Smokin’ Kings

Capt. Mark Jonas of Miss Judy Charters hoists a smoker king mackerel that hit a ballyhoo dressed in a Sea Witch mylar skirt.

Anglers don’t have to wait for deep summer to find trophy king mackerels if they know where to go off the Palmetto coast.

King mackerel anglers don’t have to wait until the mid-summer heat to score on serious fishing at the South Carolina coast.

Some take the approach of fishing for smoker kings early in the year — and just keep on fishing. Patterns will change in terms of where the fish are located and what they’ll bite. The techniques used to catch kings may vary as well.

But from spring through fall, Palmetto State anglers can enjoy great king mackerel fishing.

One veteran king fisherman who has this long-term philosophy is Capt. Judy Helmey. Continuing the company charter business her father, Captain Sherman Helmey, began in 1948, Helmey operates “Miss Judy Charters” and has been around the fishing business for over a half century (912-897-4921;

“During that time, I’ve picked up a few tricks of the trade,“ Helmey said.

“Throughout the time I’ve been in the business, fishing for king mackerels has been one of our most popular fish species. There’s many ways to catch kings, but we’ve figured some consistent methods to enjoy reliable success.”

The time of the year will certainly have an impact on where and how to fish for king mackerels. Most of Helmey’s fishing is at the southern portion of the South Carolina coastline near the Georgia border and offshore from the Savannah River.

“The month of April is a so-so time for kings because of the lack of bait,” Helmey said. “But some good-sized fish will be caught, especially around the warm, blue waters of the Gulf Stream. While you can target kings at that time, I’ve found they are often a by-product catch while fishing for tuna and wahoo.

“However, by May and June, we’ll see some really good fishing from the Gulf Stream back into about 50 feet of water. At this time of the year, I can really key on specific techniques to help me locate fish — things like rips that show signs of life, feeding birds and locating bait pods offer great opportunities to find kings.”

Helmey said the 2007 season may be a very good one based on what she witnessed late last summer and fall.

“During the fall we have our late season migration of king mackerels,” she said. “Some years the fish average quite large and other years they’re smaller. We refer to the smaller ones as ‘snakes.’ We had a ‘snake’ kind of year during late 2006. Typically the following year will be somewhat better. We seemed to have a bumper crop of juvenile mackerel, so I’m quite optimistic about our king mackerel fishing for 2007.”

Helmey said there are several ways to catch king mackerels. Trolling, fast or slow, using down-riggers, planers or using live bait rigs can be effective. She said the key to success is adaptability; she’ll keep changing techniques and places until she finds a productive pattern.

“During the early season, odds are good you’ll find more average-size fish,” she said. “But there are plenty of big fish to be had along the S.C. coast during May and June if you fish correctly.”

Helmey said there are many varieties of rigs for king mackerels, but she uses one that’s proven effective during many different fishing situations. She said she’d used it to win some king mackerel tournaments in recent years.

“Live-bait king mackerel rigs are simple to make,” she said. “Begin with 32-pound-pound-test wire and a single live-bait short-shank hook, either Size 4 or 6. Also get a strong kingfish treble in sizes 2, 4 and 6. Next, haywire twist the bait hook on to a 4-foot piece of wire leader. Then add the add 4 to 6 inches of wire by haywire twist to the eye of the live bait hook. To this attach your treble hook.

“The treble hook is also called the stinger hook. It can be embedded in your baitfish or left (to dangle) free. I like my stinger to fall either at the dorsal fin or between the dorsal and tail.

“Sometimes I find out the hard way exactly where the fish are hitting a particular day. If I get a hit and miss the hookup, I’ll check the bait to determine the best place for the stinger hook.”

With the leader ready, Helmey said several options exist in tying the leader to the main line. The old way, she said, was to make a haywire twist in the leader, which makes a loop to which you can tie the main line. However, now she feels it’s best to use a swivel.

“I’d suggest a 35-pound-test swivel, which is small and more difficult to spot as being unnatural by ol’ brown eyes,” Helmey said. “The rule of thumb when king mackerel fishing is you want the fish to see the bait and not what’s holding it. Short strikes are the result if they see something phony.

“For the main line to the reel, use 17- to 20-pound-test line. Some fishermen will use even smaller test line.

“My father taught me that the lighter the line test strength, the more (baitfish) action you get. He also said more action can mean more breakoffs, especially if you get too anxious and over-tighten your drag. King mackerels are strong first runners, so keep that in mind as well when selecting line size.”

Another charter captain who works with Miss Judy charters is Ken Kennickell. He said when live baiting for kings most of the charter captains use similar rigs. However, different boats will seem to have different preferences that work for them when they get down to the specifics.

“When we’re (fishing) in a general area, we all use rigged ballyhoo that’s dressed up with some sort of Sea Witch skirt or Sea Striker Ultra Mylar Duster,” he said. “Sea Witch heads come in different sizes, from 1/4-ounce to around 2 1/2-ounce heads.

“As for hair or skirts, different fishermen have special colors that work for them. Some prefer a pink/white combination while other fishermen prefer chartreuse hair color. I personally like the blue-and-white combination.

“Most believe think the personal noise of a specific boat plays a big part in the color that is the most effective. For instance, I think that blue colors work better on the Bertram-style hulls, just to give you an example. These boats are usually powered by diesel engines. Those engines powered by gas might find another color works best for them. It’s usually a matter of experimentation and trial and error.”

