Feisty on the hook and tasty on the table, these panfish size members of the croaker family provide a pleasant option for casters working the summer surf.
The diminutive scrappy surf battler known as the northern kingfish is putting surf anglers on notice. Not to be confused with kingfish, aka king mackerel, this little bottom brawler only reaches up to around 2 pounds, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in numbers and incredibly tasty meat. For decades, south Jersey anglers have known that summertime brings in the kings as the waters are the warmest in the state. More recently, kingfish are being found in good numbers along central and northern Jersey, and Long Island’s South Shore, even trickling up into Long Island Sound and Cape Cod, most likely due to an overall trend in warming waters.
Tail Of The Tape
Northern kingfish average between 10 to 15 inches from a half pound to 1 pound, though larger specimens can reach up to 18 inches or greater and over 2 pounds. They have a cool profile, with a bronze body marked with black angled stripes resembling a tiger and a long large almost gafftop sail dorsal fin. The pupil of the eye is vertical and very feline-like. Kings also have a tiny fleshy nub under their chin to feel out crabs, sand fleas, worms and other types of sea floor forage. They travel in fairly large schools so if you catch one, you’re bound to catch a few. Kings also put up quite a fight for such a small fish.
Andy Grossman, owner of Riptide Bait and Tackle in Brigantine, New Jersey, operates one of the main tackle shops that caters to kingfishing as the Brigantine beaches are probably best known in the state to hold large amounts of the species. “As soon as water temps hit 63 degrees, the kings seem to show up, and they will hold all throughout the summer into October. It’s the perfect summer fish to catch, not only because you can load a bucket full of them, but they are spectacular in the frying pan.”
The good news about kings is you can find them both on high and low tides, as fish tend to hang in the deeper cuts and sloughs inside or outside of the sandbar. “High tides, just find a cut and cast into it, but during low tides, wade out onto the outer bar and make a cast into the deeper water behind that bar,” says Grossman. “Those fish hang out in large schools so the real key is to find the school of fish. I make my first cast and let it sit for 10 minutes, if I don’t get any hits, I reel in about 20 yards and repeat the process until the baits back at my feet. If I still don’t get any hits, I’ll walk 50 feet down the beach and repeat that process.”
Once you find the fish, you can stay on them for a couple of hours as they seem to hang in the spot during the tide. Perfect water is that tropical blue/greenish clarity found in mid-summer, but cleaner water in general fuels a better bite. Daytime hours are most productive for catching kingfish, from sunup to sundown, but the real appeal is that they will bite strong throughout the afternoon hours to put some action into those lazy, hazy hot summer days.
Bloodworms, Fishbites and clam bits. That’s all you need to know, but you need to understand what works and when. “I find that when the waters are cooler, kings will only go after bloodworms or fresh bits of clam,” states Grossman. “Once the water gets over 70 degrees or so, the chew seems to switch on over to red Fishbites. Of course, you can try out sand fleas and clams as well but Fishbites and bloodworms are definitely the two top baits.” Grossman stresses not to overbait the hook. “Only use a tiny piece of bloodworm, like around ¼ to ½ inch. Some guys will tip on a ¼-inch piece of Fishbite on top of that to lock the bait in.”
Rigs are fairly simple with a hi-lo type of rig will small pill floats in chartreuse/black or pink above a size #6 to #8 circle hook or Baitholder hook. Grossman prefers the Aqua Clear Hi-Lo rig, but you can make your own too with 20-pound test and a dropper loop to fix a 2 to 3 ounce bank or coin sinker on. “With the circle hooks, just let the rod set the hook in the holder, but if you are using J-Hooks, then I recommend holding the rod in hand to set the hook as they can come by quickly and machine gun the bait off the hook.” With the Hi-Lo rig, doubleheaders are commonplace.
Kings For Other Things
Not only do kingfish put up a spirited battle for such a little fish, but they are scrumptious eating. As there is currently no size or bag limit from New Jersey to Massachusetts, on a good day you can put 20 or more kings into a bucket for the frying pan, but its not worth keeping any fish smaller than 8 inches or so. Grossman simply likes to fillet them, bread them and fry em right up, though he knows guys who cook them like trout, gutting them, then broiling them whole with lemon, butter and garlic in aluminum foil. Though they provide gustatory delight for sure, kingfish are also prime time baits when targeting large beasties from the beach. As you fillet the kings to eat, keep the heads as they are the number one bait when targeting large legal sharks from the beach like blacktips, spinners and sand sharks. During the summer and fall months, kingfish heads make proper baits to night chunk for large resident bass in the 30 to 40-pound class that hang in the sloughs and feed during the dark hours.
There’s no doubt that the northern kingfish has its place in the surf lineup, though bay anglers on the boat can also be fast into the fish anchored up on a clam chum slick with the same type of rigs. With a torrid bite lasting throughout the afternoon every day of the summer, I do declare that the small, feisty fish wears the crown as the true King of the Summer Months.