By Paul Bristow
Fall is sure to bring a king mackerel run to the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers. These pelagic speedsters love to cruise the pier structure and artificial reefs that line mouth of TampaBay. Look for kings to really fire up after the first few cold fronts that bring down Gulf water temperatures and drive bait schools to artificial reefs and bridge structure. King mackerel are often joined by large Spanish mackerel, cero mackerel, and bonito as they make their annual runs at the Skyway Piers.
King mackerel rank near the top of the Mackerel Family of Fishes for both size and speed. Although mackerels and tunas are often grouped into the same family by scientists, many folks consider them as separate classifications. Indeed, only the wahoo has more size and speed among the true mackerels. Although some fishermen confuse small kings with Spanish mackerel, one key identification factor is that kings lack a black mark on their dorsal fin. The lateral line on king mackerel also dips below the mid-section of the fish and dark bars are found much more often than yellow spots or broken lines (note that yellow spots or dashes do sometimes occur on juvenile kings). Finally, the menacing teeth of kings more often protrude outside of the jaw line than on other mackerels.
Many fishing methods will take kings at the Skyway Piers. Casting silver spoons behind a trolling weight or using large Gotcha lures will take plenty of school-sized fish in the 8 lb. to 12 lb. range. A short length of single strand wire added just in front of the spoon or plug will prevent bite-offs from all but the largest fish. Live baits like blue runners, jack crevalle, threadfin herring, or scaled sardines can be free-lined with the use of a single hook rig or stinger rig. Among serious anglers, the deployment of a trolley-rod system can anchor multiple live baits at various positions in the water column in order to present baits to the greatest number of kings.
Fishing artificial lures or free-lining live baits is best accomplished by using medium weight spinning tackle. A large capacity spool is needed to weather long runs made by kings, but line from 12 lb. to 20 lb. class is usually sufficient. Indeed, heavy lines do not allow lures or live baits to appear as natural as lighter line choices, and this can cause kings to stray as they often slash at and circle baits once prior to striking. Braided lines are perfect for kings when accompanied by a length of monofilament leader and light wire at the business end of the rig.
A trolley-rod system uses at least two rods, and occasionally employs more. The first component is an anchor rod which simply secures a heavy pyramid or anchor weight to the bottom. This rod does not have any hooks and will not be used to land fish. Baits are then sent out along this anchor line by using clips & releases on a short length of line wherein the clip will give way when a king mackerel strikes.
The rod that has the bait attached is usually called the fighting rod or set rod. This system allows a bait to swim freely and naturally along the anchor line up until the strike occurs. One of the simplest and cheapest ways to accomplish this is with a shower curtain clip (or large split-ring) and a clothespin connected with a short length of line. The shower clip or split-ring slides along the anchor line and the clothespin serves as the line release for the fighting rod. Anglers who get very serious about strike pressure will switch to adjustable downrigger clips or very light rubber bands instead of a clothespin for use on their release mechanism.
Once the strike occurs, the fish is fought on the fighting rod while the weight and clip remain attached to the anchor rod. The anchor rod need not be reset on every strike because the clips and releases can all be retrieved at the end of the fishing day. Stinger rigs using multiple hooks are most often used with this method as the clip release usually offers just enough resistance to set the hook in the fish. Single strand wire or very light seven-strand cable accompanied by 3/0 live bait style hooks and #4 treble hooks are the most common terminal tackle choices for making stinger rigs. Keep a light drag on the fighting rod to not only ensure hook sets, but also allow the fish to make the long initial run.
Anglers often set up several lines along their anchor system. The bait deployed closest to the anchor weight will naturally be deepest in the water column. A light egg sinker can be placed on the connector line to keep baits at moderate depths. If fish are feeding close to the surface, only allow your baits to swim part way out along the anchor line. If this does not suffice, try free-lining or use floats to keep your offering up high.
A bridge net or pier gaff is needed to land the largest king mackerel. Be sure that your catch meets the minimum length requirements before using a pier gaff. A bridge net allows release of fish that do not meet minimum standards. Kings can be filleted or cut into steaks and are great barbequed, smoked or fried using a wide variety of recipes. The flesh is more white and firm than that of Spanish mackerel and fish dips made from smoked kings are often as common as turkey at the Thanksgiving table in the SunshineState. For more information about the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers visit www.skywaypiers.com.
Paul Bristow has written outdoor articles since 1999. He is the manager of Apollo Beach Bait & Tackle Company, LLC. The company manufacturers and distributes fishing tackle on Florida’s Gulf Coast.