• Published:September 25, 2014
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How do you catch something that swims at breakneck speed and bites with brutal efficiency? You make this toothy tyrant come to you and then beat him at his own game.

Based largely on live bait with a particular rigging style made to repel the king’s formidable choppers, modern king mackerel slow-trolling takes time to master. With practice you’ll have your king-snaring routine down to a science if you just follow a few simple tips.


King mackerel are chewing machines guided by gluttony. They’ll pick off individual targets like small snapper and trout when opportunities arise, but kingfish most often focus on large schools of smaller baitfish, as these yield a greater ROI.

On the East Coast, menhaden (“pogies”) top the list of kingfish favorites from Florida to Virginia, with blue runners, bigeye scad (“goggle-eyes”) and mullet also fitting the bill. Runners and mullet are also popular choices in the Gulf of Mexico, along with ladyfish and bluefish. Along both Florida coasts, threadfin herring (“greenbacks”), scaled sardines (“whitebait”), cigar minnows and Spanish sardines also rank high on the kingfish bait list.

Pushing into the northern and western Gulf, kingfish anglers from Alabama and around to Texas also like to use pogies, along with white trout. Throughout the kingfish’s range, frozen cutlass fish (“ribbonfish”) can offer a good complement to the livies if you can get them. A good bet for downriggers, ribbonfish provide great swimming motion, while their big, flashy presence is a proven kingfish attractor.


Kingfish don’t exactly inhabit any particular type of structure, they prefer to keep on the move. But kingfish tend to favor hard bottom with structure that draw forage fish, including wrecks, rock piles, ledges and reefs (both natural and artificial).

Spotting bait schools on your depth finder is key when going after kingfish, but keep watch for surface bait busting. From a distance, large dark shadows on the surface is the best indicator of a mass of sardines or herring. Look for diving pelicans, gulls or terns circling tightly, hovering close to the surface or actually hitting the water.

Lastly, when kingfish push bait schools topside, the terrified baits splash and dash in frantic displays, while sudden white water streaks and/or waves of leaping baits will point to attacks from below. Of course, spotting a free-jumping king is a sure sign of an active area.

Find the food and you’ll find the kings. However, you can stimulate local fish and call in others from afar by establishing a scent trail. Do so by dispensing concentrated menhaden oil from an IV-style dripper bag and hanging a frozen chum block over the side in a mesh bag.


Once you find the fish, you have to be prepared for one of the most vicious bites in the ocean. Known for slashing through their prey and gobbling immobilized survivors, kings will often make short work of single-hooked baits.

In North Carolina’s coastal waters where contemporary live-bait slow-trolling tactics originated, kingfish anglers invented the standard stinger rig comprising of a hook set through the nose, mouth or forehead of a baitfish and a treble hook or stinger hook, run from the eye of the main hook on a 3- to 5-inch piece of wire. Essentially, the main hook harnesses your baitfish, while the trailing stinger typically snares the king.
Stinger rigs may hook kings in the mouth but it’s not uncommon to grab one outside of the mouth, often in the side of the fish's head. Considering the immense biting power of giant “smoker” kings, No. 4 leader wire and No. 5 wire on the stinger segments offers good insurance in all but super-clear waters. In the Northern Gulf, where 50-plus-pound kingfish are common, No. 7 wire often gets the call.

Start with a single 2/0 main hook, and use a small piece of wire to attach the trailing No. 4 treble hook. Anglers can use traditional knots with flexible titanium leaders, or the haywire twist with traditional wire. For leader swivels, main hooks and stinger segments, use a four- or five-turn haywire twist, capped with as many barrel wraps. Just be sure to break off the excess tag end cleanly to avoid sharp burrs that can cut up your hands.

For large baitfish such as jumbo blue runners, ladyfish and mullet, a rig with more than one stinger segment covers every portion of the bait that a king may bite. Big baits will intimidate smaller kingfish, so livies large enough to wear multiple stingers will usually only attract the king you came to catch.


Troll your king baits on a 7 1/2- to 8-foot medium-heavy, soft-tip rod and high-speed reel loaded with at least 300 yards of 20- to 30-pound line. Some augment their wire leaders by using about 12 feet of 30- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader (to avoid tail whipping). Tying your kingfish rig directly from the wire to the fluorocarbon leader with an Albright knot -- and without a swivel -- can help increase your bites.

On the strike, let the king run as long as he wants. Keep the drag light to prevent pulled hooks, but maintain constant pressure by holding the rod tip at 10- to 11-o’clock. 

With a king at boatside, the gaffer has to stay behind the fishing line. These fish can easily bolt and break you off. Wait for the king to surface, lay the gaff across the meaty shoulder area and pull the point home.