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September 12, 2011

Kings of Virginia

Big king mackerel are back in Virginia Beach and the fishing is great

Ahab chased Moby Dick, Santiago chased the brother fish, and last summer I chased king mackerel off Virginia Beach. While my pursuit may fall short of epic, catching a king at the species’ northernmost extreme is no fairy tale either.
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when kings were plentiful enough off Virginia to support a thriving fishery and even a tournament stop on the Southern Kingfish Association tour. Then the bite dried up. In the early ’90s, the kings disappeared, and so did the kingfishermen.
That is until 2007, when Susan Smith set a new state record with a 63-pounder. Suddenly the kings were back, and I had to catch one. Spurred by stories of the good ol’ days and visions of skying smokers, I turned all my attention to catching a king mackerel off Virginia Beach.

Going Old School
My first move was to dig up some old-school advice. So I cornered Capt. Steve Wray at his tackle shop, Long Bay Pointe Bait and Tackle, and grilled him on his techniques.

Back in the day, Wray ruled the kingfishing scene. Not only did he place second in SKA’s Virginia Beach stop, but he was an integral part of the annual Virginia Beach Anglers Club King Mackerel Tournament.

“That’s what I did 15, 20 years ago, fish for king mackerel,” Wray recalled.

He told me of days gone by, when he could expect to catch a smoker each time he went kingfishing. “We were regularly catching fish over 40 pounds,” he remembered.

He started the day cast-netting large menhaden for bait. “Used to take one throw of the net, and you’d be set,” he said. “Then it got to where you’d spend three-quarters of the day looking for bait and never see any fish.”

Once Wray had bait on board, his first stop would be Cape Henry, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. “We started at the Green Can and worked our way out the tide rip to the CBJ line,” he says, describing Can G15 and the line of buoys that mark the shipping channel. From there he would head out the channel, looking for the clearest, warmest water he could find.

“Inshore wrecks were a good stop too,” Wray added, “and you would almost always find fish on Tower Reef.”

He also likes the stretch of underwater humps and valleys that pock the bottom from Rudee Inlet south to False Cape.

But all that ended over 10 years ago, when the kings abdicated from Virginia. “Where they went, I don’t know,” Wray said.

Then in 2007, the fish came back. Word got out about a few hard-core holdouts catching some impressive fish. In addition to a new state record, several other kings over 50 pounds were registered with the Virginia Saltwater Gamefish Tournament — including two caught on Sandbridge Pier.

The kings had returned.

New School
After my crash course in king mackerel history, I went looking for contemporary advice. One angler in on the renaissance from the start was Capt. Jake Hiles of Matador Sportfishing. Hiles was just a pup when the kings were last abundant in the waters off of Virginia Beach, but when the fish returned, he was one of the first to know about it.

“The bait came back, and so did the fish,” he explained. Both Hiles and Wray agree that huge schools of menhaden mean huge king mackerel for Virginia anglers. “Not only did the kings come back, but red drum and cobia fishing were fantastic too,” Hiles added.

Hiles first encountered kings early in the summer while targeting bluefin tuna on inshore lumps such as the Fishhook and Hot Dog. “They would pile on our ballyhoo baits and cedar plugs,” he said.

Later in the summer, the kings moved closer to shore, once again returning to their inshore haunts off Virginia Beach.

“You’re not going to catch a lot of fish,” he warned, “but the ones you catch will be big.”

Which is why I was excited about chasing kings off Virginia Beach. After talking with these two captains, I was even more fired up. But putting this advice into action took a lot of trial and a lot of error.