Tournament Tips for King Mackerel

These tips can help you win your first king mackerel tournament

January 17, 2018
king mackerel
A true “smoker.” Capt. Dave Lear

Fishing competitively for king mackerel is an infectious sport that combines skill, teamwork and speed. If you’ve never entered a high-stakes event, the prospect of going up against veteran anglers and professional crews for the first time can be somewhat intimidating. Here are several ways for you to level the playing field.

Be prepared. Make sure your rods and reels are all working properly and load all reels with fresh line. Prepare live bait rigs beforehand and stock up on frozen bait for a backup. Go over the boat, motor and trailer thoroughly before the tournament starts. Service the outboards and carry an inventory of tools and critical spare parts, such as bilge/livewell pumps, propeller and prop wrench, spark plugs, oil, grease and trailer hubs with bearings. You never know when you may have to troubleshoot and improvise on the water, like replacing a pump to keep the baits alive.

trolling live baits
Slow trolling live baits in spots where kings congregate often produces winning fish. Capt. Dave Lear

If the tournament is out of town, start a checklist of things to bring, including foul weather gear, extra dock lines, charts and the appropriate navigation chips for the area. Don’t forget the obvious like making hotel reservations, paying entry fees or buying necessary fishing licenses. Take care of the routine stuff first, then put all your efforts into finding bait and catching fish.


Scout in advance. Most successful crews pre-fish for several days before an event to find out where both the fish and bait are located. If you are in a new locale, scouting also provides advance warning on possible navigation hazards. Glean as much local knowledge as you can from tackle shops, charter boats or other teams, but share accordingly if you expect that source to be forthcoming in the future.

livewell with live bait
A livewell full of frisky live bait is a key factor in tournament success. Capt. Dave Lear

Trophy kings don’t get big by being stupid. Load up on local live bait and make sure it stays lively in the well or a reserve bait tank. Rig according to size; strikes come on baits that look as natural as possible, so don’t weigh them down with heavy wire leader or oversized hooks. Menhaden (pogies), blue runners (hard tails), cigar minnows, mullet, bluefish and Spanish mackerel are among the top live baits, depending on the region. If you run out of bait or yours are sluggish, go catch some more. And always carry frozen bait as a backup. Fresh, flash-frozen shiny ribbonfish are the universal king-candy.

bluefish as bait
Live bluefish are popular king mackerel bait. Capt. Dave Lear
king mackerel catch
Another tourney contender is deposited in the fish box. Capt. Dave Lear

This is a team sport and to be successful, all members must work together in unison. Collectively decide on a strategy before fishing begins, but be flexible if Mother Nature throws a curve. Part of the thrill of this competition is the speed factor, hence the requisite high-performance center consoles. If the bait moved from its pre-fish location and that spot is now a dead zone, jump and run to Plan B. But once the drag goes off and that potential trophy is taking line, everyone should have assigned tasks. Ultimately there is only one captain who must make command decisions.


Timing is everything. Many veteran “smoker” hunters swear by lunar tables and feed times to catch their fish. I definitely believe there is credence to this approach. But a world record fish on ice won’t win anything if it doesn’t make it to the scales in time. Allow a fudge factor when calculating the running time back in.

One final bit of advice: Don’t stress out. Have fun, win, place or show. After all, this is the sport of kings.


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