Photo by Mathieu Le Roux on Unsplash

When some anglers picture fishing the Florida Keys, they think of the big three: bonefish, permit and tarpon. Others envision battling a leaping marlin Old Man and the Sea-style or hoisting up a gleaming, fanged ‘cuda for the Instagram.

But if you’re looking for lots of action, look no further than the mighty kingfish. Also called king mackerel, these hook-chomping predators run between 10-40 lbs, and beasts pushing 100 lbs and 6′ in length are always a lurking possibility. No matter what their size, kingfish love a good fight, so on a trip to Key West we chartered a local guide to take us to them.

The March morning was warm and bright as Jake, our tanned, thirty-something captain met us with a wide smile on the dock. We hopped aboard his slick, 28-foot “Mean Green Machine” bristling with rod and reel rigs. Our spirits were rising with the early morning sun as I slapped on sunscreen and enjoyed the motivational sound of the outboard as we gunned our way to the first stop. We cut the engines and drifted among the mangroves. These hardy trees are adapted to survive in saline, swampy water and their massive, intertwined root systems offer an excellent hiding place for various species of fish.

A cormorant resting on a branch eyed us curiously as Jake flung a wide net into the water. A half hour later we had our live bait, a live well full of googly-eyed menhaden. “Look at ’em,” Jake observed as dozens of bait fish darted about the well. “Just a few minutes ago they were happily swimming around, eating tiny critters for breakfast. But now they’re in for it. Circle of life, man”

Jake showed us what he meant, and opened the throttle on his twin 200 horsepower Mercury outboards. The Mean Green Machine knifed through the blue water like a fiberglass blade and banked toward open ocean. It was good to be at the top of the food chain and in a boat like this you felt in command of the seas, like you were Poseidon’s kid with special dispensation. But all that could change with 25 mph winds and a solid six on the Beaufort scale when they start flying the small craft advisory red pennant. We didn’t have that concern right now, and on the high seas, “right now” was the only thing you could count on.

Eyeing his GPS Jake eased back the throttle and as we slowed I could feel the hull settle into its full displacement. We came to a stop at an unassuming location in 40 feet of water about a mile offshore. There were no other boats in sight. “Here it is,” Jake said, as if recognizing some pattern to these particular waves. “One of my top secret spots. Years ago I dropped a bunch of concrete slabs out here and the fish love it.”

That sounded like a plan as good as any, so we got busy baiting hooks rigged to stout wire leaders. Then we dropped our offerings over the side and watched as their smooth silvery scales flashed aquatic desperation to any predatory things that might be skulking beneath.

Was it a shark? A barracuda? Some Lovecraftian horror oozing up from the depths?

Bam! We had a fighter on the third cast. The king mackerel hit, one after another, solid 40 inchers. Jake wielded his gaff and hauled them aboard, pure muscle beneath a seemingly scale-less silvery skin. “Careful of those teeth,” Jake warned as each kingfish brought aboard gnashed and snapped. They reminded me of the business end of bluefish off Cape Cod. Into the fish box they went. That night we would take them to a local restaurant where the nice white fillets would be blackened to perfection and served up with a side of rice and a local lager.

When fishing for kingfish there is always the opportunity for variety. Grouper can be found lurking amid the structure along with the bait fish that attract the kings. We caught several including a pretty spotted grouper, plump and just right for the grill. But Jake, intervened, apparently recognizing this particular pattern of spots. “Would you mind putting that one back? I’ve caught him several times before, he’s a friend of mine.” I was happy to oblige and with a swish of his tail the cute fella vanished back down to whatever shadowy crevice he called home.

A sharp tug on my rod and another fish was on–I saw the slash of white mackerel against blue water. My forearms and back ached from reeliong these beasts in and as I negotiated this latest fish to the gunwhale Jake reached out with the gaff. In a flash the water boiled and a huge form rose up like a giant log and my fish vanished as the line went slack. Total silence as we stared in disbelief.

“Did you see that?” we all said. Was it a shark? A barracuda? Some Lovecraftian horror oozing up from the depths? “That was a huge King,” Jake said, his eyes scanning the water like Ahab looking for a glimpse of Moby Dick. Kingfish it turns out, have no qualms eating their own.

As I reeled in the line it seemed heavier than it should be and I lifted a mackerel head out of the water — hooked in the jaw and severed behind the gills — for all to see. It’s eyes bore the look of something who’s day went from bad to worse.

“Drop the head back in!” Jake said. I obliged, releasing the bail and letting my macabre offering plummet to the bottom. We stood on the deck in silence and watched, there was nary a ripple on the water. Suddenly there was a bump on the line…then another. Then the rod seemingly of its own accord slammed down on the gunwhale and I struggled against something powerful before the line again went slack. This time I reeled in nothing but a frayed line…the head was gone.

“There’s something down there, man,” Jake said as we peered into the deep blue depths. “And it sure ain’t nice.”