King mackerel have a special place in the hearts of many fishermen in North Carolina’s center-console armada. They are the everyman’s gamefish, and genuinely large fish are caught each year by fishermen on coastal piers, working just off the ocean beaches in small boats or headed a little farther offshore to deeper water. The spring and fall runs along the beaches are now even targeted by kayak fishermen.
Skip Conklin and the crew of the Ocean Athlete have already recorded a 60-pound king this year, but fall is generally considered the time to catch huge, smoker kings. While big kings are occasionally caught all along the coast, the waters of Raleigh Bay have a reputation for holding huge kings and can lay claim to the last two state records.
Raleigh Bay is the area north and east of Cape Lookout and south and west of Cape Hatteras. Cape to cape, this is approximately 70 miles of water. While James Winch’s current state-record king — 82 pounds, four 4 ounces — was caught a little farther offshore, most fishermen feel the waters from the beach out to about 15 miles or so are the most productive. This is one of the deeper areas off the coast, and the water depth at 15 miles varies from about 100 feet near Cape Lookout to nearly 150 feet near Cape Hatteras.
The Gulf Stream also moves closer to shore at Cape Hatteras than anywhere else along the coast — often as close as 25 miles. Compare that to 45 miles off Cape Lookout and 55 miles at Cape Fear, and it is easy to recognize that a lot of fishing strata is compressed into a much smaller area.
Raleigh Bay has produced some nice kings during the spring, but it is without peer in the late fall. The inlets and their tidal flow are a major factor for why these waters hold large kings. This is where almost all of the tidal exchange between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound occurs. Hatteras Inlet and Ocracoke Inlet are two direct connections between the sound and the ocean. Drum Inlet is roughly halfway between Ocracoke Inlet and Cape Lookout and drains Core Sound into Raleigh Bay.
The tidal flow through these inlets carries tons of assorted forage fish into the ocean. Some bait exchanges every tide, all year, but in the fall it is an all-you-can-eat buffet for hungry fish bulking up for the winter — and the larger predators know it.
These smaller fish use the sounds as a nursery area during their first summer. Then, as the temperature of the sound waters falls below their tolerance level, they are forced to move into the ocean, seeking warmer waters. Once in the ocean, they gather into large schools that don’t escape the attention of the kings.
The other factor that enhances Raleigh Bay’s ability to hold large king mackerel late into the year is the tendency of the water to stay warm. With the bend of the coast at Cape Lookout, the predominant east to northeast wind pushes warm water eddies from the Gulf Stream into Raleigh Bay. The position of the Big Rock and the Rockpile tend to also shear warm-water eddies from the Gulf Stream and spin them inshore. Diamond Shoals and Cape Lookout Shoals protrude far enough offshore to stabilize and hold these warm currents rather than dissipating them or allowing them move on.
Meanwhile, king mackerel also respond to many of the same changes that affect smaller fish. As inshore waters cool, kings must feed heavily to keep their body temperature up or migrate into warmer waters.
In the late 1980s, while defending a closure of the king mackerel season, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries biologists documented two migratory groups of kings off our coast. One of these groups remains off North Carolina all year and migrates between the Gulf Stream and the beaches for food and warm water. The other is a migratory group that may move north of the Chesapeake Bay during the summer when the water is warm and food is plentiful, then returns to South Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, as the water cools and food becomes scarce in the fall.
Both of these groups pass through Raleigh Bay in the fall, typically beginning in October and continuing into November, but in cool years it is earlier, and in warm years they stay later. Some may even remain all year. A 77-pounder was caught there while bluefin fishing one February in the late 1990s, James Winch’s state record was caught in April 1999, and Clifton Moss’s former state record, a 79-pound fish, was caught on Thanksgiving weekend in 1985.
Many fishermen believe only live baits will tempt a large fish to bite, but the facts say otherwise. The 77-pounder hit a horse ballyhoo that was being trolled for a bluefin tuna. Winch’s 82-pounder hit a Hatteras Lures EyeCatcher that was being trolled on a wire line for wahoo. Moss’s king was the only one of these big three caught on live bait.
Most fishermen prefer live bait for big kings. Many use menhaden and mullet, but in the fall and early winter, my favorite is a 2- to 3- pound bluefish. There is something about a struggling bluefish that attracts other predators. For years, we have joked that it was because the other fish knew if the bluefish grew up, it would try to eat them. Whatever the reason, bluefish are an excellent fall and winter bait for big kings.
Fishing with baits this size requires heavier tackle and equipment than standard live bait gear. Hatteras charter fishermen prefer to use 60- and 90-pound stranded wire and treble hooks from size 2 to 1/0. While tournament fishermen once considered this too heavy to entice wise, older fish, they are realizing the charter captains may have been onto something. The large bait hides the hooks, while it attracts those larger fish. Using larger hooks and heavier leaders allows using heavier line and more drag to control and subdue the fish faster.
While few kings are released, the big ones caught quickly on heavy tackle are excellent candidates for release; they are stronger tasting and not desirable for table fare. According to the FDA, big kings carry high levels of mercury and shouldn’t be eaten anyway. Finally, they are exclusively females and the prime brood stock of the species.
Randy Gregory of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries said more than 90 percent of king mackerel exceeding 20 pounds are female. He also said big kings have many times more eggs than smaller ones, and that a single fish could be a more productive spawner than a school of first-year spawning fish.
Ideally, these big kings should be released without handling them. If you have to have a picture holding your fish, use wet cotton gloves or a towel to avoid rubbing off its slime coating, and cradle its belly to avoid jostling and bruising its internal organs.
There are many good fishing areas in Raleigh Bay, but two places have excellent reputations for producing big kings. The 77-pounder and Moss’s 79-pounder were caught at the Atlas Tanker about 15 miles or so east of Cape Lookout. Skip Conklin’s 60-pounder was caught there too, as many other large fish have been over the years.
The other spot is the “Bad Bottom” off Hatteras, a triangular section of broken livebottom with a few shipwrecks that begins about six miles out Hatteras Inlet at AR 225. Numerous kings in the 50s and 60s have been caught there, and Winch’s 82-pounder was caught just to the South.