stake.
Kings are seldom confused with the smaller Spanish mackerel. Kings can grow to 60 inches long and can weigh up to 80 pounds; an average catch will range from 15 to 30 pounds. They swim close enough to shore that most piers have a special section at the end, especially for the land-based king fisherman.
More likely locations require a boat trip to the ocean, not far past jetties like the ones found in Murrell's Inlet, Winyah Bay, Little River and Charleston.
It is there you will find the bait favored by kings, the menhaden. Schools of this bait gravitate to the ocean's surface and flip at the surface. Their silvery body and subsequent splash make them easy to spot, and you can frequently locate them by watching squadrons of pelicans dive-bombing the surface. They can be super finicky and will sound with little warning, leaving cast nets empty. Sometimes it is best to cut the engine off and drift into the school, listening for the flip-flop noise. When you hear this tell-tale sound, you know it's time to make your best cast of the day.
One cast of a net can sometimes provides enough menhaden for a day's fishing. If you anchor your boat outside the jetties and put out a few lines baited with live menhaden, a patient waiting game ensues. One hopes that a big fish strikes, creating a controlled chaos on the deck until the fish is subdued or lost.
The screaming drag system on your reel lets you know you have a fish on. Kings always make a run when they take the bait and feel the hook, so have your drag set loosely enough to withstand this pull. You can tighten your drag as you fight the fish, and others on the boat will have your way cleared of other lines, preventing a massive tangle. Often, when the fish first sees the boat, it will make another run, trying to use its strength to escape the situation, but when he is spent, the mate can use a gaff to lift the fish out of the water and into the cooler. Teamwork is a must for bigger fish, and one good king in the fish box is both a blessing and a fishing success.
Another method not to be overlooked is slow-trolling using live baits or artificial plugs. This allows you to cover a much greater area, like a shipping channel, or secret patches of livebottom, searching for a hungry fish. Pay special attention to bait pods, bird action, shrimp boats, and other schools of fish when trying to match wits with a king. Even a single bird diving in an area can tip off a wise angler to the presence of the king of the summer. Always remember to keep a good pair of binoculars handy for scanning the surface of the water all around your boat.
Tournament fishing for king mackerel is at a fever pitch during the summer, and Southern Kingfish Association competitors are locked in battle the entire season. Starting with the Tailwalker Marine Tournament in Georgetown in June, followed by the Savannah and Charleston Kingfish Classics in July, and the granddaddy of them all - the CCA Fishing For Miracles Tournament in August. Between tournament days, pre-fishing days, and some fun fishing, too - these fishermen are all about king mackerel.
During the 2008 season, fuel bills promise to be fantastic for some of these run-and-gun boats that come equipped with three engines. But the allure of the king of summer, and the prize monies, will still be enough to draw hundreds of boats to these contests. And who can pass on the chance of seeing a king mackerel sky out of the water with your bait in his mouth, or perhaps perform a free jump just to dare you to fish a little harder.
One new reality of king mackerel fishing is the build-up of mercury in fish. Did you know that people are advised not to eat any meat from a king mackerel that's 39 inches or longer, otherwise known as a "smoker" king? One meal per week is allowed fish between 33 and 39 inches. Size indicates age, and thus the time the king has spent in the water both absorbing mercury and consuming mercury-tainted fish accentuates the problem as the fish grows. The alarming advisory on king mackerel consumption hits home with avid fishermen, because large kings provide the best fighting and are much sought-after in tournament fishing.
King mackerel fishing puts you out in the water, where you have to judge the conditions and fish the best method available to you that day. You may witness sea turtles, ocean-going birds and shipping traffic. Soak it all up, because when you are out after the king of summer you are using the skills that define a saltwater angler.