• Published:October 8, 2015
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For Mid-Atlantic anglers, king mackerel are an autumn treat tastier than Halloween candy. From early October through the holiday season, big kings stage off the coast from Virginia Beach to Hatteras, North Carolina. To catch these smokers, crews use three tactics: live bait, dead bait and big plugs.


Watching a king mackerel explode on a live bait is one of the great treats of sportfishing. One second a live menhaden the size of pork chop dangles on the surface swimming frantically, panicked for its life. A nanosecond later a 4-foot, silver missile launches out of the water, knocks the bait 10 feet into the air, slashes it in half with razor teeth and splashes down with a screaming run.

The hardest part to live-bait fishing for kings can be catching the live bait. Crews search the backside of the surf line for schools of menhaden before heading to the king mackerel grounds. Crews typically throw a 10- to 20-foot, fast-sinking cast net or use a gill net with two-inch mesh to snare live baits. Make sure to check local regulations concerning cast nets and gill nets before hitting the water.

Once the livewell is full of live bait, you need to take care of them to get the most out of their performance. Menhaden like a round livewell with plenty of water circulation. Use wet hands or wet gloves to move the baits from the net to the livewell. Treat your baits gingerly and use a net and wet gloves to handle and hook the bait. Good baits will keep their silver color and fresh spunk. Bad bait will turn red or lose scales. King mackerel can tell the difference.


King mackerel will travel in a pack, sticking to preferred water temps and bottom structure. Catch one king, and you’re likely to find more in the same area.

Head to areas with a bumpy bottom, natural or artificial reefs. Inshore humps and shoals that break up the current confuse the bait and give kings an advantage. Shipwrecks, rough bottom, reef balls and other hard structure will host the whole food chain from microscopic organisms to baitfish to predators. Wrecks and reefs can be the best place to consistently find kings, even in the offseason.

Water temperature is another key to locating kings. From Virginia Beach to the Carolinas, king mackerel key in on water in the upper sixties to low seventies. As water temperatures drop, the fish jump into high gear. Expect the action to get fast and furious as water temperatures enter the upper sixties. When two bodies of water converge and create a break distinguished by color, clarity and/or temperature, it often creates a visible line that may be marked by grass and other debris. Kings can be found on either side of the break, so you’ll want to zigzag and look for other indicators that can help you find the bite.

Look for bait marks on the fishfinder or signs of bait on the surface and birds. Many times, huge schools of menhaden appear like black blots on the surface. The baitfish will pop and swirl then explode into frothy white water when a king mackerel slashes through the school. Also, look for bait marks on the bottom of the fishfinder. Kings often key in on schools of croakers that migrate off the coast in the fall and winter. Find a temperature or color change over structure that holds bait and you’re likely to find kings, too.

When the pieces come together, deploy the live baits. The classic live-bait rig starts with a pair of 4X strong No. 4 treble hooks. Then cut a 12-inch piece of wire and use a haywire twist to attach each end of the wire to a treble hook. Vary the length of the wire to match the size of the bait.

The front hook should fit in the menhaden’s nostril and the rear hook will attach by the anal fin. A 4-foot piece of No. 05 wire twisted to the eye of the front hook connects to the 20-pound monofilament mainline with an Albright knot. Slide a duster skirt over the front hook of a few rigs to add some flash to the offering.

Use a live bait rod with a flexible tip and stiff backbone. A 7-foot medium-action conventional rod with a high-speed reel is a perfect choice for this fishery. Look for a reel with a smooth drag and fast retrieve.

The system works like this. A king strikes the bait with speed and force. The small treble hooks snag the fish in the mouth while the thin wire guards against the king’s razor teeth. The soft rod tip absorbs a smoker’s explosive strike and keeps the tiny hooks from pulling out of the fish’s thin flesh.

The key to the combination is a silky smooth reel. A king will strike and scream off 100 yards of line in an instant. Set the drag at five pounds, light enough to keep the hooks from pulling on the run and tight enough to keep pressure on the fish and coax it to the boat. The reel should have a 6:1 gear ratio to quickly gain line when the fish charges.

A live bait strike might be violent and explosive, but winning the battle takes finesse and perfectly matched tackle.


In a fishy area with rods rigged and baits on board, the trick is to troll the baits just fast enough to keep the line tight and the fish swimming on the surface. Running the baits off outriggers or even a kite makes this easier. Pull two baits staggered 15 to 20 feet off the flat lines. Two more baits swimming on the surface off the short riggers and two from the long riggers to round out the spread.

Or, add a bait down the center and even a couple baits dangling from the kite to mix up the offering. Keeping the spread simple (four to six baits) may produce fewer bites but more fish. With spastic kings darting from bait to bait, fewer choices for the fish and fewer options for the crew can lead to fewer problems keeping a king on the hook.

While the skipper keeps the boat moving ahead at less than two knots, the anglers watch the baits and adjust the lines to keep the menhaden squirming on the surface. Let out some line to allow a bait to swim deeper or pull in some line to splash a bait across the surface and ring the dinner bell for big kings.

When the pieces come together, live bait presents a temptation too strong for any predator to resist. Explosive king mackerel fishing along the Mid-Atlantic coast presents a temptation too great for any angler to resist.