With abundant baitfish at the beaches near shore and pleasant fall temperatures, the conditions for reel-screaming king mackerels are hot, even for small- craft and pier anglers.
Fall is prime time for king mackerel in the Carolinas. It's not uncommon for nearshore reefs to have a collaboration of boats from 17-foot aluminum boats to 50-foot sportfishermen, all cranking in king mackerels.
During fall, the bait packs together along the beaches and nearshore reefs, providing ample opportunities for king mackerels to pack on the pounds before winter conditions arrive.
Menhaden, mullets and cigar minnows are favored baitfish by king mackerel, as well as the anglers who chase them. Most king anglers slow troll with live or dead baits or troll at higher speeds with flashy artificials.
As one of the top pelagic predators of the Atlantic Ocean, nomadic king mackerels travel great distances across the Continental Shelf, trailing the concentrations of baitfish.
Where big bait pods circle, "school" kings are almost guaranteed to lurk nearby, thus one of the smallest of fishes in the food chain primarily controls predatory fish movements.
Changes in water conditions in the fall also drive king inshore and offshore fish to different areas of the ocean.
Baitfish scurry inshore as the water begins to warm in the spring. Shallow waters usually warm first and cool first in the fall. And inshore areas are rich in phytoplankton and zooplankton.
Baitfishes are temperature dependent and require an optimum temperature to thrive. However, as the water warms the waters at depth in the shallows, the baitfish must retreat to the deeper depths and seek out structure for refuge and foraging.
Deeper waters have the opportunity to provide a greater range of temperature gradients than shallower water. So, depending upon water temperatures, kings congregate during fall at baitfish-infested wrecks.
Changes in water temperature will keep them on the move throughout the year as the water conditions deteriorate in a certain area. King mackerels also prefer a temperature range that's comfortable, but must be accommodating for their prey species.
"King mackerels prefer water temperatures in the 70s or greater but will stay around in the fall until the baitfish depart," said Capt. Fred Rourk of Tailwalker Marine at Georgetown. "Kings congregate in heavy schools and corral the bait in tight schools. They have baits to themselves because the other predators, amberjacks and barracudas, can't tolerate the cooler water temperature and leave all the chomping to the kings."
Menhadens are a favored baitfish among king fishermen. Menhaden (or "pogies") spawn in the spring at estuaries and quickly grow to maturity throughout the summer.
As the water cools each fall, young adult schools of menhaden join parent schools and leave estuaries to stage for their upcoming southern migration. Congregations of menhaden at the beaches and nearshore reefs draw king mackerel, which begin another feeding frenzy.
The king mackerel is the most-sought gamefish beyond the breakers in United States waters. The Southern Kingfish Association is one of saltwater sportfishing's largest tournament trails. With tournaments from the mid-Atlantic south around the horn of Florida to Mexico, SKA has been one of the sport's innovative groups. Fortunately for novice king mackerel fishermen, the many tournaments across the southeastern United States have bred expertise and provided proven methods to catch fish.
Former SKA pros such as Rourk and current SKA touring professionals Jack and Eren Bracewell, fishing aboard Eren's Addiction Too based at Summerville, have chased and landed kings under many conditions and at many locales.
Rourk and partner Greg Holmes, who fished competitively for five years from Venice, La., to Morehead City, N.C., said equipment, particularly boat styles, can make the difference in top-10 or top-50 finishes.
Tailwalker Marine's 31-foot Contender has a single-level deck that allows greater control, makes easier the catching of baits, while also allowing the team to maneuver around the deck with ease. Most years, 60 percent of pro-tour boats will use top-performance fishing platforms.
"Everyone's looking for the secret to (king) fishing, (but) there is only one," Rourk said, "and it applies to all species - time on the water. SKA pros are skilled and use the same gear. So locating fish is the key, and time on the water."
Rourk's fall fishing technique is a run-and-gun method, as he hops from reef to reef in a short amount of time, seeking a specific water temperature.
"Water temperature dictate the depth and how far to run," he said. "Most of the schooling fish in the fall will be 'punks' in the 10- to 20-pound class, but the action will be fast,."
Live or frozen cigar minnows or "hard" baits, such as Drone spoons and cedar plugs, are the baits of choice for Rourk, who trolls them at 6 knots.
He said the most important aspect of fall king fishing is finding schools of fish that feed erratically and strike almost anything that resembles a baitfish.
Eren and Jack Bracewell of Summerville form Team Eren's Addiction Too, a 23-foot Contender. The husband and wife began fishing together about eight years ago, initially just for fun.
