Outdoors: Tampa Bay area's king mackerel run due by St. Patrick's Day
Green beer and leprechauns might be the order of the day on March 17, but odds are that for offshore anglers it will be more about blue runners and ladyfish. Those are a couple of the favorite baits for the big king mackerel that characteristically show up here on or about St. Patrick's Day and remain through April before heading north to the Panhandle waters. It's all about the baitfish migrations, of course. If the water warms as normal — reaching or exceeding 68 degrees off the beaches — the vast schools of threadfins, blue runners, skipjacks and other small fishes will be flowing past our shoreline. Snapping at their heels will be thousands of predator fishes, such as Spanish mackerel, little tunny, cobia and king mackerel, aka kingfish.The run is likely two weeks away, but that's about the right amount of time to get your gear ready and plan your trip. Because kings are notoriously speedy, replacing line on the reels must be done prior to the start of each fishing season, particularly if you're still using mono rather than braid. The long, smoking runs of larger kings twist and stretch monofilament, significantly weakening it. So, if you don't replace it at the start of the season, you'll lose fish. (Some charter boat skippers replace mono at least weekly during the run.) The National Marine Fisheries Service reported that gulf king mackerel stocks have been increasing steadily from around the turn of the millennium, rising from about 4 million fish then to more than 17 million today. The improvement is primarily because of reduced harvest mandated by federal law in the commercial and recreational sectors. Kings generally segregate themselves by size. The "schoolie" size (7 to 15 pounds) travel in schools of hundreds and sometimes thousands of fish. The larger fish (20 pounds and up) are known as "smokers" and usually are found alone or in small pods of similarly sized fish. The species reaches more than 100 pounds, but the largest fish commonly caught are around 40 pounds, with a few 50-pounders taken every year. Finding the fish is often a matter of finding the fleet. When the run is on, pods of 10 to 20 boats will be found circling the schools, trolling 5-inch spoons or live threadfins behind No. 1 or 2 planers. This action typically takes place from a quarter-mile off the beach to 10 miles out. To get in on the action, simply join the circle of boats, but be sure to follow the path that rings the school. Cutting through the center will put the fish down and ruin the action for everybody. For larger fish, most anglers slow troll with big blue runners or ladyfish. The bigger the better, up to a foot long, with action often best on the "break line" around the major passes on outgoing tide. The break forms when the dark water from inshore meets the green water from the gulf. The two do not mix for a considerable distance, and it's common for a rip to form where they touch, with floating weeds and debris marking the line. Egmont Pass, Southwest Pass, John's Pass and Clearwater Pass are among the good places to look for these big guys. Offshore shipwrecks, channel buoys and coral bottom areas also often hold kings. Anything that attracts baitfish is likely to attract kingfish. It's usually possible to anchor on a main channel edge and draw them to the boat by running threadfins through a grinder and over the side. The steady stream of chum will soon lure kings and Spanish mackerel into range, where they readily grab a free-lined threadfin or sardine. The preferred kingfish tackle is heavy spinning gear with microfiber line of 50-pound test, tipped with a couple feet of No. 6 single-strand leader wire. A ball-bearing swivel is a must for trolling. Many anglers slow-trolling live baits add a "stinger" hook, a No. 6 extra-strong treble, on a short length of wire trailing along the side of the baitfish. The minimum size for kings is 24 inches to the fork of the tail, and the bag limit is two daily. Consumer safety advocates recommend that kings more than 30 inches long not be eaten because of possible high mercury content. Kings generally move north to the Panhandle starting in late April as the water temperature exceeds 75. But this month and next, there's a great chance to enjoy some kingfish steaks — if not for St. Patrick's Day, then soon after.