Kennickell also said spoons are excellent artificial lures.

“Three-and-one-half-inch Drone spoons are probably the most popular fast trolled metal type spoons used for kings,” he said. “These spoons work best for me when pulled on a 30-foot leader, with snap swivels on both ends of the leader. I use 80-pound test Quatro, camo-colored line behind a No. 3 planer at speeds of 5 to 8 knots.

“We found we catch a lot more snakes and slingers than we do smokers kings when using this method.

“However if you want to check an area and still have an opportunity to get the best shot at catching a fish, this is definitely the way to go. Once you find an area with kings, you can then focus on just catching large fish.

“Drone spoons come in many different colors and patterns. They come with reflective stripes and all sort of high attention getting colors. I suggest trying different ones and use experimentation to fine tune your success.”

Once armed with good live baits and artificial lure rigs, Helmey said she next decides where to fish. One solid bet is if surface baitfish and feeding birds are present, she figures the bite to be shallow. If there are no signs of surface activity, but it’s known to be a good area, she’ll usually try a proven spot anyway — but she fishes deeper.

In a case like that, correct use of a depth-finder is important.

“Let your depth-finder be your guide in helping you decide the proper depth to fish,” she said. “If I’m fishing an area that’s typically good for holding kings, I don’t pass it by simply because birds aren’t feeding on shallow bait. I’ll scan the area with my graph and mark where the bait is concentrated.

“I don’t always run my baits at exactly the same depth where all the bait and fish are marked on the graph. I’ll often run baits a bit shallower or slightly deeper in this situation. A smoker king is prone to pick on a baitfish that struts out on its own. This can be a great way to take a really big fish.”

One of Helmey’s top spots for smoker kings is the Savannah River Channel. However, she cautioned the area can be a busy shipping channel that creates a need for increased safety. But it’s a great place to catch big king mackerels.

“The first thing to know is that some of the ships will make a big wake, maybe a 3- or 4-foot surge,” she said. “The second thing you need to do is get a good chart of this area. The one that I’m most familiar with is the NOAA chart No. 11512 Savannah River and Wassaw Sound.

“Some fishermen will have the up-to-date chart plotters and they do a great job. But if you don’t, or if you lose power to your unit, a chart is always a great backup to have.

“This area will actually get better as the summer progresses. The bait pods form tightly here and large kings will migrate to this area.

“I’d suggest you catch some baits you see schooling in this area. Sometimes the bait might be holding deep, so just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.

“Typically this bait will be menhaden. Often you’ll see pelicans diving and this is generally close to where you find menhaden flipping.

“Another great choice for baits is to go to the red and green buoys that line the channel. For this you’ll need the gold-hook bait rigs and simply drop them down by one of the buoys. Small fish find these area great places to hide and feed. The buoys, the chain and the concrete anchor are what hold the bait.”

Helmey said she doesn’t leave the dock without some sort of bait, even if it’s frozen.

“Take along some ballyhoo, ribbonfish and/or cigar minnows,” she said. “Big kings in the 50-to-60-pound class are sometimes caught in this area while trolling frozen cigar minnows on down-riggers.”

Helmey said the Savannah River channel average depth in this area is about 30- to 50-feet deep. Each side of the shipping channel is quick to go shallow and these areas are especially good for big kings. One of her favored patterns is trolling at the shallow (east) side of red Buoys 10, 8 and 6.

She said king mackerels are known for holding at the deep and shallow sides of the shipping channel.

“I suggest first slow trolling the channel,” Helmey said. “Once you get a hit, concentrate your efforts in that area. The good news is when I narrow down where the big fish are feeding, I find I’m in a target-rich environment.

“I look at the shipping channel as something that provides fishermen with two large ledges they can fish. The east and west side of the channel offer fish a safe haven. Plus they have a huge, rich feeding ground as well.

“The channel isn’t that big nor is it that far offshore. Basically I see it as a fishing paradise for fish and fishermen.”

There are numerous other great areas throughout the southern portion of the S.C. coast that offer excellent king mackerel fishing. Helmey said Hilton Head Island and St. Helena Island areas are great places to target king mackerel

“Work the beach front areas located in 25-plus feet of water that offer formed tide rips,” Helmey said. “These are great places for king mackerels to feed. In addition, Port Royal Channel is very good by trolling deep to shallow in channels and around the sand bars.

“Near shore wrecks such as the Savannah Wreck and Shrimp Boat Wreck off Fripp Island are among my favorites, too. In addition, most all artificial reefs which hold some sort of upper water-column structure provide safe havens for small fish. It’s also a target for smoker kings.”

If you’re looking for smoker kings throughout the 2007 season, you need look no further than this area. Helmey said for catching smoker kings, it’s all about bait. Find the baitfish and you’ll find fish.

Early in the season they’re farther out, beginning around the Gulf Stream in April. Helmey said as the bait progresses toward the shore, so will the big kings.

“This area has got everything a king mackerel needs,” Helmey said. “The part I like best is the fish-catching season begins early and just gets better as the summer progresses.”

Now you’re armed with knowledge of where the smoker kings are located and how to catch them.

All that’s left to do is go.

About Terry Madewell 812 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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