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The cutting edge: what makes the kingfish such a deadly predator also makes it a fisherman's favorite.

The fisherman experiences a sudden, savage strike that may lead into a long, drag-squalling run, or end prematurely in a cutoff. It's the calling card of the king mackerel, and one of the most thrilling moments in all of saltwater fishing.

Kingfish are built like javelins for speed, easily capable of high jumps, but it turns out they have a weak bite. For disabling prey, they depend on what biologists call "ram speed." As many anglers know, a kingfish can cause considerable damage even to hard baits such as the blue runner. They have a fine set of chopping teeth that certainly helps. But speed is what makes the difference here; a streamlined, but slow kingfish would have a difficult life.

A recent article, "Feeding Performance of King Mackerel," in the Journal of Experimental Zoology discusses bite performance research on kingfish, and how surprisingly light their grip can be. Four researchers from University of South Florida and the University of Tampa came to some interesting conclusions.

"King mackerel, Scomberomorus cavalla, have relatively low performance for bite force compared with other fishes and relatively little of the forward predator force is experienced by the prey," the scientists indicate. "However, king mackerel can attain high swimming speeds to chase prey and use sharp teeth to impart high bite pressure, factors which apparently alleviate the need for high bite forces."

Dr. Philip Motta from the University of South Florida, who participated in the study, explains in his own words:

"When a kingfish hits its prey, the bait experiences a force of the impact. However, this depends on the mass of the prey and the acceleration experienced by the prey. For instance if a car hits a feather, it's the mass of the feather that accelerates. Therefore the force experienced by the feather is very small. It's much the same with a little herring--the mass of the herring times its acceleration equals the force it experiences. So the force on the herring is not that great, which is surprising. Mass increases as the target gets bigger. If a kingfish ran into a brick wall, the impact would be massive. With a herring, not much at all.

"That force increases when a kingfish hits a bigger prey like a blue runner or Spanish mackerel. The point being that the bait experiences relatively little force from the kingfish impact, but the very sharp teeth, combined with a relatively weak bite force compared to other fishes, still results in a huge bite pressure (which is force per area), cutting the bait in half," says Motta.

From the standpoint of tackle selection, it's a good thing kingfish don't carry a heavy bite force, because their teeth alone can be trouble enough. A kingfish has a bony front jaw without muscle. The only muscles are in the cheeks and behind the eyes. The teeth come together at their strongest points in the corner of the mouth, rather than near the nose. That means if you can hook a king near the tip of either jaw, there is far less danger of getting cut off compared with the back of the mouth. Even with wire.

I've had kings chew through 69-pound wire leader. I knew it was a kingfish, because we hooked it again the next day and this time recovered my hook. It was deep-hooked, and the short wire still attached only reached halfway to the tip of its jaw. So, it must have been cut off at the corner of his mouth, where it was chomped the previous day. That fish weighed 39 pounds and was caught and weighed on the second day of our tournament. (That meant first place trophy, for best two-fish stringer total).

That episode led me to wonder how many big kings cut through light wire. Even world-record kingfish. A case in point: One of the crew from North Carolina who landed the biggest kingfish ever in a Southern Kingfish Association (SKA) event, a 74-pounder, told me he had no doubt the SKA fleet has lost a number of world records on the strike. Their light wire, often about 44-pound test, is used for stealth and better bait performance, but is a poor match for 70-pound kings. But then, SKA crews usually only need a single 40-pounder each day to win. Unless they're in the Dry Tortugas or off the coast of Louisiana where truly big king bites are the rule, rather than the exception.

Circle hooks are seldom used by the kingfish tournament crews, but the fact that those hooks tend to set in the tip of the jaw means the attached leader is mostly isolated from the sharp teeth. Anglers who participate in South Florida sailfish tournaments land the occasional big kingfish on monofilament leader. This presupposes, of course, that the fish doesn't engulf the entire bait on the strike-- which happens with some frequency.

Kingfish are also capable of wrecking hard trolling baits, occasionally puncturing them where they leak and fill with water. However, they leave very small marks. Several times we have anchored and chummed up kings, and then cast topwater plugs with the hooks off, just to enjoy the strikes and jumps. (Hook 30 or so kingfish on topwaters and see if that isn't fun). Sometimes they missed, while others would run off 50 feet of drag before dropping the lure. After countless strikes, each plug was completely fuzzy with hundreds of tooth marks. But nothing deep or damaging. These were all fish from 12 to 20 pounds or so, nothing big but with lots of spirit.

I've seen 30- and 40-pound king fish "sky" on live baits, and they must be moving pretty fast to clear the water so far. Some have jumped entirely over boats, or landed on a boat's T-top. It takes a lot of force, to launch a fish of that size. At such speeds, sturdy blue runners are easily mangled or cut in half, and softer Spanish mackerel even more so.

