Best Baits for Kingfish

Learn Anglers' Favorite Bait for Luring in Kingfish

black Fisherman holding Kingfish, Zanzibar
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As the fishing season kicks off with the arrival of spring, anglers start thinking about their favorite baits, and those whose preference is kingfish are no exception. With kingfish, natural baits are ideal -- not artificial. Lures, plugs, and chuggers will work occasionally and in a pinch, but by far the preferred baits are live.

Standard and Popular Baits

The standard and most used bait is the ever-present menhaden shad. Also commonly known as pogies, huge schools of these shad can be found just outside the surf. They tend to stay near the surface, flipping their tails and causing a large rippling area that is relatively easy to spot from a boat.

Casts nets are the order of the day, and those that have at least a seven-foot radius do well in catching numbers of pogies. Sometimes diving pelicans give the school away. Other times anglers simply look for other boats on the beach already catching their bait.

On other than a tournament day, the VHF usually lights up in the morning with captains asking no one in particular where the bait is located. And other captains usually respond, helping out a fellow angler.

Pogies are not a hardy fish. They die quickly out of the water, and they require lots of circulating water in the live well. Lots of anglers have separate pogie live wells in addition to the ones built into their boat. Pogies also do not do well in a live well that has any corners. Rectangular or square live wells simply do not work. Pogies tend to swim in a circle around the outside edge of the live well. When they reach a corner, they tend to stick their noses into the corner and bounce off the side of the live well. This causes what we call red nose as their noses apparently bruise in those corners.

Oval live wells work better, but a round live well is ideal. A good high capacity pump circulating water in a round live well can keep pogies alive and fresh all day.

Over offshore wrecks, many anglers use a Sabiki rig to catch blue runners and google eyes for kingfish bait. These are excellent baits, but not as dependable as a source of bait as pogies.

Some anglers will use cigar minnows and Spanish sardines caught on those same Sabiki rigs. They can be fished live or rigged and fast trolled over wreck or reef.

Popular among tournament anglers, the ribbonfish is a much sought after bait. The long silvery, toothy critter is a favorite of kingfish, and while hard to find and pricey at bait shops, it fills many bait coolers on tournament days. Fresh caught unfrozen ribbons can bring as much as ten dollars per fish. Brined and frozen ribbons with good bright eyes can bring four to five dollars each at bait shops up and down the coast.

One or more of this gamut of baits are generally found in a kingfish angler's bait well. Sometimes several of these baits are used, one on each rod.

Rigging Your Line

Most kingfish angling is accomplished by slow trolling live baits -- because of this, the boat needs to move as slowly as possible. In fact, it's thought that the only reason the boat needs to move at all is to keep the live baits from swimming up to the boat and tangling lines. Many anglers feel like 1.5 to 2 knots is a good speed.

When slow trolling, almost all the baits are hooked the same way. Pogies get a number four or five treble hook through their nose. This hook is wired to a piece of number four or five leader wire. Some anglers want this leader to be no longer than six inches. Some anglers will make them twelve inches long or more. Wired to the eye of this treble hook is another piece of a leader about four inches long. To this sort piece of the leader is another treble hook. This "stinger" hook is a major part of the terminal tackle.

The stinger can be left to dangle alongside the live bait – pogie, goggle eye or blue runner – or it can be hooked into the back of the bait. The trick here is to make sure there is a bend of slack in the small stinger leader. That slack allows the bait to swim freely. Whether to hook the stinger or not is a personal preference, and something that is argued the whole kingfish season.

Ribbonfish are hooked in a similar fashion, only instead of one stinger, there are usually three. The first hook is a standard, bronze colored, short shank 2/0 hook. This hook goes down through both lips of the ribbon, sealing them together. The stingers are then hooked at intervals into the bait. The choice of hooking the trebles under the fish on along its dorsal is again a personal arguable choice.

Live cigar minnows and Spanish sardine baits are hooked in a similar fashion. Dead cigars are fast trolled and usually hooked up on a two or three hook trolling rig. Three standard hooks, each hooked in the eye of the next hook, are used with a trolling nose cone or skirt. That nose cone serves a couple of purposes. The color acts as an attractant, and the cone protects the bait and keeps it from ripping off when trolling. This kind of trolling will run the baits at five to six knots or more.

Sometimes a small egg sinker is added at the front of the nose cone to take the cigar deeper. Otherwise, a downrigger will take the bait deep.

Nose cones and trolling skirts are used on all of the baits above. They usually come in colors of white, chartreuse, pink, yellow and several combinations of these colors. Again, they act to attract the kingfish and to help keep a bait alive in the water.

Even with a slow troll, pogies tend to weaken and open their mouths after being trolled for a while. As they do, they look unnatural and will begin to slowly spin. Trolling skirts, while they cant totally prevent this often allow the bait to be trolled for a longer period.

The Spread

Fishing for kingfish almost demands multiple rods. We fish a spread we call two up, two down and one in the wash. By that I mean we have two baits on downriggers, and two baits swimming up on top of the water.

The two downrigger baits – usually ribbonfish – are at two different depths and one is back farther than the other. In sixty feet of water we put one bait at twenty feet down and one at thirty feet down. The two up baits are a long distance behind the boat swimming freely. Generally I will put a trolling skirt on one and leave the other naked.

The one in the wash is a short bait – usually a live pogie – that we keep less than twenty feet from the boat in the prop wash. It is surprising how many fish we catch on that bait!

Other boats, using long outriggers, troll as many as eight rigs at a time. Without downriggers, four or five is about as many as you can handle and keep from tangling.

On all the rigs, make sure the reels are set in free spool with the clickers on. Once a strike happens, the free spool can be shut down and the fight will begin. Use a very light drag – lighter than you would normally use. Remember, these are small treble hooks, and even though a kingfish has a tough mouth, these hooks will pull on a heavy drag. That means chasing a fish around before bringing him to gaff, but trust me – you will pull the hooks on a heavy drag.

Whatever method you use, and whatever bait you use, make sure to check your baits often. Some boats troll for long periods of time with no strike only to find that their baits either got hit, came off or simply died.

Catching kings can be easy, and it is a relaxing day on the water if you can stay out of the sun! Hope you find some kings this summer!