Sure, most anglers who land king mackerel big enough to win tournaments use live menhaden or mullet as bait, but the typical weekend warriors can make fishing more fun by concentrating on efficiency and, who knows, still might catch a citation king or Spanish mackerel. All that is necessary is switching to lures and frozen squid.
Always a leader in the pragmatic fishing department is Bruce Trujillo, who operates Tight Loop Charters out of Wrightsville Beach, N.C., and that means everything he does points to catching fish. One morning last summer, he and fishing partner Russ Luhm launched at daybreak, wasting no time.
“During summer, if you don’t get to the ramp early, you may not find a parking space,” Trujillo said. “On busy weekends or holidays, it can also seem as busy on the water.”
Trujillo and Luhm rolled out for a day of trolling, their favorite way of fun-fishing. On the way through the lengthy no-wake zone between the ramp and Masonboro Inlet, they spotted other anglers throwing cast nets and bringing them up empty. They were careful to give them wide berth to avoid rocking their boats or scattering scant baitfish schools.
“Catching live menhaden when it’s hot can be the ultimate in frustration,” Luhm said. “You just launched your boat after finding a tight space in the parking spot, finally hit the water and now, since you did not prepare for a day of fishing without live bait, you are going to have to spend the best fishing hours in the cool of morning chasing bait along with everyone else. That’s why live-bait fishing is not for me anymore.”
Luhm is 75, and Trujillo is 66. Trujillo remembers when fishermen did not use live menhaden when they fished from boats. Before the tournament craze, only pier fishermen used live baits.
“Back then, we used cedar plugs and Drone spoons,” he said. “But today, we have much better lures and one certain bait, so inexpensive and easy to find, it’s a wonder everyone isn’t using it. I prefer using squid in my mackerel trolling set-ups for other reasons, too. I can use the same live-bait rig most anglers use for menhaden and troll it with a squid at the same speed as my favorite lures, which are Yo-zuri Crystal Minnow deep divers. Just about any fish I want to catch will eat a Yo-zuri or squid. King mackerel and Spanish mackerel go bonkers over them.”
Luhm and Trujillo both have decades of mackerel fishing under their belts, and when fishing as a team, they divide duties. Trujillo was at the helm on the way to the first artificial reef, while Luhm thawed out squid and fiddled with the trolling gear.
“I fish all of the artificial reefs off Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Topsail Beach, as well as livebottoms,” Trujillo said. “It’s not difficult to find out where the kings are biting if you ask around the tackle shops. If the kings are there, the Spanish mackerel are, too. You will also find out where the fish are swimming that you want to avoid: amberjack, barracuda and sharks. They can break off or cut off your rigs and lures. An amberjack will eat a hooked Spanish mackerel, and a barracuda will cut off a Spanish mackerel in its entirety or cut off a king mackerel behind the gills. A shark will tear up a squid rig. A Yo-Zuri deep diver costs $16 to $22, so I don’t want to lose many, but losing one or two a day’s seems inevitable.”
At their first destination, Luhm took the helm while Trujillo put out the lines. Most live-bait anglers set at least four lines, including a downrigger line or two, but he only set three.
“I set one deep-diving lure in the propeller wash; the turbulence attracts kings,” he said. “I set another one at 40 to 60 feet. If it isn’t swimming true or at a depth the fish like, I adjust the line by counting the wake waves. When you are only running two deep divers, all you have to do is spread them apart to keep them from tangling, even in tight turns. You don’t need a downrigger because the lures run so deep.”
The third line, set farther back, held the squid bait, which slipped along just beneath the surface.
“The squid runs shallow and has no additional weight,” Luhm said. “If I am running downwind, it may skim the surface because the speed picks up. In a turn or running into the wind, it sinks a bit, but never enough to interfere with the deep divers because it falls so slowly. A lot of strikes come as the squid falls. If we are going to get a 30-plus pounder, it’s usually on the squid.”
The lures struck pay dirt in the form of Spanish gold before the first turn. Luhm was watching the depthfinder and looking forward to keep an eye on other boats when the warning clicker sounded off. Trujillo grabbed the rod.
“I could see baitfish stacked up on the structure just before the strike,” Luhm said. “Sometimes, they stay oriented to the same area of the structure, but most of the time, they move around. The hardest thing, if there is any amount of wind, is keeping the boat on top of the fish.
“Fishing with live baits compounds the problem, because you are trolling them so slow it is hard to keep the lines tight when you are heading into the wind. The lines get slack in them and tangle. Then, when you turn around and run downwind, you are going so fast you are dragging them so they can’t swim naturally. All I have to do when we troll lures and squid is watch the dephfinder and GPS. I don’t have to worry about lines crossing because I am running at higher speeds, which makes controlling the boat much easier.”
Luhm and Trujillo trolled for 45 minutes and boated a king mackerel to go along with several big Spanish mackerel before declaring the bite lackluster, reeling in lines and heading to another spot.
“It’s like playing a connect-the-dots puzzle,” Trujillo said. “I always plan the day so I have at least three spots to fish that line up efficiently. I might fish a nearshore reef, like the Liberty Ship (Meares Harris Reef, AR 370) or the 5-mile Boxcars (AR 372) then slip on out to the 10-mile Boxcars (AR 376) and end the day at Dallas Rock off Topsail or at the Schoolhouse (Lennon/Hyde Reef, AR 386). I can do the same thing by hitting the Carolina Beach Reef (Phillip Wolfe Reef, AR 378), the Dredge Wreck (AR 382) then the Frying Pan Tower ledges. I plan to fish three spots at different distances off the beach, confident that one is going to hold the mother lode.”
HOW TO GET THERE — An N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission ramp in Wrightsville Beach offers the best access to Masonboro Inlet. From Wilmington, take US 74 toward Wrightsville Beach. When you cross the ICW, take three right turns to the ramp. From the inlet, a handful of inshore and nearshore artificial reefs are within easy range: AR 370, AR 372, AR 376, AR 378, AR 382, AR 386, Dallas Rock. Frying Pan Tower is a long run to the south.
WHEN TO GO — August through November are peak times to catch mackerel. Look for water temperatures between 65 and 72 degrees.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Troll for king and Spanish mackerel with Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow deep-divers or natural squid on a two-hook live bait rig. Jig or cast Stingsilver spoons. Use 7-foot, medium-action Shimano or Penn rods with a Daiwa BC20 spinning reel spooled with 10- or 12-pound Berkley Big Game mono.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Bruce Trujillo, Tight Loop Charters, 910-675-0252; Tex’s Tackle, Wilmington, 910-791-1763; Island Tackle & Hardware, Carolina Beach, 910-458-3049. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Sleep Inn, Wilmington, 910-313-6665; Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce, www.pleasureislandchambernc.org.