A few days back I received an email from Frank Gibson, an acquaintance of mine with whom I regularly trade fishing stories and photos.
In his email I noticed there was an attachment, which I opened, and when I did, my jaw just about hit the floor. It was picture of Frank and three of his buddies holding a huge king mackerel.
After gawking for some time at the picture, I read his message telling me that the beast weighed 54 pounds. "Fifty-four pounds?" I thought to myself. "Around here? No way!" Curious, I shot him a reply asking where he caught it, believing he would tell me off the coast of Louisiana or somewhere in that neck of the woods, but his reply totally surprised me when he informed me that it was caught in 110 feet of water right here off of Fripp Island.
Why am I making such a big deal out of that king? In my 53 years living here and hundreds upon hundreds of hours of king mackerel fishing, the largest king I have ever managed to boat was a 49 pounder that ate a Spanish mackerel I was reeling in. Only by the grace of God did it get hooked. I have caught a bunch of kings in the 36-pound to 45-pound range but I don't believe I have ever even heard of a 54-pound king being caught in this area ever.
Strangely enough, king mackerel that size and bigger are relatively common in the Gulf of Mexico, but for some reason, they just don't get that big along the Southeast coast. It might be the abundance of food that lets them grow so big in the Gulf, but whatever the reason, Frank's fish is an oddity around here. I will say this, though, that picture of that fish had an effect on me like Pavlov's experiment had on dogs. I am finding myself nearly drowning in saliva as I think about getting back into king mackerel fishing. First of all, this type of fishing is inexpensive compared to a lot of other species, because you don't have to go far at all. Secondly, anybody can do it and best of all, pound for pound king mackerel are some of the meanest, fastest and most exciting fish to catch period.
King fishing used to be the only game in town. For years and years nobody ever fished for cobia or tarpon because kings were, uh, king. How did we catch them? We trolled ballyhoo on the surface and drone spoons down deep using No. 3 planers. Then in the mid 1980s, someone figured out that live mullet trolled very slowly was the way to catch "smoker" kings (large kings). The popularity of king mackerel fishing skyrocketed. I can remember going to king tournaments where more than 600 boats would enter the fray. As techniques continued to improve, live menhaden became the bait of choice and with it, the rigs used to catch them got lighter and lighter. The only constant with these light rods and reels was the need to have a reel that would hold plenty of line because even a 35-pound king can dump line off the reel so fast it will make your head spin.
Nowadays, king fishing has taken the back seat to cobia fishing, and though the Southern Kingfish Association still holds tournaments, not many folks around here fish for these fantastic game fish. It used to be that the Savannah Ship Channel was the place to go. On any given day every charter boat on Hilton Head Island headed to the ship channel for kings. It was a lot of fun as there was always tons of bantering going on over the radio as we "bump trolled" up and down the ship channel. Bump trolling is pretty much like it sounds. Fishing four or six lines with live menhaden as bait, you fish two down deep and stagger the rest to cover the water column. Bumping the boat in and out of gear, the object is to keep the baits straight behind the boat but not to go too fast that the baits drown. When a king does hit one of the baits it's as close to Gulf Stream fishing as you can get. Talk about hauling boogie. Big kings can strip three yards of line off a reel in seconds flat. Then, as the weather cools, they tend to skyrocket baits. Like a missile, they come straight up under a bait and I have seen them 10 feet in the air with their razor sharp teeth just a snapping away.
I don't know about you but just writing about king fishing has got me all fired up to get out there and give it a go. I know a lot of you are relatively new to this area and all you hear is cobia, cobia and more cobia, but if you really want to have fun -- and I mean explosive fun -- king mackerel are the ticket.
God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.