Catching Kingfish on Artificial Baits

News & Tips: Catching Kingfish on Artificial Baits

Serious kingfish crews love their live bait. Problem is, some days bait can run out or perish in the livewell and can only be replenished by running many miles and far from the action. The obvious solution is fishing with artificial bait — even though an entire generation of offshore anglers has been raised using natural baits. I say if you're out of bait, don't give up; switch to plastics, feathers or metal. Busting kings with artificials seems to offer more of a kick than feeding them live bait.

Trolling Plugs

A few anglers collect trolling plugs much like duck decoys, even painting or tuning them to run better. They'll troll a spread of five lures without a thought for live bait. This technique is old-fashioned, with the advent of live-bait trolling, but it works — though not as well in hard-fished areas, compared to isolated spots in the Gulf of Mexico where the big kings still bite.  

Floating Plugs or trolling lures

I keep a small box of big-lipped, 5- and 7-inch dive plugs in the boat for any situation, some of which can't even be guessed at — like blue water that pushed up near the Port O'Connor jetties several years ago when we were cruising along the beach. We shook out two dive plugs behind the boat and soon had a pair of 15-pound kings, caught only 100 yards away from dry granite rocks. For this type of fishing, you would of course need to carry along a couple of boat rods with 40-pound line, stored away for such an event.  

That same summer, while returning from a snapper trip offshore, we found three shrimpboats anchored together about 8 miles off the beach. Lacking live bait, I set out two dive plugs, eased along at 3-4 knots, and we caught all the kingfish we could handle, keeping only what we needed, including dinner for the grill that very night. These were schoolie kings of a dozen pounds or so, and I swung them straight into the open cooler without benefit of a gaff, where someone slammed the lid until the fish quieted down. Dangerous treble hooks were then removed with needlenose pliers. No gaff, no mess. It didn't even matter if we lost one without the gaff (we didn't); there were plenty of kings ready to bite. A few fish in the box, and we were on our way. It was take what you need and leave the rest.

Fishing Jigs  

Fishing jigs will catch just about anything, and kingfish are no exception. Whether trolled behind the boat or worked deep either while the boat is drifting or anchored, jigs will stack up the kings. We once caught 70 of these fish at one stop at a platform off Cameron, La., simply by casting and working jigs about 30 feet down. They were almost entirely the same size, about 14 pounds. No bait was required — we just worked those plain, white, half-ounce jigs.

An erratic, fast retrieve was best. We were using 7-foot rods with baitcasting reels armed with 20-pound line, that could take a lot of abuse. All fish were tailed and released still in fighting shape; lighter tackle would have worn them out too much for a healthy release. From our small boat, it was fairly easy to grab each fish.  

Variety and size of jigs are many indeed. My family has always made their own jigs because we used so many. By the 7th grade, they had me melting lead and tying jigs. Today I stick with a 2-ounce banana-style jighead with different colors of tail adornment. It's a good, general-purpose jig that attracts a variety of species, including cobia, red snapper, Spanish mackerel, redfish, jack crevalle and bonito.  

We've caught big kings (35-plus pounds, even in tournaments) on jigs ranging from as small as one-half on up to three ounces. Some memorable battles, with big bucks on the line, and without feeding kings live bait. It was quite a thrill.  

Fishing With Spoons  

Fishing buddy Pete Churton in Beaumont, Texas, is a spoon specialist. On the boat he keeps a bundle of 100 silver spoons of 1-ounce size and has caught all manner of fish with them. He works them through the mid-depths with a baitcasting fishing rod with 20-pound line and has the patience to let them flutter down, more slowly than a leadheaded jig would sink. He's caught some shocking kingfish with this simple rig, too; the biggest may have weighed 60 pounds, though from his 20-foot boat, it was released to fight another day.

One technique used by commercial fishermen is to use an umbrella rig with silver spoons.

Recently he fought a big one for 10 minutes before each of the hooks straightened slightly, and the king was lost. So, adding a stronger treble hook for serious battles wouldn't hurt.  

Commercial king fishermen prefer trolled silver spoons above all other baits and have for more than a century. These guys have their own tricks that recreational fishermen don't use. One technique uses automated gear that trolls what they call an umbrella rig, which twirls with an assortment of fluttering, silver spoons. Evidently kingfish will always attack the venerable Drone Spoon mounted with a single hook bolted on. They're safer and last far longer than treble hooks.

Some commerical boats return with thousands of pounds of kingfish after only a day of trolling. Anyone who can take 150 kings in a good day along the Atlantic Coast of Florida, while trolling spoons, knows what they're doing. They probably shake their heads at trolling efforts made by recreational anglers.  

Commercial guys favor smaller kingfish for the market, about 10 pounds, and the spoon works best for them. Keep that in mind, if you're looking for smaller kings that makes the best steaks on a grill in the backyard. Bigger kingfish aren't as popular at the market, and they do have a mercury health advisory.

Metal Jigs  

These all-metal jigs, up to a foot long, are often called butterfly jigs. They're best used for deep-jigging in water so deep you wouldn't want to anchor. 

A recent trip saw my friend Alan Reynolds crank up three scamp grouper but also a 15-pound kingfish that was prowling bottom. Some days, kingfish simply feed deep, especially during a north wind.  

The technique here is to use a fairly long rod, up to 8 feet. Braid line helps, since there is no stretch, when you sweep the rod up and down. The longer the rod, the better the action. Sweep the rod high overhead, and let the jig flutter back down. That braid line will telegraph every tap and hit. A favorite line of ours for this purpose is 65-pound Suffix braid line.  

Most metal jigs are used for bottom fish, of course, but aboard a partyboat off Tampa I saw a 38-pound king caught with one of these near bottom in 150-foot depths, the deepest kingfish strike I've ever seen, which should give anglers pause who troll all day on the surface. We can be sure these fish prowl even deeper. The startled angler was jigging for amberjack.

Metal jigs, also called butterfly jigs, are best used for deep-jigging.

A number of different companies now make metal jigs up to a foot long, even in Europe. In America, Williamson makes their Abyss Jig, which is the longer stick for deep water, and then Speed Jigs, which are shorter and fatter, again for vertical jigging. They also make Casting Jigs with the standard treble hook used on spoons. Bomber and Braid also make these all-metal jigs, among other companies.  

Topwater Plugs  

Kings can be coaxed to the surface with chum, ideally from an anchored boat. They can then be tossed topwater plugs that create a noisy, surface disturbance. This technique is so fun, and the strikes so striking (so to speak) with fish flying 10 feet, that we've actually removed our treble hooks from the plugs. It's more fun to have these fish jump high with the plug than run off 30 yards of drag from the reel, drop the lure, and have another king grab on. Fighting them on 20-pound casting gear and removing treblehooks from toothy jaws was is hard work, and we got the best of the deal with their jumps and hard runs, without having to land or unhook them. Our best casts produced four jumping strikes and up to three different fish that ripped line off the reels before each poor plug made it back to the boat, soon completely fuzzy from hundreds of tooth marks.  

I've tried this while anchored on a rock in the Gulf in 90 feet of water in flat calm summer conditions, and the following summer in 60 feet. It was the same action. When this sort of frenzy going on, it was difficult to imagine a plug these fish wouldn't attack. One word of caution: be careful lifting the retrieved plug out of the water; if a king chases it into the boat, he might fly up and hit you. Which would spoil anyone's day.