Where are the Kings?

Where are the Kings?
This map shows migratory routes of Texas kingfish.

Kingfish landings, both commercial and recreational in Texas, seem to be plummeting and no one is sure why. The entire Gulf has seen a big drop in kingfish landings and in Florida, the same has happened with Spanish mackerel. Are there fewer fish, or fewer anglers going after them? What’s going on?

Texas has essentially a three-month summer kingfish season and June is sometimes too windy to fish offshore. That leaves two month before Labor Day arrives with school, football and dove season. Most of the oil rigs are gone now and one could argue that reduced catches are because the fish are less concentrated. For decades it was easy to find a rig on the horizon, tie up, and often catch a bunch of kingfish. The same was true around many anchored shrimpboats starting July 1 each year. Few shrimpboats are still working offshore now, because they’ve finally been overwhelmed by Asian imports of cheap shrimp.

Today, several generations of offshore anglers who grew up on fast action with kingfish, are getting too old to face the whitecaps; they’ve now switched to bay fishing. In addition, tight bag limits or season closures on everything found offshore is a further hindrance. Another possible factor: non-ethanol gas so favored by outboard motors is over $4.00 a gallon at many marinas, making offshore trips expensive. Those of a certain age, myself included, can look back fondly on our overnight offshore trips back in the day, when gas was 35 cents and then went all the way up to 90 cents during the 1970s and ‘80s. When we used single outboards.

It’s possible Texas still has a decent population of kingfish, but they’re just not being pursued and found. Some fish migrate down to Mexico each winter, though how many isn’t known. Some of our kingfish stock may also winter offshore, but once again how much is undetermined. I’ve certainly seen fast action between November and February out there on the bigger snapper rocks. It would be nice to catch and tag a few hundred kings out there during winter, and see where they reappear.

An undetermined portion of Texas kingfish also migrate east for the winter, all the way to the Florida Keys and even up the Atlantic coast for a hundred miles. That’s another hazardous migration, passing through an area where Florida kings seem to have been decimated without explanation. One Gulf Council member, Ed Walker, who is quite the fisherman with numerous world records, has a theory that the 10-month long red tide they had there from St. Petersburg on south, 2-3 years ago, leaving miles of floating fish, may have killed off a great many kingfish and Spanish mackerel as they migrated through that area. Unlike most coastal species, kings and Spanish mackerel always sink when dead, making it difficult, if not impossible, to find the evidence. Or counted, and that’s what biologists want to see, visual proof and numbers and grid patterns. Without evidence, scientists are skeptical of Walker’s red tide mackerel die-off theory.

Other theories are being discussed as well. “Some fishermen think kingfish migration routes may have shifted, but I’ve seen no evidence of that,” says the Gulf Council’s Kesley Banks in Corpus Christi. “If they are migrating further offshore, there is less chance fishermen will interact with them. A portion of our kingfish also migrate south into Mexico to winter, and the rest go to Florida. We also know there is a mixing zone off Louisiana between eastern and western stocks. We’re hoping for some funding to determine what percent of Texas fish migrate to Mexico. There is definitely a north-south movement, and there were kingfish tag recaptures around Vera Cruz back in the late 1980s and early 90s.”

My own kingfish recapture chart assembled in 1994 for my kingfish book, shows there were at least 15 Texas kingfish tag recaptures in Mexico during the seven years prior. The data was compiled by Steve Qualia in Flower Bluff, along with his tag volunteer fishermen.

“Because summer kingfish overlap with red snapper season each summer, it hasn’t affected the tourist fishing season that much,” says Banks. She also agrees that far fewer anglers are out catching kings around anchored shrimpboats. “Most shrimpboats have been tied to the dock for a couple of years now, because of imported shrimp. There was lots more fishing pressure out there years ago, along with lots more structure to fish.”

I’m not entirely a stranger to kingfish and have believed for 40 years they should have received gamefish status. The commercial harvest was intense for many years Gulf-wide, often using huge gillnets where the fish gathered each winter off the Florida Keys. In addition, many tournaments still target kingfish and the smaller ones are often tossed back, because they don’t meet the 30- and more likely 40-pound requirement to win a tournament. These fish are tough in the water but fragile in the boat and poor candidates for catch and release. A great many boat crews aren’t experienced enough to land these fish by tailing them without a gaff, then dodging fish hooks in the cockpit and getting them back in the water quickly. It’s not a sport for the faint-hearted when flailing treble hooks and snapping teeth are close at hand.

Years ago I had people tell me that all released kingfish die, but our tagging efforts showed otherwise. We had our Galveston fish reappear in far-away lands like Mexico, Mobile in Alabama, even near Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic. Or they were caught the following summer only 10 miles from the original site, meaning they migrated somewhere during winter and then returned for another summer off Galveston. It helped us understand that the kingfish population was finite.

At the same time, they were being caught and sold commercially around the Gulf and even in Galveston. Although a fishing season was briefly installed after the 1985 season, I took pictures of a commercial boat caught by game wardens, while they were unloading a thousand pounds of kings at Tiki Island near the Galveston bridge at mid-day. We also know that countless loads of assorted fish have been brought into Galveston harbor for unloading, late at night. And, I had an acquaintance tell me he’d caught 10,000 pounds of kingfish off my favorite snapper rock offshore. A place that was never the same after that. Can you imagine harvesting that many kingfish, just to fatten one’s wallet? There doesn’t seem much future for the species, without more protection.

The Gulf’s population of kings was immense only a few decades ago. There was massive commercial harvest using nets and spotter planes in the Florida Keys, where these fish winter. There was great wastage, because dead kingfish in the nets always sink and there was a lot of fallout. I remember my grandfather telling me an airline pilot spotted a school that was six miles long. Later in 1985, huge kingfish were discovered off East Louisiana. You could tie up to an oil rig a couple miles offshore, catch all the sand or gulf trout you wanted and use them for bait, which is why the kings were there. Sixty and even 70 pound kings were fairly common. The Cajuns had little use for them (which is saying something) but Florida net crews found out and brought in the big freezer trucks. Those huge female kings were decimated and hauled away to New York fish markets. Even today, Louisiana still has heavier kingfish than anywhere else, a big reason why the national SKA championship tournament for years was held at a casino in nearby Biloxi.

My recommendation for this summer is go easy on these fish. Either give them a break and target something else or use single hooks on them, maybe even barbless. Wear gloves and grab them by the tail. Jiggle the hook free and drop that fish over the side quickly, pointing them straight down. It’s a technique that works.

If you’re lucky enough to find a gathering of kings, perhaps chummed up behind the boat, consider throwing a topwater plug with the hooks removed. These fish will skyrocket a dozen feet high with the plug and then make a fast run before dropping it. Whereby another king may grab on. It’s great fun, the ultimate in topwater action, and you don’t have to land and unhook fish. Last time we did it, we used baitcasting tackle with 20-pound line. Don’t forget a short wire leader of a size that doesn’t kink easily, like 86-pound strength.
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