The nearshore waters off North Carolina’s coast have always been good places to hunt for big king mackerel, especially from mid-October to mid-November, and slow-trolling has been the traditional technique, using relatively light tackle to drag live baits like menhaden at or just below the surface.

Almost 30 years after slow-trolling took over the king mackerel world, another approach to catch big kings — developed in Florida for sailfish — has migrated to North Carolina. It produces the kind of big, smoker kings that fishermen love to bring to the scales in tournaments, but flying a fishing kite has largely been ignored by Tarheel State anglers because it takes specialized equipment, takes a while to learn and it’s a much-slower way to fish. but there’s little doubt it puts big fish within range of a gaff.

“I mostly kite fish for kings in October and November,” said guide Toby Fulford, a 44-year-old Holden Beach native who has been fishing since he was 19 and guiding for eight years.

Fulford still slow-trolls when he takes clients hunting for kings, but when he fishes for fun, he enjoys using kites, plus, it helps to have extra deck hands, because one angler must steer while others must handle rods, kites and battle fish.

 “It’s not that difficult when the wind’s steady and the kites fly well,” Fulford said. “You’re mostly just drift-fishing. If the wind’s a little strong, we use a sea anchor to slow us down. Then all you look for is a king crashing a bait.”

Fishing with a kite puts baitfish on the surface and keeps them there, its major advantage over other techniques. Baits struggle, skip and hop because the kite doesn’t allow them to dive. And nothing grabs the attention of a big king — or any other gamefish — love a baitfish thrashing on the surface. It gives the impression of a wounded, easy meal.

“The first thing we do is catch a load of big menhaden for the livewell,” Fulford said. “October and early November are good times because that’s when (they) are the biggest. The old saying ‘big baits catch big fish’ is true for kings.”

Some anglers like to use small bluefish for king mackerel kite work. Blues are popular baits for fishermen who target kings from ocean piers in spring, summer and fall. Oddly enough, kite fishing in the ocean for these fish is somewhat similar to fishing from a pier, with the main difference that a drifting boat with multiple surface baits covers more ocean. The similarity comes in how baits are presented. 

At a pier, baitfish hang from lines that run through a release clip on an anchor rod’s line that has a weight dug into the bottom. Meanwhile, rod lines on a kite-fishing boat run through multiple release clips held suspended above the water by a kite.

“A lot of people will fly one kite and one fighting rod clipped to the kite line, but others use one, two or three rods with that many baitfish dangling from one kite line,” Fulford said. “That takes a little experience and practice.”

It also offers a huge territorial advantage in attracting the attention of king mackerels.

Most kite-fishing spreads won’t have more than six baits in the water, although a few experts will put eight baits under two kites. Probably the best idea for beginners, Fulford said, is to start with one kite rod and one fighting rod to get some experience before trying multiple baits.

One advantage that makes fall the best time to try kite fishing is huge schools of menhaden in nearshore waters.

“The past few years, big schools of shad have been all over the ocean, from right on the beaches to 2 or 3 miles offshore,” Fulford said. “But another advantage of drift fishing from a boat while using kites is you can pick spots you know are likely to hold kings.

“They like to hang around wrecks and artificial reefs that are baitfish magnets. In spring and summer, you can drift across those places, and kings will zoom up to attack your baits. Some people also put some flat-line baits off the stern, and kings attack them, especially if you’re anchored.”

One of his other tricks is to hang a bag of chum over the side of his boat, a porous bag holding chopped menhaden doused in menhaden oil, tied to a cleat with a rope and lowered into the water.

“Kings feed by sight and smell,” Fulford said. “I like to anchor up a few minutes before we do a drift. That’s when I put a chum bag over the side to make a slick at least a couple hundred yards long in the direction we’ll be drifting. Kings can detect that smell, and it excites them. Then you put your kites up with as many baits as you want. These baits will be in the chum slick because the boat will drift in the same direction as the slick.”

Fulford’s kite-fishing tackle includes 7-foot live-bait rods and Shimano Speedmaster reels spooled with 25-pound braid, 10 feet of a 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader and 3 to 4 feet of No. 5 wire tied to 6 inches of wire that connects two No. 4 treble hooks.

