Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Kings of the Gulf of Mexico

The fish shown in the above pictures is what is known as a king mackerel in other parts of the U.S., but here in Texas we call it the kingfish or more commonly, a king. A tremendous fighter, it is commonly found in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, as well as in the Atlantic Ocean.

When I get the actual picture from my friend emailed I will substitute it for one of the ones above. My friend and her family went down to Corpus Christi to the Padre Island National Seashore for some early summer fun a week ago. The family members that accompanied her on this trip include her husband and their two grown sons with their families.

I was astonished to discover that while they were hanging on the beach doing some simple surf fishing, they landed a huge kingfish. The kings shown above are fifteen and twenty pounders, and I'll guess the fish in the picture of my friend's son is at least another ten pounds more than that, so a twenty-five pounder.

Here's a short excerpt on the kingfish from wiki: King mackerel are among the most sought-after gamefish throughout their range from North Carolina to Texas. They are taken mostly by trolling, using various live and dead baitfish, spoons, jigs and other artificials. Commercial gear consists of run-around gill nets. They are also taken commercially by trolling with large planers, heavy tackle and lures similar to those used by sport fishers. Typically when using live bait, two hooks are tied to a strong metal leader. The first may be a treble or single and is hooked through the live bait's nose and/or mouth. The second hook (treble hook) is placed through the top of the fish's back or allowed to swing free. When trolling for Kings using this method, it is important to make sure the baitfish are swimming properly. Typical tackle includes a conventional or spinning reel capable of holding 400 yards (370 m) of 20 lb (9 kg) test monofilament and a 7 foot (2.1 m), 20 pound (9 kg) class rod.
King mackerel are known throughout the sportfishing world for their blistering runs. For that, tournament series' have found success promoting events for this species.

I was stunned with this catch because I have fished this stretch of North Padre Island many times. Many times. In fact, I've fished very nearly the entirity of the Texas gulf coast, from the southernmost beach locale in South Padre Island to the upper reaches of the Bolivar Peninsula, with lots and lots of trips to certain areas in between known for good fishing, like Matagorda Island, Surfside, and Port Aransas.

But much of my surf fishing has been within twenty miles of the location my friend and her family were at a week ago, which according to her was about two miles south of the entrance to the Padre Island National Seashore. So it's not like they went fourwheeling down near the Mansfield Channel (which divides north and south Padre Island about 63 miles south of where they were fishing) or anything, where the fishing pressure and beach activity are virtually nil. No, they were fishing right in the middle of beach activity central.

In fact, I've fourwheeled extensively in the no-man's land between where they were fishing and the Mansfield Cut (65.5 beach miles from the entrance to the National Seashore), as it is often called in those parts, including one hellacious journey nearly 30 years ago all the way to the Cut in a modified 4WD Ford truck my friend Mog (he is also known by the a/k/a's of Mogenstern, Mogenstein, The Mogster, Mogen David, etc) owned. We spent as much time digging out of sand bogs on that trip as we did fishing, and although we caught lots of HUGE speckled trout and redfish, we didn't come anywhere close to landing a huge kingfish.

I've caught kingfish I a mile or two off the beach in a boat fishing off Port Isabel on several occasions. I've also caught them on deep sea fishing trips going out of Galveston, Matagorda, Corpus Christi and Port Isabel, but on those ocean going trips I learned they prefer LIVE bait and usually you need to be trolling (or pulling behind the boat) at a fast clip in order to cach one. On those ocean trips, I guess we were usually 10 to 20 miles offshore, and it was not every trip that you caught a king.

I say all this to say that it is UNUSUAL AS HELL to catch a kingfish from the Texas surf when using fairly standard fishing gear (i.e. not casting out past the 3rd sandbar) and dead bait. Highly unusual. I know flyfishers that go all up and down the coast fly fishing the surf, which is a daunting, windy task at best, who catch all kinds of fish and not a kingfish.

As a youth, our family vacations centered around a week or two of fishing in the area with a family friend who lived there and fished it daily for 40 years, Old Man Joe El. Joe El knew every flat, dip and crease in the Laguna Madre, and also knew the troughs and geographical features of the beach on the opposing side of the island, and fished it often as well.

I guess it's possible he caught a kingfish in the surf, but I never heard him talk about it. He never mentioned catching one in the Laguna Madre either. We talked A LOT about the kinds, sizes and locations of various fish he had caught in the bay, and I never heard kingfish mentioned.

As the wiki excerpt would imply, it is highly uncommon to catch a king off the beach. Usually they are trolled for, deep in the ocean's waters, in a manner not unlike one would fish for billfish, sailfish, dolphin or the other trophy fighters of the deep. With the same heavy boat tackle used for fish that feature explosive jumps and leaps during the fight to land them.

So while I'm happy for them and their monster catch off the beach, I'm somewhat stupified as to what I've been doing wrong all of these years. And not a little bit envious. It's like, what the hell am I doing wrong?

Having an investigative background, I asked my friend questions, being sure there was some secret method or bait that I've failed to use that resulted in this monster catch.

Nope. They were using the standard medium duty saltwater tackle that one sees up and down the Texas coast on piers and beaches. The rod was about 9 feet long, with again a medium duty saltwater spinning reel. The same rig you might buy for $40 or $50 at your local Academy or Wal-mart store (at least the Wal-Marts near the gulf, where they generally carry more salt gear than at the inland stores).

They were using the standard double drop leader, albeit a metal one, but a short one at about 24" long. Again, when I've fished for kings in the ocean, we've used huge metal leaders anywhere from 4' to 6' long. The same kind of leaders you would use for a shark, barracuda or a sailfish, because kings have sharp teeth and literally destroy the live fish they prefer to eat as soon as said prey enters their mouth.

So they weren't using any magic tackle. They were using the same stuff I've used for years. For bait, they were using a dead shrimp (frozen shrimp from the grocery store, not recently dead shrimp bought at a bait camp or seafood store, which would be fresher and in theory emenate more odor to attract fish) on one of the double hook leaders hooks and a piece of recently dead cut mullet (a small baitfish) on the other hook.

They weren't fishing way out from the beach either. They were doing just like I do, fishing in the trough (usually 6' to 8' deep at high tide) between the 2nd and 3rd sandbars off the beach. So they weren't doing the hard core surf fishing thing of using a 15' rod and wading out over their heads to the third bar to cast their bait as far out in the ocean as they could.

No, they were doing everything just like I would, except all I ever catch on cut mullet is hardhead catfish. Not kings.

So good for them. Yeah, I'm envious as hell, and it just made sure that the Padre Island National Seashore is a place I'll be visiting later this year, like probably August when the fishing heats up.

But for my friends, who also caught a lot of sand trout, hardhead and gafftop catfish and a pretty big stingray (which they ate, yech!), I'd say the fishing was pretty damn good down there.

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