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Artificial intelligence

Fooling kingfish with fake baits takes time and fine-tuning on your part. Here's the know-how.

Published November 4, 2006


When Don Chancey deployed the blue diving plug over a rock pile in 22 feet of water, he was hoping to tempt something brown and stumpy, not something long and silver.

However, when his bouncing rod tip indicated a strike, the rapid rate at which line departed the reel, coupled with the fact that it was running away from the rocks, and not into the structure, told the Homosassa fishing guide this was not the gag grouper he sought.

But who's going to argue when a spry kingfish makes its presence known? Chancey didn't complain. And although kings were not his target on that day, he regularly pulls artificial lures when fall ushers an influx of kings into area waters.

It may not sit well with traditional live-bait kingfish anglers, but many a mighty mackerel has met its icy fate after falling for a plastic-clad imposter armed with sharp, metal snares.

Designed to imitate natural forage such as mullet, ladyfish, and sardines, large-lipped trolling lures mostly fool the juvenile "schoolie" kingfish, but Chancey reports tricking kings up to 30 pounds on lures.

In any case, artificials afford greater flexibility than breathing baits. For one thing, you need not burn any of your day throwing a cast net or jigging a gold-hook rig. And on those days when bait just won't cooperate, trolling lures will keep you in the hunt.

Also, when it comes to evaluating new areas, what could be easier than tossing out a couple of plugs and probing for action?

Where to troll

The abundant limestone outcroppings between Chassahowitzka and Homosassa offer ideal kingfish structure. Within 15 miles of the coast, there are numerous rock piles scattered like satellites around the major structures, and each reef holds various baitfish.

The rocks start before you leave shouting distance of land, but the close rocks - those in 6 to 10 feet of water are more likely to attract the smaller Spanish mackerel. Kings like a little more water under their chins, so start looking in the 12- to 15-foot range and work out as needed.

Along the way to and from stationary kingfish spots, take note of any bait schools you pass. Depending on how active the tiny fish may be, and who may be chasing them, a pod of baitfish might appear as just a dark spot moving through the water, or they might be splashing and "raining" at the surface.

Either way, if you think you're in the right depth, troll a couple of lures a few yards outside the school. If kings are feeding below, the sudden appearance of what looks like a hefty meal swimming vulnerably beyond the mass will often draw an aggressive strike.

How to troll

The key to presenting artificial lures is speed. You'll want to run at 3 to 5 knots, depending on wind and sea conditions. That's about three times the rate for live bait rolling, but unlike live baits, artificials won't "wash out" when run at a peppier pace.

Moreover, a faster speed means kingfish have less time to examine the target. They see a potential meal zipping through their feeding grounds and they're forced to make a decision. Kings are a schooling species, so they know that hesitation allows one of their brethren to steal the food.

When trolling large diving plugs across one of the many rocks he has marked on his Global Positioning System, Chancey drops off the boat plane about a half-mile from the number to give himself plenty of time to deploy his lures as he idles forward.

This ensures that his plugs pass through the rock's perimeter, where kings often lurk. Also important is a thorough pass. Chancey sets his lures as far back as 100 feet, so he makes sure to clear the rock pile by at least twice that distance to cover the structure's far side as well.

Throughout the trolling process, keep watch on the lines and check for anything that looks odd. Floating weeds are the bane of trollers, as vegetation gathering on a lure will ruin its action, and kingfish really don't care for salad with their meals.

Also, if a king hits a lure and misses, the sudden jolt can cause the treble hooks to wrap around the leader, leaving the lure in an unnatural position. This usually causes the lure to skip or roll at the surface, so stay alert for the white water and bubble trails that signal a fouled plug.

Because water drag is greater with artificials, you'll need stouter tackle than live-bait gear. Beefy 7-foot rods and 4/0-class reels loaded with either stainless-steel wire line or 40- to 60-pound braided line work well. Whatever your reel holds, top it with at least 3 feet of wire leader to repel the king's choppers.

Dehooking the toothy kingfish always requires caution, but be particularly careful when removing large lures with multiple treble hooks. One sudden flip and you could find your self connected to a fish that's pretty angry about falling for an imposter.

David A. Brown can be reached at

[Last modified November 3, 2006, 21:49:17]

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