A king may strike at an object on the surface with its jaws open, but they're quickly snapped shut before they reenter the water in a graceful manner, like a fat javelin. I once had a jumping king hit me in the back just below the neck, and fortunately its mouth was shut. That fish weighed about 14 pounds. The king's combination of speed, weight and teeth has hurt other anglers on occasion, including a fatality off Key West many years ago, when one jumped in an angler's boat. And only a few years ago, a 57-pounder jumped into a boat off Brevard County in the Atlantic. Angler Josh Landis received 100 stitches in an arm and leg.

Jumping power? Even a 70-pounder can jump; a Pacific kingfish (they exceed 100 pounds) crashed through the window of a charterboat, and the entire group of Italians jumped overboard to escape the snapping teeth and general mayhem. Unfortunately the boat was trolling eight lines, and three of the Italians were quickly snagged. They were all reeled in however, and eventually unhooked. By then the big king was dead in the cabin, and was later served up for supper that night ...

With fish, you can't have it both ways. A streamlined, fast fish has a weaker bite, because it lacks muscles in the jaw. A blunt-headed shark like the tiger (which can bite through sea turtle shell) and the bull shark are quite the opposite. These sharks may swim up, almost seem to sniff, and then clamp down, sawing their bodies back and forth until they get a chunk. They certainly carry muscles up front, if you've ever tried to remove and clean a pair of jaws. It should be noted that the bull and tiger sharks can sprint very fast, when they want to.

In one photo, I have a jumping kingfish lightly clamped down on a goggle-eye baitfish. Not enough bite strength to sever this baitfish. I also have a vivid memory of a 40-pluspound kingfish jumping high only a few yards away, with a three-pound Spanish mackerel lightly held by the belly. The Spanish was wiggling like mad, still very much alive.

Could it be that those explosive strikes are in part tied to the streamlined, relatively light-muscled head of the kingfish? The USF and Tampa researchers offered sharks as a contrast:

"Thus, having higher biting forces and the necessary large jaw adductor muscles (Herrel et al., 2001) could hinder swimming performance of king mackerel, thereby compromising the speed of their strike. In the bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas, head width is positively correlated to bite force, and this shark generates the highest mass specific bite force of any shark measured to date (Habegger et al., 2012).

"What we do not know, is at the point of impact between a mackerel for instance, and a blue runner, are the jaws closing on the prey at the direct point of impact?" said Motta. "We just know that the predator will cut the prey in half in most cases."

Motta's team undertook an interesting study, the kind of out-there thing you might daydream about over cold drinks after a long day of fishing.

"To determine the bite force of kingfish," said Motta, "we caught kingfish and knocked them out with anesthetic, then implanted electrical wires into their jaw muscles and shocked the jaw closing muscles. Electrical current makes a muscle contract, so we inserted a bite force meter into the jaws of the anesthetized fish and by stimulating their jaw muscles we measured bite force. To get bite pressure we had to calculate how many teeth typically impale the prey, and then measure the area of the teeth as they impale the prey, and calculate the changing bite pressure.

"Surprisingly, bite force of kingfish isn't that great. However, because their teeth are very sharp and pointed, bite pressure is quite large. It's their speed and fine, sharp teeth that cause the damage to their prey."

Speed or bite force--when a kingfish "comes calling," both are enough to ruin the day of any baitfish. And possibly make the day of the prepared angler.

The Kingfish Bible: NEW REVELATIONS

Joe Richard, a longtime contributor to Florida Sportsman, is the author of The Kingfish Bible: New Revelations, a modernized second edition of the original book, published in 1994. Ten new chapters and 180 pages of color photos cover all aspects of pursuing and catching kingfish in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlanticand Caribbean. Eighteen chapters include tournament adventures, kingfish tackle, live and artificial baits, chumming, kite fishing, kayaking for kings and even spearfishing giant Pacific kings off Australia.

According to Shannon Tompkins of the Houston Chronicle:" The Kingfish Bible: New Revelations is much more than a work revealing how and where to catch king mackerel. It's a Nantucket sleigh-ride of brutally honest, often darkly funny, and always--always--entertaining and enlightening insights into a life spent chasing this most electrifying of marine gamefish. Combine the hard-won, got-the-scars-to-prove-it insights of more than 40 years' experience chasing and studying king mackerel with a savagely honest, wickedly funny, l-can't-believe-he-said-that writing style, and you have The Kingfish Bible."

Only available here:

Mackerel IN MOTION

For those would like to see footage of a kingfish jumping into a boat, and actually hitting the camera, there's a great dip on YouTube courtesy of Freespool Angling, based in South Africa. Check out:
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Author:Richard, Joe
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Apr 1, 2016
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