September is the best time for catching the biggest kings of the whole summer if you “match the hatch.”
The September sun beat down, and even though the calendar suggested that summer was almost over, it felt like July had never left. The smooth swells of the Gulf lifted the boat gently while pulling against the rope that connected it to the gas rig off Alabama’s coast. Serenity ruled. The world was a peaceful place.
Without warning, the quiet and the peace came to a sudden end. A spinning rod which had been idle in its holder bent violently over. The reel squealed and the startled angler woke up to find that line was peeling from the reel at an alarming rate. A big king mackerel had decided to make an end-of-the-season call.
How to find and Catch September Kings
It’s hard to beat live bait for September kings. A big hardtail (blue runner) or cigar minnow is always a good bet. These baits pinned to two-hook stinger rigs account for untold numbers of September kings.
For some really big kings, a live ribbonfish or ladyfish on a three-hook stinger rig can pay off. When using these larger live baits, anglers should be careful to not under-rig. Instead of fifteen-pound line, it might be a good idea to go to twenty-five pound line. September kings are used to chasing and eating larger baits than they did in April, so “match the hatch” and give the kings a big bait to find.
It can be hard to keep live bait alive in September when the water is still pretty warm. However, fresh dead or even frozen baits will work well. The angler, though, will have to impart some action to the drifting dead bait.
September kings can be found just about anywhere on the coast. Captain George Pfeiffer of Action Charter Service says, “Along the beach, over wrecks, anywhere the bait is, the kings will be there.” Good places to start a September king mackerel search are drop-offs where the water from the passes of Mobile Bay and Perdido Bay goes from eight feet deep to sixteen or twenty feet deep. Often in the early mornings, kings can be seen “skying” as they feed on bait over these drop-offs.
Of course, the gas rigs around Sand Island and the other near-shore rigs can be great places to find kings in September. Kings usually like to have some current running.
Anglers can look for birds working schools of bait anywhere up and down the beaches of Alabama. Sometimes, the fish pushing the bait to the surface will be Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, or bluefish, but often the feeding fish will be kings, and this can mean some very fast action.
Even fishing around anchored ships in the waters outside of Mobile Bay can be very productive. Kings like the shadows of the big ships, and bait tends to gather in the protection of ship hulls, so the kings visit there, too.
Fishing techniques for September kings are just about the same as earlier in the season. Slow-trolling live bait with a blue-and-white plastic skirt ahead of the bait is a very good way to find big kings. Bare bait (no skirt) is what the kings want sometimes.
Many anglers like to anchor or tie up to a gas rig and simply drift live bait thirty yards behind the boat. This is a relaxing way to fish until a big king takes the bait.
Of course, we can’t neglect the pier anglers. Many very fine kings are taken from Gulf Coast piers in September, and the Gulf Shores State Park Fishing Pier is just about the best pier for king mackerel fishing. Fishing from the pier usually involves using live or fresh dead bait that you can drift with the current. One good thing about September fishing on the pier is that students are back in school, and the crowds that made king mackerel fishing on the pier difficult at times during the summer season have thinned out considerably. Usually in September, the anglers on the piers are regulars who know what they are doing.
Cleaning and cooking
Some of the biggest kings of the year are caught in September, but cleaning a big king can be a challenge. When cleaning a king, it will take more than the standard filet knife to cut through the thick bones. A heavy knife with a very sharp edge will be needed. A sturdy table or bench to work on is another aid. The basic cleaning is easy: Take off the head, remove guts, wash out the cavity and either filet the fish or cut it into manageable pieces. Try to remove the “blood line” or any other dark meat from the filets or steaks. This dark meat is the part that gives strong flavors to the fish.
For the largest kings, say thirty pounds or larger, cutting the fish into “steaks” (basically cross-section chunks of fish) is a good way to go. This allows the angler to get maximum use of the fish. The steaks can be as thick as desired, but an inch thick is a good size for grilling. Most folks go ahead and remove the skin when grilling kings, because the skin can have a strong flavor.
To keep king steaks from drying out on the grill, many folks wrap the fish in bacon so the flesh won’t dry out. Grilled bacon-wrapped king mackerel is very tasty.
Smoking king mackerel is a Gulf Coast classic way to prepare it. The smoker doesn’t need to be too hot, but it needs to produce a good bit of smoke. Pecan is a good wood to use for smoking king mackerel, but others like only the bare coals; no wood flavoring at all. Different folks have different ideas about how much time and heat smoked king takes. I like the fish fairly moist, yet it must have a good smoke color and flavor. I don’t like over-cooked king. Italian dressing is a good baste for smoking king mackerel. It also helps keep the meat from drying out.
Captain George Pfeiffer tells us, “Fresh off the grill with lemon butter and garlic or Tony’s, king mackerel is so good. Any leftovers can be chopped up to make fish salad or fish dip.”
See the sidebar for specific information and warnings about eating king mackerel.
How Long Will They Stay?
Water temperature, not a certain calendar date, determines when the kings arrive in the spring, and water temperature determines when the kings leave in the fall. Some years, kings will be around in good numbers up to and past Thanksgiving. Basically, when the water temps fall below 70 degrees, the kings will start to thin out. When fall cool fronts push the water below 65 degrees, kings will be scarce.
When the water falls below 60 degrees, the kings will be gone for the winter. A few stragglers are still caught when the water cools off, but they are very rare.
Captain George Pfeiffer says, “Kings will stay until the first real cold front. Right before the big cold front hits, the big ones will go far up in the bays to feed. Use a big mullet under a balloon; the great big kings will feed heavily right before the cold hits. When the front passes and the water chills, they’ll be gone.”
A number of warnings from various government agencies warn against eating the flesh from very large king mackerel. The Alabama Department of Public Health advises anglers to not eat king mackerel over 39 inches long. For more information, visit ADPH.org/contents a-z/2010 fish consumption advisories/news release.
King mackerel concentrate mercury from the smaller baitfish they consume, and these mercury levels can be high enough to pose a threat, especially to pregnant women or small children.
To be safest, avoid eating the really big kings. The smaller ten-pound fish are much less likely to have a high mercury load, and most people think they taste better, anyway.
Important Contact Information:
Captain George Pfeiffer
Action Charter Service