Sometimes, just one fish can put you on top of the world. Nowhere does this ring truer than on the kingfish-tournament circuit. In these events, each team is allowed to weigh in only one king mackerel per day of competition. And so, it’s the spectacular 50- to 60-pounders known as smokers that earn the impressive jackpots, garish trophies and the singular glory that comes with winning.
Yet the path to glory is paved with more than positive thinking and a sprinkle of luck. On this highly competitive trail that ranges from the Carolinas to the Florida Keys to the coast of Texas, a one-hundredth of a pound might separate a championship team and the first-place loser (aka second place). Emotional commitment, intense preparation, financial resources, teamwork, quality equipment and strong boat-handling skills — as well as a few secret weapons — are hallmarks of the most competitive teams.
To isolate key factors to catching these wily, sharp‑toothed speedsters, we canvassed some of the leading tournament anglers. While opinions on many topics varied as widely as chili recipes at a county fair, we were able to distill these 12 steps to glory.
1. The Right Boat
You can catch king mackerel from just about any boat, but the most consistent winners show up with 23- to 45-foot center-console fishing machines from builders such as Contender, Everglades, Invincible, Intrepid, Jupiter, Regulator, SeaVee and Yellowfin.
Serious competitors have the need for speed, so most of these boats sport twin or triple outboards — some even have quads. “You want to get to the fish first,” explains Scott Smith, a North Carolina-based captain of Instigator, a 31-foot Yellowfin with twin Mercury Verado 300 outboards. “It’s not unusual for the first boat to a spot to pick off the biggest fish,” he reveals.
Power is one thing, but you also need a hull designed to run in rough conditions because the seas are not always cooperative on tournament day. “That’s why we fish a boat like the Contender 32ST,” says Jack Bracewell Jr., whose South Carolina team fishes 15 kingfish tournaments a year aboard Eren’s Addiction Too, powered by twin Mercury Verado 300 outboards. “A boat like this can take a lot of abuse, and still get us to the fish and bring us home,” he says.
2. Rig for Success
Proper boat rigging ranks as a high priority among serious kingfish anglers. Rigging must accommodate a wide range of techniques, including downrigger-trolling, kite-fishing, slow-trolling, drifting or even anchoring, any of which might be needed, depending on the time of year or coastal region.
Catching live bait can also play a critical role, so the boat’s deck needs to be snag-free for cast-netting. Voluminous livewell capacity helps ensure the boat has enough live bait to fish all day.
Finding king mackerel means having an arsenal of marine electronics to locate key structure spots such as wrecks and reef edges, as well as schools of bait. A top-quality GPS/chart plotter and fish finder are critical in this pursuit, according to leading kingfish anglers.
In addition, the most successful teams have their boats fully stocked with all the lures, rigs, leader material and terminal tackle they might possibly need. This allows them to quickly adapt to any feeding pattern they might find once on the fishing grounds.
3. Do Your Homework
Research represents the most critical element. “About five days before the tournament, I start checking the Internet for fishing reports in the area,” Smith says. “Also, I keep an eye on sea-surface temperature and chlorophyll patterns on sites such as sst-offshore.com.” The idea is to find temperature breaks and the right color of water (known as “king green”) that might be holding schools of bait. Find the bait and you’ll often find the kings.
Talking to local anglers is also an important part of doing your homework, but you can’t always take them at their word, according to Smith. “The only way to confirm things is to prefish,” Smith advises. “Take the information you have, and fish the spots to make sure what other anglers are telling you is true.”
4. Baited Question
Silvery live baits such pilchards, threadfin herring, menhaden, mullet and blue runners are preferable to dead baits, according to virtually all top tournament anglers. However, live bait is not always easily obtained, so these same anglers also bring frozen baits such as cigar minnows, ribbonfish and Spanish mackerel.
While opinions vary about the best bait species, there is consensus about the size of the bait for trophy kings. “The bigger kings seem to favor the bigger baits,” says Dean Panos, who runs the Double D, a 34-foot SeaVee Open on the tournament circuit. Panos is also a charter captain based in Miami.
Smith agrees. “Big baits equal big fish,” he says. Smith also has a trick for making natural baits appear even larger: He adds some “flash” to an otherwise conventional wire-leader, twin-treble bait rig. The captain uses a blue Private Stock Skirt from Blue Water Candy Lures in front of a live bait (see illustration in the gallery above). The reflective material not only amplifies the size of the bait, but the shimmer —when combined with the bait’s frantic vibrations — helps attract a king’s attention at a distance.
Dead baits don’t swim, so trophy seekers often combine a swimming lure with a dead bait. One of the hottest lure/bait rigs is the Pirate Plug from South Chathum Tackle. The lure is placed ahead of the nose-hooked bait to impart a seductive swimming action when slow-trolled. Smith has won two tournaments with this rig (see illustration).