John's Journal...

Alabama’s Target-Rich Mackerel Waters

Kings of the Night

Click to enlargeEditor’s Note: Anglers on the Gulf Coast will find a target-rich environment there for hunting big kingfish. The State of Alabama has the largest artificial reef-building program in the nation, and many of these reefs have big king mackerel swarming over them. The Department of Conservation's Marine Resources Division has charted hundreds of public reefs with Loran coordinates and DGPS coordinates at You also can pull down maps of the area at this site. For each public reef you pinpoint on the map, three to 10 unmarked and unnamed reefs may exist within the designated reef-building area. The state permits individuals to carry reef material out to the reef-building zone and deploy that material without having to tell anyone the exact location. When you’re fishing for king mackerel, keep your depth finder on, and search for hidden reefs as you go back and forth to the reefs you plan to fish. Artificial reefs attract baitfish that will draw in big king mackerel. Generally the bigger reefs will attract the larger mackerel. However, anglers may locate big-king honey holes on the many small reefs that most fishermen will overlook.

Click to enlargeWe’d fished hard all day for snapper, grouper and amberjacks, and our captain had anchored us over a natural reef that contained some big rocks. When he anchored the boat down, he let enough line out so that the boat was positioned right about the reef. There were 22 of us fishing on a head boat (a multi-passenger boat that could take out large parties of fishermen). After dinner, everyone went to sleep in the bunks below. But I had an old trick that I’d learned many years ago. I drank as much water and iced tea as I could before I went to sleep, so I would wake up in the middle of the night and start to fish again. When I went out on the deck, I met another fisherman who had started fishing after dinner, and I noticed that when he brought his bait up, there was a flash of silver right below his bait. I let the fisherman get downstairs and then I started scurrying around the deck, looking for what I could rig up to possibly catch king mackerel. I found some wire leader and two large hooks. I put the eye of one hook through the point of the second hook, which gave me a double-hook rig. Then, I found a barrel swivel, tied the monofilament line from the deck rod to a barrel swivel, used pliers to attach the wire leader and finally attached the wire leader to the two hooks. I knew that king mackerel liked live bait, but I didn’t have any. However, I did have some frozen cigar minnows. I took a box of the cigar minnows out, and after they thawed in water, I hooked a cigar minnow through the nose. Then with the second hook, I hooked it through the belly. Using no lead, I began to free-line the cigar minnow off the back of the boat. I’d let out only about 50 to 60 yards of line when I felt a hard thump. I engaged the reel, set the hook and the battle started.

Click to enlargeAs I began to play the fish down, I knew that if I brought the mackerel straight to the deck and put him on the deck, it would start slapping its tail against the bottom of the boat and wake up everyone below. So, I played the fish down. Then I got a gaff, which was right by where I was fishing, gaffed the fish and carried it straight to the icebox. The fish flopped around inside the icebox but didn’t make enough noise to wake anyone. For the next 3 hours, I caught king mackerel almost every time I put my bait in the water. Each time, I’d bring the fish to the boat, gaff it, put it in the icebox and then start fishing again. The kings weighed 15- to 25-pounds each. In those days, there were no limits on king mackerel, and you could catch as many as you wanted. About an hour before daylight, I’d done all the king mackerel fishing I wanted. I had 25 kings in the icebox, each with a tag on its tail and my number – No. 5.

Click to enlargeWhen you’re fishing on a head boat like this one, with a lot of different people, and everyone wants to keep what they’ve caught, you’re issued a number. And, my number was No. 5. So, after I’d washed my hands, cleaned up the deck and put the lid on the icebox, I went below, crawled back in my bunk and went to sleep. Two or 3 hours later, I smelled coffee brewing and bacon frying, and I could hear the other fisherman eating breakfast. I crawled out of my bunk and went to breakfast. Everyone was talking about the icebox full of king mackerel and wondering who’d caught them. But I never said anything. Everyone kept asking, “Who’s No. 5?” And, I was like the Tar Baby in the old Uncle Remus story, “I just didn’t say nothin’.” When we got in that night, the fish were taken out of the icebox and thrown out on the deck in lines by numbers. My king mackerel were the last fish to hit the deck, and everyone was standing around to see who was No. 5. I sheepishly went up the dock and got a roll cart for all my fish. When I started loading those king mackerel into the roll cart, everyone really gave me a hard time about all the king mackerel I’d caught. They all wanted to know when and how I’d caught them. But just like Tar Baby sitting on a log, I didn’t say anything except, “I just got lucky.”

For more information on the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, visit, or call 800-745-SAND.

To learn more about fishing the Gulf Coast, contact the Orange Beach Fishing Association at 251-981-2300, or visit

Tomorrow: Fish the Platforms at Night

Check back each day this week for more about "Alabama’s Target-Rich Mackerel Waters"

Day 1: The War Zone
Day 2: All Types of Reef Materials
Day 3: Places to Catch King Mackerel
Day 4: Kings of the Night
Day 5: Fish the Platforms at Night


Entry 354, Day 4