Outdoors

Big kingfish are being caught all over southeast, but Key West tops the list. Here’s why

Capt. Casey Hunt of Key West with a 60-pound kingfish that he caught in January.
Capt. Casey Hunt of Key West with a 60-pound kingfish that he caught in January.

Capt. Casey Hunt has caught big kingfish all over the southeastern United States, but nothing like the kings he’s been catching this winter in Key West.

“It’s the most incredible kingfishing I’ve ever seen,” says Hunt, who grew up fishing out of Pompano Beach. “I’ve fished everywhere for kingfish and I’ve never seen the kingfishing that Key West has.”

Anglers have been catching kingfish of 40 or more pounds on a consistent basis. In the recent Key West Kingfish Mayhem Open Tournament, the winning fish was 51.7 pounds and there were seven other kings over 41 pounds.

According to Hunt, who moved to Key West from Pompano Beach last year, big kingfish are moving out of the Gulf of Mexico toward the Keys. And the fishing should remain excellent through February.

“It’s just so cool,” says Hunt. “Catching 20-pound kingfish here is like catching 5-pound kingfish out of Hillsboro Inlet. They’re so plentiful.”

Hunt’s biggest kingfish last month was a 71-pounder. The fish ate a slow-trolled blue runner and took only 10 minutes to land.

“We put barely any drag on these fish,” he says. “We let them zip out 200 yards of line and wear themselves out, then we go after them with the boat.”

Hunt has been catching the big kings about 40 miles south of Key West along a ledge that drops from 60 to 120 feet.

“The bait is holding right where the ledge starts to drop down and the kingfish are shooting up to eat the bait,” says Hunt, adding that yellowtail snappers are also on that ledge. “You can fish for yellowtails there as well and hook a big kingfish. Someone caught a 61-pound king on a 12-pound outfit while yellowtailing. There are plenty of wahoos there, too, when the water is clean.”

Hunt, who runs CN-It Adventures (cnitadventures@gmail.com; 954-683-7182) along with Capt. Natalie Rarick, fishes on a 26-foot Twin Vee and also guides anglers on their boats.

When targeting big kingfish, Hunt’s preferred bait is a 3-pound live blue runner or yellowtail snapper. He bump-trolls the baits, putting the boat in and out of gear just enough to keep it moving forward, and fishes only three flat lines at a time “because the bite is so fast and furious.

“If the fish are there, they’re going to eat. There’s no waiting around.”

Hunt’s preferred tackle is an Accurate Valiant rod with Accurate’s new Tern TX-500X conventional reel, which has a fast 6:1 gear ratio for quickly taking up line after a big king makes its initial run. He spools the reel with 20-pound Momoi Diamond Illusion monofilament line with a 20-foot leader of 30-pound Diamond fluorocarbon and three feet of 30-pound AFW titanium leader to prevent cut-offs.

He doesn’t bother with a downrigger line, which is popular with kingfish anglers elsewhere, because it’ll likely catch a black grouper (grouper season is closed until May 1), an amberjack or a jack crevalle.

After landing some big kings, which are called “smokers” because a) they take out so much line so fast, they cause the reel to smoke and b) they taste best when smoked and made into fish dip, Hunt might take his clients to fish some shallow spots.

Right now, he says, mutton snappers 5-10 pounds are biting small live pilchards on half-ounce jig heads in 20-30 feet of water and African pompano are biting ounce-and-a-half white bucktail jigs.

Fishing is also good around shallow wrecks in the Gulf west of Key West. Fishing in 20-30 feet, anglers can catch Spanish mackerel, permit and cobia up to 20 pounds. In addition to fishing trips, Hunt and Rarick also offer snorkeling and sandbar trips as well as sunset and mangrove tours.

“We mostly want to cater to families,” Hunt says. “I love jumping on other people’s boats and teaching them the tactics we use to catch fish. If you’ve ever wanted to catch a big kingfish, Key West this time of year is the place to be.”

FISHING TALES

Longtime Miami charter captains Bouncer Smith and Dennis Forgione are the featured speakers at a Hollywood Hills Saltwater Fishing Science and Social Club meeting Wednesday, Feb. 6, at Shenanigan’s Eastside Pub & Barbecue in Dania Beach.

Their presentation on true, never-before-told charter fishing stories, which will be emceed by me and Eric Brandon of the Nautical Ventures Weekly Fisherman radio show, starts at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public. The club posts its meetings at www.meetup.com.

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