Winter off Key West

Searching for “smoker” kingfish.

Winter off Key West
Who wouldn’t want to see a big kingfish being lured in by a plug. These beasts roam the waters around Key West all winter.
Story And photos by Pat Ford

These days there isn’t a fish you can’t catch on a fly rod; some are just harder to manage than others.

King mackerel fall into the “very hard” category, despite ranging throughout the Gulf of Mexico and way up the Atlantic Coast, even over to the Bahamas. They are everywhere sometimes, and other times, especially if you are looking for them, they can be annoyingly absent. They are most commonly caught on live baits, with trolled ballyhoo coming in a distant second. Nobody ever goes after king mackerel with a fly rod . . . except if you’re fishing off Key West during late fall and winter.

In the early 1970s Capt. Bob Montgomery and angler Jim Lopez set a couple of flyrod world records for kings. They never admitted exactly how they did it, but rumors indicated that they bought 100 pounds of shrimp—in addition to the normal shrimp-boat trash—from a shrimper and chummed up the kings around Smith Shoal.

In the Atlantic, king mackerel first show up near Key West, and then migrate to the Gulf. The Atlantic fish school in deep water and are pretty much cookie-cutter size, ranging from 12 to 17 pounds. There are some 30-plus-pounders around, but they are continually moving and difficult to target. But when they move north into the Gulf, the big boys tend to hang out around wrecks; and once they show up, they may stick around.Winter off Key West

Rufus Wakeman and I tried to catch big kings on a fly for years. I had a couple of trips with Capt. RT Trosset, and we caught a few, but the fish came sporadically and all weighed less than 17 pounds. We booked again with RT last February with our fingers crossed—we hoped that the weather and kingfish would cooperate. RT had found the kings, but they were some 60 miles northwest of Key West and we needed good weather to consider a long trip, even in his 34-foot Yellowfin. We met RT at the Hurricane Hole docks at 7 am and couldn’t believe our luck: The weather was perfect.

Every day with RT starts with throwing a cast net for pilchards. RT’s son, Chris, is also a licensed captain, but on this day he joined as his father’s mate. Chris is a master with a cast net, but it’s either feast or famine with pilchards. We ran down the Atlantic side of the Keys looking for diving pelicans, but it took us two hours and the south side of the Marquesas before we had enough to effectively chum. Fortunately the wind stayed down and we were able to cruise the whole way.

RT has thousands of hotspots marked on his GPS. Wrecks, coral heads, reefs—anything he’s ever run over that holds fish is on his chart. He’d heard that the kings were staging on a few distant wrecks, so that’s where we headed. We didn’t print much at the first wreck. Ditto for wreck No. 2. It was noon, and things were getting a little tense—if we didn’t bring up fish at wreck No. 3, RT warned, we would have to run to Kingfish Hole, which is closer to the Dry Tortugas than anywhere else.

At wreck No. 3 we didn’t see anything on the surface, and we printed little on the chart. Still, we started chumming and put two live pilchards on spinning rods. After 30 minutes one of the spinning rods went off, and we had our first kingfish of the day. But catching one king on live bait doesn’t mean much, and it was another 10 minutes before RT saw one swim across the back of the boat. He threw in a netful of pilchards, and a series of surface splashes told us that we were in business. No more wreck-hopping.

Catching turned out to be easy. We cast the flies as far as we could, threw in a half-dozen live pilchards, stripped as fast as we could, and wham! A kingfish strike is magic: super fast, and then a short hesitation as the fish decides there’s something wrong and takes off on a magnificent run.

For two hours we had the best fishing of my life. Those kings hit everything we threw at them. Rufus and I each caught bruisers that weighed 37 pounds. Overall we landed more than 20 kings exceeding 20 pounds, all on the fly.

The next morning we awakened to heavy northwest winds and realized there’d be no more Gulf kingfish that weekend. And then two weeks later I was back on RT’s boat on the Gulf’s kingfish wrecks. It was flat calm, but there wasn’t a kingfish to be found anywhere. Same place and pretty close to the same weather conditions and tide, but the kings were gone.

Winter off Key West
Tease in a kingfish with a plug or a netful of pilchards, cast a monster fly, strip quickly and hold on.

To Catch a Kingfish

Season: Kingfishing peaks in October and November, but mostly for smaller fish. The “smokers,” as large kingfish are called, arrive as the water truly cools in December. Excellent options stretch through February.

Location: You can catch kingfish off of Florida in many places, but the Keys—especially Key West and the Dry Tortugas—produce large fish. In fact, about half of the IGFA records, including the 90-pound world record, caught off Key West in 1976, were taken here.

Rods: Ten-, 11- and 12-weights can tame these fish. A 10-weight handles most-any-size king, because the fish stay pretty close to the surface, but an 11- or 12-weight is better for casting, especially if there’s wind.

Reels, lines, leaders: You need a quality saltwater reel with lots of backing. Load it with a sinking line. I prefer a fast-sinking striped-bass line, but clear mono-core lines and Teeny-style sink-tips work well too. Short, stout leaders with a trace of metal in them are essential. Gulf waters are not very clear, so piano wire and knotable braided wire work well.

Stripping basket: You do have to cast—sometimes for distance—so a stripping basket is valuable when line starts jumping off of the deck at kingfish speed.

Flies: When throwing in live pilchards, it makes sense to match the baitfish. I follow the big-fish/big-food theory. My flies are simply six- or seven-inch-long synthetic baitfish patterns. They are easy to tie and relatively easy to cast, and they work.

Contacts: To book a trip with captains RT or Chris Trosset, e-mail them at [email protected] For other options, contact Florida Keys Outfitters, in Islamorada; or The Angling Company, in Key West.


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