Locating King Mackerel

King mackerel ( Scomberomorus cavalla ), Gulf of Mexico

NOAA's Fisheries Collection/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the summer months, particularly July and August, kingfish are king up and down the Atlantic coast of the US. These are fish that are relatively easy to catch once you know where to find them and know a bit about how to fish for them.

Kings migrate up and down the coast with the seasons, basically following the baitfish that are their food staple. That baitfish would be menhaden shad—what we call pogies. Huge schools of pogies can be found just outside the surf lines along the beaches this time of year. The pogies also enter the inlets and can be found pretty far upstream in estuary rivers and bays in the summer.

Kings will follow the bait up and down the coast, but it's not often you see a king mackerel inshore—that is inside an inlet or up a river. These are pelagic fish—those that roam the open water in the ocean—and they stay pelagic!

Finding King Mackerel Offshore

So the first thing you need to know is that the kings will be in the ocean—offshore or near shore. Let’s talk about offshore first.

Somewhere along the eastern seaboard of Florida, the natural reef system stops. There are areas of “live bottom” that continue all the way up the coast of the US, but the reefs beyond central Florida are all going to be artificial reefs. Why are the reefs important? Reefs, whether natural or artificial, attract baitfish. Huge schools of ballyhoo, or goggle-eyes or greenies down south and cigar minnows and Spanish sardines farther north will be found over the reefs. It’s an ecosystem thing. Reefs—both natural and artificial—are abundant with marine life, both animal and plant. This marine life is the beginning of the food chain, and the baitfish we use are right in the middle of that chain. So it becomes clear that the fish further up the food chain would be found in the area that their food —the fish further down the food chain—would be found. And, that’s exactly how it works.

So from an offshore perspective, you can expect to find king mackerel on and over the offshore reefs. If you get into the Gulf Stream and off the continental shelf in really deep water, you are not likely to find king mackerel. The answer to why is directly related to baitfish. Not many schools of baitfish are found in water that deep because there is not much of interest for them out there. In the case of dolphin, another true pelagic creature, they spend most of their lives swimming in that deep water. They are linked to the Sargasso weed, a type of seaweed that comes out of the Sargasso Sea, an ocean within an ocean off the southeast Atlantic coast. This seaweed acts like a reef for the dolphin, being home to marine life that begins the food chain for them. The bottom line for offshore king mackerel is—find a reef and plan to fish over it.

Finding King Mackerel Near Shore

Kingfish do manage to make it in closer than many of the offshore reefs. Each summer, they spawn in shallower water, and sometimes can be found very close to the beach. Numerous huge king mackerel are caught all up and down the Atlantic shoreline from ocean piers that extend only 750 or 1000 feet into the water. These fish are coming that close because one of their favorite meals—the menhaden shad (porgies)—are schooling and running just outside the surf on the beach. When we find the shad schools, we begin fishing and troll for kings. We may troll out up to a mile or two offshore and we may troll right behind the breakers. It depends on where we find the fish. But, in general, “beach kings,” as we call them, will be found in water from 35 to 50 feet deep, even when the menhaden are right on the beach.

How to Fish for Kings

Whether it’s over an offshore reef or just off the beach, we fish the same way. We troll—slow troll—very slow. We troll with live bait—usually menhaden shad, even offshore. Obviously close to the beach we fish with menhaden because they are easy to catch and they are the bait that the kings are eating. Offshore we still use menhaden, mainly because they are so easy to catch on the way out. There are other baitfish we could use over the reefs, and we do use them if we can find and catch them.

Bottom Line

All summer long, king mackerel can be caught. It’s fun and easy, and anyone, even a kayaker from the beach can do it!