“Some people like a snell knot tied to a single live-bait hook (attached to the bait’s back under its dorsal fin) with a No. 4 treble hook (in its tail),” Fulford said. “However you hook your baits, it’s best to have both in the shad and no dropper hooks so they don’t get tangled when baits bounce around on top.”

 The setup for kite-suspended baits begins with kites, which vary in price. The best are high-priced, such as the $194.99 R&R Tackle SFE Tournament Series kite, Lewis Kite Hunter Fishing kite ($116.30) and Tigress This Bites Hi Performance kite ($117.99). Cheaper kites may be bought for as little as $34.99, but anglers should keep in mind that prices indicate how well kites work. 

Another trick Fulford uses is to attach a small balloon with twist ties to the center back side of a kite. If a kite gets loose, the balloon floats the kite so it can be retrieved.

Cheap release clips don’t offer the best performance. They should have adjustable tensions to take into account different weather conditions and how kings bite baits.

“You want to set the tension for king mackerel clips tight enough they won’t pull loose if a hard wave or a light tap from a small fish hits the baitfish,” Fulford said. “They should be tight enough so when a king hits, the tension in the release clip is strong enough to set the hook in the fish’s mouth.

“You don’t need to worry about setting hooks — the king’s attack does that,” Fulford said. “Even with slack in a fighting rod’s line when it falls to the surface, the king’s run will tighten up the line, and you can fight him back to the boat.”

Fulford promotes a pump-and-reel method to retrieve hooked king mackerels.

“You need a fighting rod with a medium-stiff backbone but a limber tip so when a fish surges the first time with the bait in his mouth he won’t pull the hooks,” he said. “Then, instead of crankin’ the reel like crazy, let the line fight the fish when he’s taking drag or pulling side to side. Once his first run ends, pump the rod tip slowly up, then reel quickly as you lower the tip toward the water. Pump, bow and reel. If he wants to pull drag again, let him. Then pump, bow and reel again to get back line. He’ll get worn out eventually, and you can reel him to the boat. You want to keep contact with him, but not pull the hooks from his mouth.”

Another trick kite anglers use is a non-abrasive split-ring line guide attached to the release clip. Some prefer stainless-steel split rings because they won’t break, but other anglers like ceramic rings. Line from the fighting rod slides through split rings.

The main advantage of kite fishing for king mackerels is it keeps terminal tackle out of the water, leaving a splashing, wriggling baitfish swimming in a large circle. Every other technique presents live baits swimming beneath the surface where sharp-eyed kings may spot other pieces of terminal tackle.

October and November also are months when kings gather to enjoy a feast of menhaden. By using a kite, anglers can feast on kings as well.  

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE — Holden Beach is at the southern terminus of NC 130, which can be reached on US 17 from Wilmington and points east,  NC 87 from the Piedmont and US 74/76 from the Charlotte area.

WHEN TO GO — Mid-October through November.

BEST TECHNIQUES — To fish for king mackerel with a kite, purchase a reputable kite, release clips and snap swivels, attach it to a 7-foot live-bait rod mated with a Shimano Speedmaster reel spooled with 20-pound braid, a 3- to 4-foot leader of 30-pound fluorocarbon and a live-bait king rig of two No. 4 treble hooks connected by 4 to 6 inches of wire to a No. 4/0 live-bait hook for the bait’s nose. 

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Toby Fulford, 910-264-8860; Mark Stacy, Ocean Isle Fishing Charters, 910-279-0119, www.oceanislefishingcharters.com; Mark Dickson, Shallow-Minded Fishing Charters, 843-458-3055, www.fishmyrtlebeach.com; Kevin Sneed, Rigged & Ready Charters, 910-448-3474, www.holdenbeachcharter.com; The Tackle Box, Southport, 866-395-3474. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — Gray Gull Motel, Supply, 910-842-6775; Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce, Shallotte, 910-754-6644, www.brunswickcountychamber.org.; Southport/Oak Island Area Chamber of Commerce, 910-457-6964, www.southport-oakisland.com

MAPS — Sealake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185, www.thegoodspots.com; Capt Segull’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; GMCO’s Chartbook of North Carolina, 888-420-6277 www.gmcomaps.com