If you need a reason to smile, just think king mackerel. This migratory species, once fished to near collapse, are a conservation success story. Every fall and spring these open-ocean predators return to Florida's beaches, delighting anglers such as the 1,000 or so hard-core competitive fishermen signed up for this weekend’s Old Salt King of the Beach Tournament.
More than 250 boats hit the water today off Tampa Bay in hopes of landing a tournament winning king. In the Gulf of Mexico, king mackerel spend the summer months in northern waters off Northwest Florida. When the weather turns cool, the fish travel down Florida’s beaches to the waters off Key West.
Anglers started catching the first southern-swimming kings off Naples in early October. But at that same time, fishermen were still catching kings off Northwestern Florida. This is good news for anglers. While the kingfish season can start as early as October, the best fishing is usually around mid November, when the air turns cool and the seas choppy.
The King of the Beach, held each spring at the height of the annual migrations, is one of the largest events of its kind on the west coast of Florida. It draws the region’s top teams, all vying for the $15,000 first place prize and the coveted title of “king” of the beach.
While king mackerel can be caught on artificial lures, most successful tournament anglers fish exclusively with live or natural bait. They use blue runners, shad, scaled sardines (commonly called whitebait), threadfin herring (commonly called greenbacks), cigar minnows, ladyfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel.
The fish that win tournaments are usually female and tip the scales at 30 pounds or more. Any fish in the 40-pound range is considered a true contender and from time to time, 50 pounders are taken in local waters. But because the fish caught here are in mid-migration, they tend to be thinner or lighter than their counterparts in The Keys.
Anglers call the big fish "smokers" because in the old days, when fishing reels used grease from animal fat, a big fish could literally burn up the drag on a fishing reel and generate a good deal of smoke. 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.
And if you've never seen a big kingfish, you're missing out. It’s quite a thrill seeing one of these monsters brought into a weigh-in, almost as much fun as landing one yourself.