Kings of the coast

With days growing shorter and Gulf of Mexico temperatures declining, many Florida predators will be transitioning into their cool season patterns. For king mackerel, that means turning their noses south and gobbling as many baitfish as they can catch.

Although some of the larger kingfish will find a nice deep water wreck or reef and spend the summer eating snapper and grunts, the majority of kings winter in the Florida Keys, migrate northward to the upper Gulf in the spring and then return south when early fall cold fronts foretell the approaching cooler season.

Capt. Randy Rochelle of St. Petersburg, Fla., is looking for an outstanding fall run, based on the number of kings he saw during his summer trips for grouper and snapper.

Kings have a preferred temperature range of about 68-75 degrees, but the real key to the migration movement is the massive schools of scaled sardines ("white bait"), threadfin herring ("greenbacks") and Spanish sardines that will be making their way south to warmer wintering grounds.

Most will never see New Year's Eve, as a gauntlet of many mouths lines their course. Kingfish are one of the primary predators and anglers throughout the Central Gulf Coast will have plenty of opportunities over the next two months to bag a big'n.

Top tactics

Slow trolling: An effective tactic for covering water in a promising area, trolling live baits at just above idle speed takes the game to the fish. Hook baits through the nose so they'll track straight without excessive strain.

Drift: With less directional influence than trolling, free-lined baits may wander, so suspend them beneath corks or balloons.

Anchor and chum: Pick a spot with good current and hang a frozen chum block off your stern. Kingfish will respond to the scent trail and the baitfish that gather in your chum. Free line livies into the chum slick. This is a good tactic for targeting specific sites.

Many artificial lures such as spoons, jigs and diving plugs will fool kingfish, however, it's usually the juvenile "schoolies" that fall for the hardware. You'll have your best shot at big "smoker" kings with live baits.

Kingfish have been known to strike a variety of oddball baits from grunts to lizardfish, but the old "match-the-hatch" adage governs this game. Capturing the same baits that kingfish are chasing is your wisest strategy.

Cast nets enable you to grab large numbers in one shot, but the inherent squashing effect often leaves baits weakened, if not injured. Healthy, active baits perform best in a spread, so go with gold-hook sabiki rigs and use a dehooker to sling baits into your livewell without touching them.

In addition to the schooling baits, Gulf kingfish also love blue runners. This double-tough member of the jack family lives around reefs, rocks and channel markers, where a well-placed sabiki rig will snare several.

Right times is bite time

Kingfish will feed throughout the day, but the dawn action — known as the "first light bite" — is usually the most intense.

Kingfish are primarily sight feeders, so sunrise shines a spotlight on their quarry. Clarity matters too, so look for the classic "king green" and avoid the turbid water that washes around after the windy cold fronts common to fall.

These predators can actually tolerate murky waters, but the fragile baitfish they seek cannot. The general rule of thumb: No food means no kingfish.

When kings feed many miles offshore, tides matter little. However, in the coastal zone, daily ebb and flow can play a key role in fish location. For one thing, current speed and direction positions baitfish predictably on their bottom structure. These little fish will hold tight to their habitat during swift water and loosen up when the current slows.

Another tidal effect occurs when the outgoing cycle pulls loads of baitfish through passes and river channels. This food flush delivers a concentrated feast into coastal shallows and any kingfish in the area will be quick to capitalize on the opportunity.

Now, it might sound improbable that kingfish would strike your baits when they may be schools of thousands. However, predators instinctively grab the weakest and most vulnerable prey first, so trolling your baits around a school's perimeter — or presenting baits on anchor or drift — gives the appearance of vulnerability.

Highly efficient feeders, kingfish have plenty of confidence in their ability to catch anything they want to eat. But, like all predators, the prospect of an easy meal is too much to resist.

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart — Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.