King mackerel arrive off the South Carolina coast in the spring, and their numbers swell with the rising summer temperatures. The first fish show up offshore, out of range for most anglers. But as the water heats up and bait moves closer to shore, the kings are right behind, putting them within striking distance of a lot more fishermen.
If you have never fished for king mackerel, it is not an activity for the faint of heart. This is serious fishing that can go from downright laid back to complete and utter chaos in a matter of seconds. Even seasoned fishermen fill with excitement with each king that arrives in a spread.
It's that addicting.
Living in the ocean is an eat-or-be-eaten lifestyle. Everything is food for something else, and predators often make a ruckus in the buffet line.
King mackerel are one of those patrons. They don't move politely along the bottom sucking up prey. Rather, their rocket-shaped bodies and mouthful of razors are designed to overtake prey with speed and stealth, leaving little time to clean their palates after the massacre.
King mackerel are literally spread everywhere in August, and to find them all you have to do is find the bait, which is not hard.
"You will find king mackerel from the beach out to 150 feet of water right now," said Capt. Robert Olsen of Knot@Work Fishing Charters (843-442-7724, www.knotatworkfishing.com) in Charleston.
Olsen knows king mackerel. He's done well in tournaments, just missing a big payday with the third-place finish in the 2007 Tailwalker Marine Offshore Challenge this past June.
"They're scattered everywhere," Olsen said. "You'll find big fish close to the beach - schools of 5 to 15 pounders all over the place - and quality fish out around 70 feet.
"August is a prime month. You can catch them from a johnboat. Any numbers for live-bottom area, as well as artificial reefs, are as good a starting point as anything."
Olsen suggested that fishermen new to the sport obtain a commercially made chart, such as the ones made by Maps Unique, that identifies live-bottom areas and other underwater structures that might attract king mackerel.
"Even though these fish can be close to shore, I usually stay in water greater than about 15 feet deep," Olsen said. "Farther up the coast, you can find fish nearly in the surf because the bottom contour is different. That's why you hear more about anglers catching kings from piers located to the north of Charleston.
"Off of Charleston, you might have to be 2 miles offshore before you are in good king mackerel water. Fishing piers don't extend that far.
"A lot of good fish congregate in the 50- to 75-foot depth range," Olsen said. "It seems like as you get shallower, there's still some fish there, but not as many. That said, that doesn't mean I don't keep an eye out for any activity close to the beach or around inlets and jetties.
"This is especially true if there's a lot of bait in an area or I see birds working."
Captain David Yates of Yate Sea Charters (843-568-2521) is another excellent local king mackerel fisherman who has had success on the king mackerel tournament trail. He's won the 1999 Fishing for Miracles (the first tournament he entered), 2001 and 2004 Rumph Brothers Marine and 2005 Tailwalker Marine Offshore Challenge.
"I like to fish between the beach and about 70 feet of water," Yates said. "It seems that if you get deeper this month, the fish are smaller. You are only talking about an area from the beach out to about 25 miles, which puts these fish in range of a lot of people.
"Someone new to the sport can learn a lot by hanging out in tackle shops and around charter docks. These fish are located over live-bottom areas that are holding bait."
Yates also said that quality charts were a good resource for beginners.
"On any given day, there is no telling where I might be," Yates said. "If it's a higher tide, I may be closer to the beach, because those big kings might be running bait there. But I'm watching to see where I'm marking bait, seeing birds and finding tide lines.
"One thing is, however, I'm not running all over the place looking for fish. Once I get in an area, I'm pretty much there for a good amount of time. This might be the shipping channel out of Charleston, another inlet or along some offshore ledge that gives kings a contour to follow bait."
Olsen said that tide lines are a prime place to look for kings.
"I prefer to stay on the clean side of a tide line," he said. "I'll want to try the other side if it's not real dirty. Sometimes, the dirty water only goes down about 8 to 10 feet deep, and there could be fish under that dirty water."
Both Olsen and Yates opt to slow troll live baits for king mackerel.
"I feel like the key to success is keeping my baits swimming as natural as possible," Yates said. "If it appears they are being pulled, then a large king is going to ignore them.
"Large fish are loners, and they didn't get big by being aggressive, like a lot of the 15-and 20-pounders. The big fish tend to be more laid back.
"When a big fish comes into a spread, he may look at a bait for 5 minutes or more. He can probably see all of your baits at one time. If he detects that something is wrong, he'll leave."
Yates typically fishes four lines. He uses 7-foot medium-action Pelagic Series live-bait rods made by G. Loomis. The rods are matched with Shimano Torium 30s - a reel that features a 6-to-1 fast retrieve.
"My rods are spooled with 30-pound-test monofilament -high-visibility line," Yates said. "Then I use a blood knot to attach a 30-pound test fluorocarbon leader that's about 30- to 50-feet long. A small SPRO swivel attaches the 7-strand 60-pound test cable wire."
From there, Yates may run a single bait or two baits per line. In front of the first bait, no matter if it's a single or double, he might run a skirt. He was adamant that the skirt should be in front of the bait and not pressed up against it, which he said can drown delicate baits. If he runs two baits per line, he will put another swivel between them to prevent twisting of the second bait, which he says looks unnatural underwater.
"I use No. 4 treble hooks," Yates said. "If I run one bait, it will have a hook through its nose and a second hook towards the back. If I run two baits, the first bait will only have the single nose hook and the second bait will be rigged like it was a single bait.
"The second hook, whether it is in a single or double bait, is always on the underside of the bait on the opposite side of the nose hook," Yates said.
Olsen runs a similar spread. He normally fishes three to four rods on top, but he also runs two downriggers, one about 5 feet off of the bottom and the other one about halfway down in the water column.
"On top, I run one bait way back, about 100 yards behind the boat," Olsen said. "The other baits will be in the prop wash, and then there will be one behind that.
"I run a lot of double and triple baits, and these run better in the prop wash close to the boat since there is less drag on the line," Olsen said. "If it's calm, I might put some 2- or 3-bait rigs farther back."
Olsen rigs the deep downrigger with a single bait and the other downrigger with a double bait.
Olsen also employs treble hooks, frequently No. 4s or 6s. He rigs the hooks on 44-pound test wire that is 20 to 36 inches long. The hooks are usually spaced 6 to 8 inches apart, with the first hook in the nose and the other lower in the body towards the back. If it's a multiple-bait rig the last hook on the last bait dangles, unless he's using a big mullet, then he might put all three hooks in the bait.
Olsen and Yates both said menhaden are the most common baits. Mullet, blue runners and small bluefish also can be used as bait, they said.
No matter what bait you use, you shouldn't troll more than 1 to 2 miles per hour. Yates said he monitors conditions and trolls at whatever speed is necessary to keep his baits as natural as possible. For example, the wind may push the boat so fast that you may not have to put the boat in gear much.
"When trolling, it's not a bad idea to be adding some chum to the water," Yates said. "When I'm trolling and chumming, I stay in that area and let the chum do its job. I hold my own in that area almost so much that it is like I'm anchored instead of trolling."
Some other local conditions that can affect fishing this month is the moon and any storms that have come to the coast.
"During the full moon, the kings can feed at night," Olsen said. "This slows the bite down some, and it is usually the strongest early and late in the day.
"A storm may turn the water over and force you to fish farther offshore to find cleaner water.
"I like to look for water that is kingfish green," Olsen said. "You'll know what that looks like after awhile, because if you're in the right spot, a king mackerel's back looks green in the right water."