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November 13, 2012

Live Bait Fishing for Kingfish

Nothing beats a fresh live bait when targeting big king mackerel.

[Be sure to click through all the images in the gallery above.]

The king mackerel reigns supreme in the minds of many offshore fishermen who live between Texas and ­Virginia, and why not? Kingfish strike with abandon, fight hard, and get quite large. Plus, the stocks of kings came back from the brink of collapse when fishery managers wisely eliminated drift gill nets in the 1990s, so plenty of fish can be found in a great many places along the southeast United States coast.

This combination of factors spawned one of the most successful ­tournament series in history, the Southern Kingfish Association, and that series created a whole army of men and women who became experts at finding and catching big kings. It also provided welcome relief to the charter fleet in the South, allowing anglers to catch kings on a regular basis as part of a South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico mixed bag.

You can catch kingfish on lots of different rigs, but for the truly big fish, most pros rely on live bait. And while rigging for kings is surely not rocket science, there exist many subtle tricks you can employ to ­maximize your chances of success. We recently spoke with three such professional fishermen — two SKA pros and one charter captain — and asked them to tell us of some of those tricks. 

Bill Butler

Location: Belle Chase, Louisiana

Together with his brother Mike, Bill Butler owns Venice Marina in Venice, Louisiana, one of the best-known king mackerel hot spots in the world. The fertile waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico off the mouth of the ­Mississippi River consistently produce some of the most and the biggest kingfish found anywhere.

The Butlers, who run a 42-foot Invincible named Crawgator, have posted many wins on the SKA trail, and have hosted numerous tournaments out of their marina. Live-baiting has become an art form in that part of the world, and the bait supply there at times has to be seen to be believed.

“During fall, we sometimes get schools of pogies (Atlantic menhaden) that stretch as far as the eye can see,” ­Butler says. “The kingfish follow the pogies in huge schools, so pogies are always one of our top baits. But you’re not as likely to catch as many big fish on the pogies as you are on other baits.”

For the big kings, Butler likes blue runners — locally referred to as “hardtails” — bluefish and Spanish mackerel. “We find the bluefish in fall,” he says, “and sometimes we’ll fish five- or six-pounders. The big kings love ’em.” The fall mullet run presents opportunity as well, when the roe mullet appear in their annual migration and big kingfish follow them in.

“Every platform in the Gulf has hardtails around it,” Butler says. “We fish around the rigs a lot, and we’ll put 70 or 80 baits in the well before we start. If we need more, we can always toss a sabiki rig up by the well and catch a few more.” Structure plays an important role in king mackerel fishing, and the thousands of oil rigs in the Gulf make a natural place for kings to hold. He likes to fish two baits deep on downriggers, and at least two more on the surface in the prop wash.