They've fished the SKA's Mercury Tournament Trail in South Carolina Division 3 and recently joined the Wal-Mart/FLW Kingfish Series in the South Carolina/Georgia Division.
During the past two years the team has built an impressive reputation at both tournament trails, including several top-three Lady Angler finishes, a first-place overall in a Fort Pierce, Fla., Tournament within a Tournament, and first place Lady Angler at the 2006 James Island Yacht Club Invitational.
The Bracewells concentrate during the fall at live-bottom areas and artificial reefs in 45 to 60 feet of water, such as the Charleston 60 reef.
"Kingfish will follow baits," Jack Bracewell said. "Finding concentrations of bait lead us to the fish.
"Late in the fall, baits will hold at artificial reefs a little longer because of the security offered by the structures. During early fall, kings are easier to find. Later in the fall, they're harder to find but will school in larger groups. Most of the schooling fish will be smaller."
Bracewell's fall trolling technique isn't much different than at other times of the year. Although he sometimes anchors and fishes with balloons, he prefers to slow troll to cover a larger area using light tackle. His rigs are well suited for the aggressive king mackerel.
Kings ambush their prey at high rates of speed, slashing through a school of baitfish during the first pass, then quickly return to gobble up leftovers.
Bracewell's rigs usually snag a king on the first pass. They consist of a No. 4 Eagle Claw treble hook or No. 4 single-nose hook and a No. 4 stinger treble in tow attached to 18 to 24 inches of single-strand No. 5 Malin wire. Bracewell also dresses his rigs with Kingbuster or Smokers Only skirts in pink/white, blue/white, chartreuse or crystal colors.
He often mixes different colors of skirts but sometimes uses naked baits. His trolling spreads include five lines with three on top and two down-riggers. His surface lines are a long line out to 250 feet, a medium-length line that typically is 150 feet behind the stern, and a short line about 75 feet back. He baits the down-riggers with ribbonfish and positions one 20 feet off the bottom and a second splits the difference between the deepest ribbonfish and the surface.
Bracewell is a firm believer in trolling as slowly as possible when using live baits at almost idle speed. Letting the bait swim freely is a key to enticing mackerel strikes. When he employs frozen baits, Bracewell trolls a little faster to give dead baits more action.
"Maybe it's dedication, and hard work," he said about fishing success. "We spend time on the water that a lot of teams don't. We fish between tournaments and work closely with a small network of other boats that do the same.
"There's also the luck factor. Being successful at tournament fishing requires you be in the right place at the right time, have the right baits, good bait presentation, and hope the fish decides to bite your baits.
"Once a fish is hooked, a (fishing team also) must execute properly to get the fish to the gaff."
Good equipment and organization on a boat undoubtedly improves catches.
Likewise, successful recreational anglers need to reduce missed strikes and try to land all fish. Some strikes never result in a hooked fish, but faulty equipment can easily prevent lost fish.
Bracewell and Rourk are firm believers in using freshly-made rigs during each fishing trip and each rig is replaced after each caught fish. Single-strand wire also provides baits greater action and brute strength, but a feisty king mackerel will demolish a perfect rig during the first strike.
Another important factor with using fresh rigs is having razor-sharp hooks. A sharp hook will outfish a dull hook any day.
Tackle is cheap and always a good investment when a $50,000 fish is slashing through baits behind the boat. Again, good equipment will determine a first-place finish or a missed opportunity.
King mackerels are strong fighters and strike hard, burying sharp trebles in their mouths, but these fish may break off just as quickly. Proper drag and angling techniques are absolutely important when using light tackle.
Bracewell tends to be more successful when using frisky live baits. Too many anglers make the mistake of trying to overstock live wells with bait.
Keeping baits frisky and alive is closely related to the livewell configuration and density of fish in the tank. Menhaden quickly die if too many are packed in a baitwell.
Bracewell allows one bait per gallon of capacity in the well. A high-capacity pump will turn over water quickly and keep baits alive and frisky.
Many anglers also overlook their intake systems and don't allow the pumps to correctly run at running speeds. The livewell system must have a through-hull high-speed pickup.
Having multiple livewells with high capacities provide additional bait reserves for trips with high expectations.
Rourk and Bracewell agreed spending a lot of time on the water and networking is the key to success any time of year, including the fall brawl period for king mackerel. Many pro anglers use basically the same general techniques but make small changes in hook sizes, leader lengths, trolling speeds, skirt configurations, etc., seeking competitive edges.
Finding locations of fish and using the right baits with the right presentations will determine the level of success for fall king fishing.