Live-Chumming Tactics

Learn how to elicit vicious strikes from king mackerel with live chum.
Steve Kantner

Why go looking for kingfish when you can bring them right to the boat?

Live-chumming is a highly effective technique to attract game fish within casting distance of an anchored or drifting boat. The technique is not a new one for crews targeting king mackerel, but it continues to gain adherents thanks to the aggressive nature of a big kingfish as it goes into attack mode.

As baitfish more north during spring and summer, they become increasingly available to coastal anglers who find the schools and load up the live well with cast nets and sabiki rigs. Considering the quantities of frisky baits needed to live-chum, the use of a cast net is recommended. So obtaining enough chum, as well as bait, is the first order of business.

Off of the Southeast, crews search for schools of pilchards, threadfin herring or Spanish sardines near inlets, or just off the beach. The presence of gulls, pelicans or other seabirds is a definite tip-off.

Once you locate the bait and successfully fill the tank, the second step is deciding how and where to disperse them. Typically, crews will toss baitfish out a few at a time in areas that satisfy one of two criteria:

1. The outer edges of reefs with depths ranging from 80 to 140 feet of water.
2. Defined areas over submerged structure, such as wrecks or rock piles.

Once you've picked a starting place, you may elect to drop the anchor or drift-fish. Once you mark some kings either run up-current and begin your drift, or quickly drop anchor and start paying out anchor line. It takes practice (or luck) to position your boat over wrecks or structure in the current. You want to position the boat so the baits will drift back over the structure. If you are not positioned correctly, it will diminish your returns. Use your sonar to make sure the boat is where you want it, and if you have to, pull anchor and reposition to get it right.

If you're into drifting, try these three basic strategies:

1) Start your drift on the outside edge of normal kingfish habitat, say the 25 fathom curve and, if there's an onshore wind, drift shoreward with the current to its innermost limit, say 10 fathoms. Reverse the geometry if the wind blows from the opposite direction. Remember, the trick here is to cover as much water as possible.

2) Whenever the kings are running, commercial boats know it. So, while keeping out of their way remember that they tie off their controls while reeling in fish. Carefully work your way into position and begin your drift.

3) If you still can't find fish, try targeting different depths and don't be afraid to move up or down the coastline. Toss out several nets full of chum in quick succession before turning around and leaving a spot. Watch and wait. If the kings show up, run to the action.

As far as dispensing "chummies" (smaller baitfish that you've reserved for chum), toss out a few at a time, preferably "spanking" three to 12 from a bait net. You can bounce them off the outboard or transom. This stuns the baits and leaves them kicking on the surface. Make sure they land far enough away from the boat, or they'll run back in unison and cluster under your keel. Keep repeating the process, while looking for swirls or other visible signs of feeding.

Meanwhile, when you start chumming, fire-out a pair of nose-hooked (or nose-bridled) live baits rigged on circle hooks. The kings will typically set the hook themselves once they take the bait. Let them run and don't set the hook. You may want to add a short length of wire above the hook for bite protection.

If possible, separate your live baits according to size. This can be easily accomplished if you have more than one live well. Smaller chummies (good if you can get them) take up less space and use less oxygen. So more can be kept alive longer in a dedicated well.    
Keep the baits you intend to put on hooks separate. That way, they'll stay lively.
As soon as you start hooking trash fish (such as blue runners or bonitos), pick-up and move.

But note all your cut-offs, or if your bait comes back sliced in half. Kingfish schools move laterally, as well as in and out according to sea conditions. So where you struck out this morning just might turn-on later in the day.

When kings turn-on hard, they slam live baits the second they hit the water! The bites can be truly epic. An unfortunate corollary to this madness is the number of cut-offs that result from freightened live baits swimming in circles. Kingfish, whose crosshairs are focused solely on the livie, end-up with a mouthful of leader. One way to prevent this is by switching to dead baits, and use fresh-dead baits that died in the well. The kings hit them just as fast, and with fewer missed targets!

Once you position the boat over the reef or a piece of structure, start tossing out small chummies to draw king mackerel within casting range. You can also bounce the baits off the outboard as you toss them out to stun them. Photo by Pat Ford.
The trick is to fill up your live well with live bait. To locate the baits, follow the gulls and pelicans in inlets or off the beach. Photo by Steve Kantner.
When you start live-chumming, send out a pair of nose-hooked live baits rigged on circle hooks. You may want to add a short length of wire above the hook for bite protection. Photo by Pat Ford.
The kingfish fleet are usually the first to find the fish. Most boats troll two lines, both of them deep. Give these guys plenty of room as you work your way into position. Photo by Pat Ford.
Rhona Chabot shows off a nice Key West, Florida, king mackerel she caught on spinning gear while live-chumming over a wreck . Photo by Pat Ford.

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