Close Quarter Kings - Catching Kingfish Close to Shore
Most Texas fishermen are familiar with king mackerel, but relate to them as an offshore target. While it is true kings spend the majority of their time well off the beach, late summer along the entire stretch of South Padre Island - from Brazos Santiago Pass to the Mansfield Cut - they can be found sharing water with swimmers. It is then that jetty walkers, surf casters and old men in john boats are just as likely to tangle with these tasty tackle-busters as the boys in big center consoles.
The primary ingredients necessary to kick-start this action is clear, warm water - warm being something north of 70 degrees. Once the proper tide washes against the South Padre beach, kings appear like magic. However, a muddy tide can cause them to disappear just as quickly. Luckily, this southern stretch of sand rarely encounters a foul tide during summer. Tropical waves and disturbances are usually the culprits behind the rare exceptions, although a late afternoon outgoing tide clashing with the typically strong southeast wind can also cause enough turbidity to cause kings to scramble for cleaner water.
When the fish are here, they are relatively easy to catch. Tide movement helps, but is not absolutely necessary, although an early morning incoming tide almost assures success. The biggest bonus is a clean incoming tide peaking before the winds pick up, which often pushes kings clear to the base of the jetties inside the channel. Dropping tides can produce fish so long as the water clarity remains decent. A particularly strong outgoing flow often muddies the water inside the channel, making kingfish tough to catch from the rocks. However, boating anglers often find hordes of kings stacked up along the color change just outside the mouth of the pass and running along the beachfront, within sight of the numerous condominiums lining the South Padre shore.
Assuming the water conditions are favorable, anglers arming themselves for kingfish have a myriad of lures and natural baits to choose from. Fishermen confined to the jetties are a bit more restricted in their selection, primarily because they must cast their offerings while boating anglers may cast or troll. For those wishing (or needing) to cast, Rattle-Traps (1 ounce version), Rebel Windcheaters, Rapala Magnum Minnows (CDMAG11 or CDMAG14), Bomber Magnum Long A's (model 16A), and 1-ounce silver spoons all produce results and cast relatively well on the proper tackle. Jumbo soft-plastic jigs and swimbaits produce tremendous results as well.
Most of the above lures can be trolled as well as cast. However, boating anglers also have the option of drifting or trolling natural baits as well. Ribbonfish, cigar minnows, pilchards, ballyhoo and pinfish all draw strikes from aggressive kings. And, although these baits are sometimes launched from the jetties, usually under balloons, they are best served from a boat.
While some of the boats serving these baits are small sportfishers, center consoles and scooters, it is also during this time of year when the offshore "head boats" come in close to try and pick up kingfish. It is not uncommon to see multiple 60-foot head boats drifting within mere feet of the rocks while the kingfish bite is hot. This can be a real boon for budget-conscious anglers, who can get a reasonable shot at kings from a boat for less than $100, but it can cause some crowding for small boat anglers and rock-hoppers. The main thing for boat operators to remember is these larger vessels are not as nimble as the smaller center-consoles. So, give them plenty of room. However, even with the larger vessels in the channel, there are usually plenty of fish, spread out over enough water for everyone to keep busy.
Crowded conditions can lead to a need to alter fishing styles, though. When the area is really saturated with boats - as the SPI jetties often are during a hot bite - anglers may need to resort to vertical jigging in order to work prime real estate. Rattle-Traps and jigs work best for this type of fishing, which can be effectively done even in the slightest sliver of space.
During the "ice cream" conditions that usually prevail during August, September, and into October, fly fishers can also get into the action. Long rodders hoping to hook up from either the jetties or a boat must be capable of making fairly long casts. However, decent casting ability and a simple selection of baitfish imitations such as Clouser Minnows, Deceivers, Sea-Ducers, and Haines Pilchards, can put fly rodders in the thick of the melee.
TACKLE, RIGGING AND TECHNIQUE
Another bonus of this fishery is it doesn't require any exotic, or even expensive, tackle. Most bay fishermen already have serviceable equipment for this type of fishing. And, those that don't won't be out an arm and leg to outfit themselves.
Conventional tackle anglers fishing from boats should use a 6'6" to 7' medium-heavy spinning or casting rod. Rock-hopping conventional tackle anglers can make due with these rods, but are better off with a 7'6" to 8' stick to facilitate longer casts. Paired to this rod should be a reel with a smooth drag and the capacity to hold at least 200 yards of 15 pound test monofilament. Fly rodders should use 9 to 11 weight rods, intermediate lines and disc-drag reels with at least 175 yards of backing.
Anyone wishing to stay hooked up to a king for long - fly rodder or conventional tackle angler - needs to rig with wire shock leaders. Baitcasters and spin fishermen can usually make due with a foot or so of 30 to 40 pound wire. Fly rodders should rig with a 16 or 20 pound monofilament class tippet and attach six or so inches of wire as a bite tippet.
Casting to kings from the jetties is about as simple as it gets. Anglers typically launch the longest cast they can, then retrieve at a fairly fast, steady clip. Kings will occasionally hang lower in the water column, making it necessary for anglers to allow their offerings to drop before beginning their retrieve. But, most often when kings are feeding, they are doing so near the surface, allowing for an immediate retrieval after the bait hits the water. Fly rodders wishing to move a fly fast enough to entice a king usually have to resort to a two-handed strip. A stripping basket is usually necessary to ensure the fast-dropping loose coils don't tangle in the rocky crevices of the jetties.
Boating anglers can employ these casting techniques if they so choose, but they also have drifting and trolling as options. When fish are hanging a bit deeper, drifting with live or dead bait, swimbaits, bucktail jigs or Rattle-Traps will often draw strikes.
However, when fish are cruising higher in the water column, it is often advantageous to troll. Trolling allows anglers to cover more water and present more baits to the fish. In addition to the baits mentioned for drifting, trolling anglers often drop Rapalas, Long A's, and feather jigs into their spread. Feather jigs can be fished alone or rigged with a cigar minnow or ballyhoo.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
When kings are on top of their game, it is not hard to spot them. The surface commotion is generally visible from great distances. In addition, it is not unusual to witness "free-jumping" kingfish when they are feeding particularly aggressively. And, surface activity that anglers may not detect from a distance can often be located by following schools of birds. Otherwise, look for the confluence of currents. Color changes are obvious, but don't ignore more subtle currents, such as eddies and swirls caused by water flowing over the submerged rocks that extend beyond the tip of the jetties.
Occasionally, all of the necessary ingredients - proper water temperature, light wind, tidal movement, good visibility - seem to be in place, yet no fish can be found. In this event, don't hesitate to throw a little chum in the water to "jump-start" the action. Small chunks of ladyfish make excellent chum, as do cut mullet, pilchards, ballyhoo and ribbonfish.