How To Catch King Mackerel on Fly Tackle

Want to put your fly fishing tackle to the test? Try targeting kingfish.
kingfish caught on fly tackle
King mackerel are known for their strong fights and speedy runs. Catching them on fly tackle is the ultimate test. Scott Hamilton

Who doesn’t like a good, strong run out of a fish? I’m talking about a long, screaming, drag-smoking run. As you watch line melt off the reel, you’re thinking, “Is this thing going to spool me?” Most everyone I know, myself included, can appreciate that display of power. Especially when it’s a fly reel that’s sounding like the timing chain in your car is going bad. Maybe I’m dating myself with the timing chain reference. Let’s change that to “sounds like a high-pitched squeal unnatural to the object making it.”

King mackerel will put a grin on any angler’s face. Estimates on what speed they achieve vary, with big kingfish over 30 pounds approaching the 50-mph mark. To put that into perspective, bonefish are estimated to top out in the mid 20-mph range.

King Mackerel Fly Fishing Tackle

My recommendations are a 10-weight setup for small or medium-sized kingfish, and a 12-weight for big king mackerel. Next up, reels. You are looking for reels with the 10-weight to hold about 250 yards of backing, and the 12-weight reel should hold a minimum of 350 yards. Most of the time, that will be enough line to handle most runs.

Find a full-length sinking line with a sink rate in excess of 5 inched per second. There aren’t many being offered presently, but Rio makes the T series of lines. The T-11 and T-13 work perfectly on 10- and 12-weight rods. Scientific Anglers Sonar series has a couple full length sinkers that will work also.
Leader length will be determined by water clarity, 9 foot being a minimum. Gin clear may demand 14-foot leaders.

Fly Tackle for kingfish
For kingfish tackle, use a 10-weight setup for small or medium-sized kingfish, and a 12-weight for bigger king mackerel. Scott Hamilton

King Mackerel Flies for Fly Fishing

Fly selection is varied to the extreme. Baitfish imitations are the standard, but Clouser minnows, Deceivers and all of the other popular streamers can take fish. Chartreuse over white is arguably the color most consistent getting a kingfish’s attention, but pink over white, all yellow, orange over yellow, all white, and olive over white work too.

How to Use a Sinking Line for King Mackerel

If you have not used sinking lines before, here are a couple tips. A short cast and then feeding the line out will get considerably deeper than making a long cast and just letting the line sink. There’s always wind and current moving the boat, and that movement will have the effect of lifting the line and preventing sinking. A line with no tension on it is what you want for getting really deep.

The fastest way of “dumping” the line is to hold the line very loosely in your line hand and make horizontal sweeps back and forth with the rod tip just a few inches off the water. The drag on the line by the water, combined with the rod movement, will pull all the slack line off the deck and out the rod tip. There is a certain amount of rod stroke, about a 100-degree stroke, and the lines flies out. And the faster you can get all the line in the water will allow the top section of the line, where the fly is, to sink the longest amount of time drag-free. This is how to get ultra-deep. Combined with weighted flies, I regularly bounce flies on the bottom in 80 to 100 feet of water.

Sometimes kingfish like a fly retrieved at breakneck speed, but it is rare. A varied, erratic stripping is more likely to get strikes in my experience. Stripping fast 2 to 4 times, and then having a long (2 full seconds) pause is typical. Sometimes, 1 long fast strip, followed by a full 5-second pause is the ticket to getting hooked up. One any given day, the kings can have a particular strip that will cause them to jump on your fly and it may take some experimentation to find what they want.

fighting a kingfish on fly tackle
Setting the hook on a kingfish is not as easy as it sounds, especially if the mackerel picked up the fly and is speeding toward the boat. Scott Hamilton

Fly Fishing for Kingfish

If you talk to anyone who fishes for kings to any great degree, they will be the first to tell you that kingfish are famous for being temperamental. They definitely have a switch and they can start and stop feeding in very short order. Just because you’re not getting hits doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. I usually give it an hour, several fly changes, and try stripping variations. If strikes are still not coming, move on to other species. But if they are on, hang on to your rod. Kingfish can hit your fly moving fast, stopped dead, and on the free fall while you are letting the line sink.

If you have a strike and the fish misses the fly, do not stop moving the fly. If anything, speed up the retrieve. Most mackerel feed by hitting their prey at speed, decapitating the prey, and then swing back around to pick up the pieces. By continued stripping, the kingfish believes its prey is getting away and will typically come back for another strike.

Hooking King Mackerel on Fly Tackle

Setting the hook on the strike can be quite challenging for a couple reasons. King mackerel have a wide range of striking practices. They can hit going away at 30 miles an hour and then speed up when they feel the hook. You are actually trying to set the hook while letting the fish take line out.

Or, a kingfish can pick up the fly with incredible subtlety, and then swim directly at you, leaving you to strip line like mad in an effort to come tight and set the hook. A strip strike will not serve you well in either of these scenarios. I like a combination of strip strike and rod set (rod struck hard and low to the side) to allow for either a strike going away or coming toward.

You’ll just need to get some experience under your belt for consistent solid hookups with kingfish. The strike from a king mackerel often happens in the blink of an eye, and then the line is flying off the deck at amazing speed. Everything happens so fast, that to prioritize a good hook-set, I highly recommend what I refer to as secondary hook-setting. After the line is cleared and line is coming off the reel, point the rod straight in the direction of the fish, do not touch the reel or line, and add 4 to 6 additional short jabs with the rod. Even though line is coming off the reel, the jabbing motion adds pulsing force to the hook point and finishes setting the hook.

The other method for fly fishing kings is live chumming. This can generate some of the most intense action you may ever see, with kings launching out of the water to dizzying heights. It is pretty much the same as any other live chumming with a couple of exceptions. First, live chumming kingfish has the best results with large chum baits. Use pilchards or menhaden, at least 4 inches long. Smaller baits will usually just get the smaller blue runners and false albacore active. When live chumming, I like to match the fly to the bait. A chartreuse-over-white fly the same general size as the chum baits performs significantly better than anything else.