Winter Off Key West
Searching for “smoker” kingfish
By Pat Ford

Credit Pat Ford and Ron Romano

These days, there isn’t a fish that you can’t catch on a fly rod: some are just harder to manage than others. King mackerel fall into the “very hard” category despite ranging throughout the Gulf of Mexico and way up the Atlantic coast, even over to the Bahamas. They are everywhere sometimes, and other times, especially if you’re looking for them, they can be annoyingly absent. They are most commonly caught on live bait, with trolled ballyhoo coming in a distant second. Nobody ever goes after king mackerel with a fly rod . . . except if you’re fishing off Key West during winter.

The first big saltwater fish I caught was a 46-pound kingfish, but that was on spin tackle and live bait. I’m still impressed by these fish and especially the idea of taking them on a fly. Back in the early 70’s captain Bob Montgomery and angler Jim Lopez set a couple of fly rod world records for kings. They never admitted exactly how they did it, but rumors indicated they bought 100 pounds of shrimp from a shrimper, in addition to the normal shrimp-boat trash, and chummed the kings up around Smith Shoal.

King mackerel congregate around Key West during winter. They show up first in the Atlantic then migrate to the Gulf. The Atlantic fish school up in deep water and are pretty much cookie-cutter size, ranging from 12-to 17 pounds. There are some 30-plus pounders around, but they are continually moving and difficult to target. But, when they move north into the Gulf, the big boys tend to hang out around wrecks, and once they show up, they may stick around.

Rufus Wakeman and I tried to catch big kings on a fly for years. I’d had a couple of trips with captain RT Trosset where we caught a few, but the fish came sporadically and all weighed less than 17 pounds. We booked again with RT one recent February with our fingers crossed—we hoped that the weather and kingfish would cooperate. RT had found the kings, but they were some 60 miles northwest of Key West and we needed good weather to consider a long trip, even in his 34-foot Yellowfin. We met RT at the Hurricane Hole docks at 7 a.m., and couldn’t believe our luck … the weather was perfect.

Every day with RT starts with throwing a cast-net for pilchards. RT’s son, Chris, is also a licensed captain, but on this day he joined as his father’s mate. Chris is a master with a cast-net, but it’s either feast or famine with pilchards. We ran down the Atlantic side of the Keys looking for diving pelicans, but it took us two hours and the south side of the Marquesas before we had enough to effectively chum. Fortunately, the wind stayed down and we were able to cruise the whole way.

RT has thousands of hot-spots marked on his GPS. Wrecks, coral heads, reefs—anything he’s ever run over that holds fish is on his chart. He’d heard that the kings were staging on a few distant wrecks, so that’s where we headed. We didn’t mark much at the first wreck. Ditto for wreck #2. It was noon and things were getting a little tense—if we didn’t bring fish up at wreck #3, RT warned, we would have to run to Kingfish Hole, which is closer to the Dry Tortugas than anywhere else.

At wreck #3 we didn’t see anything on the surface and we marked little on our chart. Still, we started chumming and put two live pilchards on spinning rods. After 30 minutes one of the spinning rods went off and we had our first kingfish of the day. But catching one king on live bait doesn’t mean much, and it was another 10 minutes before RT saw one swim across the back of the boat. He threw in a net full of pilchards and a series of surface splashes told us that we were in business. No more wreck hopping … now all we had to do was catch these brutes.

Catching turned out to be easy. Cast the fly as far as you could, throw in a half-dozen live pilchards, strip as fast as you could and, wham! A kingfish strike is magic. Super fast, then a short hesitation as the fish decides there’s something wrong and takes off on a magnificent run.

For two hours we had the best fishing of my life—those kings hit everything we threw at them. Rufus and I each caught bruisers that weighed 37 pounds. Overall, we landed more than 20 kings over 20 pounds, all on the fly. After I caught my big boy, I pulled out the camera and RT cast a giant Zara Spook with no hooks while I lined up the camera. Those kings rocketed on the plug.

The next morning we woke up to heavy northwest winds and realized there’d be no more Gulf kingfish that weekend. And then, two weeks later I was back on RT’s boat, on the Gulf kingfish wrecks. It was flat calm, but there wasn’t a kingfish to be found anywhere. Same place, pretty close to the same weather conditions and tide, but the kings were gone.

To book a trip with captains RT or Chris Trosset, e-mail them at

To Catch A Kingfish

Season: Kingfishing perks up in October and November, but mostly for smaller fish. The “Smokers,” as large kingfish are called, arrive as the water truly cools in December. Excellent options stretch through February.

Location: You can catch kingfish off Florida in many places, but the Keys—especially Key West and the Dry Tortugas—produce large fish. In fact, about half the IGFA records, including a 90-pound world record taken off Key West in 1976, were taken off the Keys.

Rods: Ten, 11 and 12-weights can tame these fish. A 10-weight handles most any size king because they stay pretty close to the surface, but an 11 or 12-weight is better for casting, especially if there’s wind.

Reels, Lines, Leaders: You need a quality saltwater reel with lots of backing. Load it with a sinking line. I prefer a fast-sinking striped bass line, but clear mono-core lines and Teeny-style sink-tips work well, too. Short, stout leaders with a trace of metal in them are essential. Gulf waters are not very clear, so piano wire and knottable braided wire work well.

Stripping Basket: You do have to cast, sometimes for distance, so a stripping basket is valuable.

Flies: When throwing in live pilchards, it makes sense to match that baitfish. I follow the big fish, big food theory. My flies are simply six or seven-inch long synthetic baitfish patterns.
Easy to tie and relatively easy to cast, and they work.

Pat Ford
Pat Ford honed his sports photography skills at Notre Dame. His first article for Saltwater Sportsman appeared in 1969, and he has shot and written for every major fishing publication since that time. He has held more than two dozen IGFA line class records and now, as a retired Miami trial attorney, spends his time writing books and traveling to exotic locales. See more of his work at