As soon as the first reports of big kings hit the docks, I was on the water at every chance. As Wray and Hiles projected, there were plenty of menhaden in the area. When the bait was close to the beach, we caught them with a heavy 10-foot cast net. When the schools of menhaden were in deeper water, we caught them with a snag rig: three 5/0 treble hooks tied in a 3-foot piece of 100-pound mono with a weighted treble hook at the end. Most days, we also caught small bluefish with a sabiki rig at the mouth of Rudee Inlet.
But even with the right bait and the right rigs, we still couldn’t seem to catch a king. I’d find the clean water. I’d find the warm water. I’d find the bait but not the fish. Other boats around us would catch. We’d see huge kings skying out of the water. But we couldn’t get lucky.
Then the dam broke. On a late August morning, with a hard northeast wind blowing down the beach, Lee Williams and I left Rudee Inlet with a livewell full of candy-bar bluefish.
We surfed a four-foot swell to the yellow B buoy off Sandbridge Pier. I slowed the boat, and Williams put out the baits. When we passed the buoy, a big cobia swam up to the boat, looking for breakfast. Williams used a medium-action spinning rod to cast a live spot to the brown suit.
The hungry fish gobbled down the bait, and the fight was on. While Williams managed the cobia, I kept the boat bumping ahead to keep the baits swimming along. In a few minutes, he had the brown fish circling below the boat, and I was standing ready with the gaff.
Maybe it was our fishy sixth sense, but for some reason, Williams and I took our attention off the cobia just in time to see a 4-foot silver missile launch itself into the air onto the flat line bait. The king landed like Louganis, sliced the bait in half and missed all six hooks.
“Ahhhhhh!” We turned to each other and screamed.
Williams horsed the cobia to the boat, and I put the gaff to it. We dumped the whole mess (fish, gaff, rod) into the cooler and closed the lid.
Meanwhile, the king slashed on our short line and then made a pass at the kite bait. We ran frantically from rod to rod, pulling hooks and missing strikes. Eventually the king gave up and left.
By the time we refreshed the baits, my pulse had almost returned to normal. No other inshore fish had ever brought me closer to an aneurysm.
It wasn’t long before we got another shot. This time the big king fell on the short bait, and the hooks hit their mark. Williams was on the rod again.
The fish took off on a smoking run followed by an impossible charge, then a surface show and, finally, a toe-to-toe battle — the whole repertoire. After the show was over, we had a 20-pound king in the box. We ended up landing another 20-pounder and losing a third fish that was way bigger.
For the rest of the summer and into early September, I chased kings with a fever. Almost every trip produced at least one fish over 20 pounds. Along the way, we caught cobia and even big red drum.
The king has returned; it’s just like the good ol’ days all over again.
Mid-Atlantic King Mackerel
Slow trolling is the best way to fool a smoker king, but finding the fish often requires covering a lot of ground. When the fish are spread out, Hiles trolls Rapala Magnums in mackerel, Mann’s Stretch 40s in gold or silver, and Huntington Drone spoons in any color as long as it has reflective tape. He takes the boat at 5 to 6 knots around rips, color changes, bait pods and structure.
To guard against the king’s razor teeth, Hiles attaches an 8-inch piece of No. 5 wire between the lure and his 7-foot leader of 50-pound mono.
Once he hooks a king, he slows down and deploys five baits from 20 to 200 feet behind the boat. He favors a 7-foot rod with a light tip and a high-speed reel that holds hundreds of yards of 20-pound mono. He explained, “You want a whippy rod so that the hook doesn’t pull out of the bait.” The soft touch also keeps the king from pulling the hook on its initial smoking run.
Hiles uses a standard king rig but often places a small rubber duster before the front hook. “Throw out a bag of chum, and you’re in business,” he said.
Rods: Light-tipped 7-foot conventional.
Reels: High-speed with high line capacity, spooled with 30-pound low-visibility monofilament.
Lures: Mann’s Stretch 25 to 50 in gold or silver. Rapala Magnum in mackerel colors. Huntington Drone spoons with reflective tape.
Rigs: Double-hook king rig.
What: King mackerel.
Where: Virginia Beach, Virginia.
When: August and September.
Who: Cashing in on the return of the kingfish is something easily done from your own craft. You don’t need a lot of boat: A 20-footer works just fine. To help you get started right, consider enlisting the services of a local pro. Here are two who know the ropes.
Capt. Steve Wray
Capt. Jake Hiles