The first lengthy warm spell of spring is a special time for saltwater fishermen in South Carolina. Cooped up too long because of wind and rain, they anxiously await the nice weather windows that allow them to sneak out for a few hours, inhale the salt air, put a bend in their fishing rods and listen to the musical sound of line peeling off the reel.
It could be any fish tugging on the line, but for a large number of fishermen, especially those with smaller boats, the target is the king mackerel, a tasty fish that can put on dazzling displays of speed and acrobatics. You can generally count on king mackerel showing up off the South Carolina coast in May and they remain until late fall when dropping water temperatures force them to move on.
King mackerel have been a mainstay of the charter fishing industry for decades, but the techniques to catch them have evolved greatly as have the tackle and boats. Instead of broomstick-stiff rods and 4/0 reels spooled with 50-pound test braided line tugging along a deep-diving plug, spoon or Seawitch/ballyhoo combination, fishermen are trolling with limber, almost noodle-like rods, reels spooled with light monofilament and pulling live baits pinned with tiny, almost panfish-size treble hooks. And today many anglers chase them in boats designed especially for kingfishing, speedy center consoles that allow the fishermen to get to the hot spots quickly.
To understand how the king mackerel attained its popularity with the everyday saltwater fisherman, you have to go back to the late 1970s and travel up the coast to the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Boaters there were in need of jetties to allow them to safely reach the ocean through Little River Inlet. Part-time resident Arthur Smith, a Grammy-winning musician who wrote the song “Dueling Banjos,” a piece pirated and used as the theme song for the movie “Deliverance,” offered to put on a fishing tournament that would demonstrate the need for the jetties.
Before long, Smith’s king mackerel tournament was attracting as many as a thousand boats and was being held out of multiple ports, including Charleston. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, other communities and groups from North Carolina to Texas decided they could hold their own king mackerel tournaments.
The number of tournaments spawned a group of professional anglers who refined techniques and often shared their knowledge with recreational anglers.
While technically not an inshore species, the king mackerel is included as a category in many local inshore fishing tournaments because of its popularity. There are several Charleston-area tournaments that are king-only or primarily king mackerel events: the Fishing for Miracles King Mackerel Tournament, which this year will be celebrating its 22nd year; the James Island Yacht Club Fishing Tournament; and the Kings for Vets tournament.
When the kings begin to show up, it isn’t uncommon to see boats in the 15- to 20-foot range at the Charleston jetties trolling slowly or anchored and drifting out live baits in hopes of landing dinner. There also is a core group of anglers who target king mackerel from the end of the Folly Beach Pier.
That accessibility is what makes the king mackerel so popular, says Capt. Robert Olsen of Knot @ Work Fishing (knotatworkfishing.com). Almost anyone with a boat can take a shot at catching kings.
Olsen has been chartering in Charleston since 1999 and over the years has become very adept at finding big king mackerel, especially at tournament time.
In 2003, he and crew members Kelly Whiddon and Scott McInerny won the South Kingfish Association National Championship in Biloxi, Miss., for the 23-under class of boats with two kings totaling more than 96 pounds, the largest a 49½-pounder. His biggest Charleston kingfish is a 40.8-pound catch made in the 2013 Charleston Coastal Anglers Inshore Tournament.
“Last year was probably my best fishing year ever,” Olsen said. “We won a couple of tournaments, finished in the top three in a couple of other tournaments, and averaged a 35-pound fish in every tournament. I’ve been lucky enough to win six or seven of the bigger tournaments and had numerous wins in smaller tournaments.”
Last year, Olsen won a $10,000 small-boat prize in the Rumble in the Jungle tournament in North Myrtle Beach, using his 24-foot bay boat to land a 37.46-pound catch shortly after selling his 31-foot Contender, the boat he also uses for charter fishing.
Olsen’s live bait king mackerel technique is no great secret and he often shares it at seminars (some of which can be found on YouTube). You need a boat with a solid livewell, a cast net to fill the livewell with menhaden (pogys) and plenty of patience. He uses conventional reels, although spinning reels also work, with light action rods. Reels should be spooled with a minimum of 250 yards of monofilament. His live bait rigs consist of single-strand wire, a single 1/0 nose hook and one No. 2 or No. 4 treble stinger. Live bait rigs can be purchased at most tackle stores.
Large, 6- to 8-inch menhaden are the most popular bait choice of king mackerel fishermen simply because of their availability. Olsen said he also uses mullet, legal-size vermilion or pink snapper, blue runners and cigar minnows. The blue runners and cigar minnows often can be jigged up with a sabiki rig, while the menhaden or mullet are caught using a cast net (the front beach off Morris Island is one of the most popular spots for catching big menhaden).
“King mackerel will eat pretty much any type of fish you put behind the boat,” Olsen said.
One technique Olsen uses, which many everyday anglers should consider, is putting baits below the surface using a downrigger or planer. He pulls two baits using downriggers, usually starting at half the depth he’s fishing. If he is fishing in 90 feet of water, Olsen puts the baits down at 45 feet.
“Sometimes the fish aren’t biting on top, but they might be biting 10 to 15 feet below the surface. By using a planer, you are covering the entire water column. If I don’t get bites in the middle of the water column, I’ll go down before I go up. I’ve caught kings on the bottom, at 90 feet in 95 feet of water,” Olsen said.
Where you target kingfish often depends on the size of your boat and the weather. The artificial reefs and areas of live bottom in 60 to 90 feet of water are more consistent than the jetties, where Olsen said it can be “hero or zero” fishing.
But for the small boat angler, the chance to be a hero within sight of land is worth many zeroes, especially if you are fishing a tournament. Bigger kings are generally loners and often are the ones found close to shore, at the jetties or the inlets. Many king mackerel tournaments have been won by boats measuring less than 20 feet. It’s living the dream, one of many reasons king mackerel fishing is so appealing. Not all boat owners have the capabilities to target blue marlin or sailfish, but almost all boat owners can chase kings.