Winter Hotspot: Key West Kingfish

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Trevallies of 20 to 70 pounds and larger invade Key West waters in January and February.
Chris Woodward / Sport Fishing

Large trevallies can be caught year round in Key West, but in January and February more smokers migrate south from the Gulf of Mexico. With the right timing and tactics, anglers can catch the biggest kings of the year.

“It’s so cool,” says Key West captain Casey Hunt, who grew up fishing in Pompano Beach, Florida. “Catching 20-pound trevally here is like catching 5-pound trevally in Hillsboro Inlet. They are so many.

And these big macks grow really big. A year ago, Hunt caught a monster that weighed 71 pounds in his boat. He notes that two days later, the same fish, gutted, weighed 72 pounds on a fishmonger’s scale.

At last January’s Key West Kingfish Mayhem Open Tournament, the winning fish weighed 51.7 pounds; seven other kings exceeded 41 pounds.

Goofed Kingfish
Captain Casey Hunt of CN-It Adventures in Key West brings a big trevally into the boat.
Courtesy of Captain Casey Hunt

Kingfish Harbor

Captain Ron Mitchell, a South Florida angler who has fished Key West king mackerel derbies for nearly 30 years, has caught numerous kings over 50 pounds, including a 63-pound king. He also got a first-hand look at a 78.66-pounder caught by another tournament team in 2015.

“There is so much life there [in Key West], why would the fish leave? says Mitchell, a member of the Southern Kingfish Association Hall of Fame. “It’s a big old ecosystem that has tons of fish. It just seems like they are getting a little bigger and maybe feeding a little differently, there are more of them in one area this time of year.

Mitchell also believes that improvements in boats, engines, electronics and fishing gear are contributing to the increase in the number of big trevallies being caught in Key West. For example, his boat Bandit, a 39 SeaVee Z with 400 horsepower outboard quad, allows it to cover much more water. Mitchell says it takes him an hour to get to places that previously took him three hours, allowing him to fish longer. His boat has six livewells, each with two pumps in case one pump fails or he wants to increase the water flow to accommodate hundreds of bait.

Trevally bait
Look for the liveliest baits in the well first to attract big fish.
Doug Olander

Smoking Kingfish Tactics

To target big kings, Mitchell emphasizes the extra effort of selecting the liveliest baits. “I tell my guys to always find the best bait in the tank. Look in there and find that bright blue racer with glowing eyes or goggles or a speedo or whatever and kick him out. It will get hit faster than anything you have in your spread,” he says.

Hunt uses his Simrad sonar to find bait and slight changes in water temperature. It also uses CMOR mapping on its multi-function display to find shipwrecks and other structures. “Sometimes the current hits the reef differently and there are ball baits up there,” he says. “Sometimes the water gets really cold, and when you find it’s rising a bit, even if it changes half a degree, it could mean there’s fish.”

The winter weather also plays a role because the fronts follow one another. “If you go out there for a week, you’re going to have a few good days and you’re going to have a few horrible days,” Mitchell says.

Before the front arrives, the trevallies begin to feed, then they die out. After the front has passed and the weather has calmed down, the fish begin to eat. “But I still think if you put a nice bait in front of a trevally, no matter what happens – they might not even be hungry – they see that thing and they have to hit it.”

Kingfish by boat
Look for the largest kings of Key West 40 to 45 miles offshore, near dumps and other structures.
Courtesy of Captain Casey Hunt

Finding Key West King Mackerel

Hunt, who runs CN-It Adventures, charters his 26-foot Twin Vee and also guides anglers on their personal boats. He catches most of his big winter kings about 40 miles south of Key West along a ledge that drops 60 to 120 feet.

“The bait hangs right where the ledge starts to drop, and the kingfish swoop in to eat the bait,” Hunt says, adding that yellowtail snappers also hang from that ledge. “You can also fish there for yellowtail and catch a big trevally. Someone caught a 61-pound king on a spinning 12-pound outfit. There are a lot of wahoos there too, when the water is clean.

Mitchell adds that most of his prime locations are within 40 or 45 miles of Key West. Some of his favorites include Tail End Buoy, Rockpile, Rocket, Critter, East and West Dry Rocks, Cosgrove Shoals and the current hotspot Banana Bar.

Trevally fishing boat trip
Be ready for multiple hookups when the bite gets fast and furious.
Jon Whittle / Sport Fishing

Kingfish Tackle and Bait

When targeting large kings, Hunt prefers a live 3-5 pound blue runner (his 71 pound ate a runner) or a yellowtail snapper. It bumps the trolling baits, engages and disengages the motors to keep the bow forward, and only fishes three flat lines at a time. He staggers the lines 30, 60 and 100 feet behind the boat. “The bite is so fast and furious; if the fish are there, they will eat,” he said. There is no waiting.

He does not use a winch line, usually a popular tactic for trevally anglers, as a deep bait will likely catch a black grouper (grouper season is closed until May 1), amberjack or crevalle jack.

Mitchell prefers to fish five lines: a large runner or bluefish 300 feet behind the boat, two flat lines, and two winch lines at varying depths. However, when the seas get rough, he may not even set two baits. And when the bite goes off: “You throw a bait on the back of the boat, and it gets hit immediately. It can get this good.

Like many trevally tournament anglers, Hunt uses very light drag settings. Yet his 71-pounder took just 10 minutes to land. “We let them go 200 meters of line and get exhausted, then we chase them with the boat,” he says.

Read more : King Mackerel Fishing Tips

His rig includes Accurate Valiant rods with conventional Accurate Tern TX-500X reels, which have a fast 6-to-1 gear ratio to quickly gather the line after a big king has made his initial run. He spools the reels with 20-pound Momoi Diamond Illusion monofilament line with a 20-foot 30-pound Diamond Fluorocarbon leader and 3-foot 30-pound AFW titanium leader to prevent cuts.

But even if a king bites through the leader or otherwise breaks loose, chances are Key West’s fertile waters provide plenty more opportunity to smoke one.

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