Georgia Kingfish In October
The last-chance kingfish bite starts now.
As cool air begins to blow and temperatures drop this month, the majority of Peach State fishermen hang their poles up in the shed, grab their favorite rifle or bow and head to the woods hoping to knock down a big whitetail.
Not Don Driggers.
Don fishes the salt year-round, but he says that it’s mighty hard to beat the last chance kingfish bite that takes place from early October to mid-November or so. During this time, kings feed heavily in the deeper waters off of the Georgia coast, before disappearing to the depths of the ocean where they weather out the winter months.
After a year or so of scheduling conflicts, I finally managed to line up a trip with Don so he could share his tips for targeting kings with GON readers.
The morning of our trip, I met Don and his family at the Blythe Island Marina in Brunswick. Getting out of my car, I noticed the American flag kicking pretty good way up the flagpole and I didn’t need the weatherman to let me know it might be a little rough on the water.
“They got the forecast wrong on today’s wind,” said Don. “Normally I wouldn’t go out with it quite like this, but since the fish aren’t as far out as they will be in October, we will give it a shot and see what happens. A storm is supposed to be blowing in just after lunch, so we will keep an eye on it and see if we can get hooked up with something.”
Don turned the key of his 26-foot Sea Hunt boat and his twin 200-hp Suzuki engines roared to life. After idling out from the dock, Don brought the boat up on plane and we began to make a 40 mph run toward the ocean.
Once we made it out to the beaches, Don turned the boat north and began to scan the horizon.
“What we’re looking for now is birds. They will let us know where the bait is,” Don said loudly over the roar of wind and boat engines.
A few minutes later, Don made a quick turn and headed toward where a few birds were diving into schools of bait. A couple of other boats were also in the area, evidently doing the same shopping as us.
“When you see birds and other boats, you can bet there’s gonna be bait. You just want to make sure you don’t get in too close on anyone, there’s plenty of pogies to go around,” Don said, pulling a cast net from a compartment in his boat.
Don stood on the bow of his boat, while his son Hunter manned the wheel. Suddenly, a bird made a dive 50 yards to our right. Hunter quickly idled the boat to the spot, and Don let the cast net fly. The first few attempts didn’t go as planned.
“The bait isn’t too thick in here today, but we will get on them in a minute,” said Don.
A few minutes later, Hunter told his dad there was a big school of pogies coming under the boat. I noticed the big ball on the depthfinder screen just as Don launched his net. This time he hit pay dirt.
“This is what we were looking for,” said Don. “A good rule of thumb is one pogie per gallon of water in your livewell. If you get too many in there, they won’t get enough oxygen.”
That put about 30 or so pogies into his livewell, and we then took a 20-minute ride to A Reef, which is seven nautical miles east of Little Cumberland Island.
“We’re gonna fish here today, because the water temperature is pretty warm and the kings are still closer than they will be in October, but the tactics for catching them won’t change regardless of where you’re fishing.”
We spent the next few hours trolling over the reef, fighting the wind as it continued to grow stronger and monitoring a dark storm that continued to move in closer. It eventually made us head for the hill way sooner than we had planned.
After a couple of hours, our tally was two barracuda in the 35-inch range and one pretty good king that stripped the drag for quite a while before coming unbuttoned.
Here’s a breakdown of Don’s plan for catching kings in October.
In October, Don says that the deeper water around G Reef, also known as HLHA Reef, is flat-out hard to beat. It is located 23 nautical miles east of Little Cumberland Island. This artificial reef is littered with all sorts of structures from sunken battle tanks to ships scattered in all directions. It ranges from 55 to 75 feet deep. There’s a pile of good structure that holds fish on G reef, so the key is to find the birds and head to where they are feeding on the bait.
Don also mentioned Grays Reef as another prime location to target kings this month, saying that the reef is covered with live bottoms of coral that kingfish will often congregate to in search of an easy meal.
Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is one of the largest nearshore “live-bottom” reefs of the southeastern United States. It is just one of 15 marine protected areas that make up the National Marine Sanctuary System and is governed by the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. The Sanctuary is located 19 miles east of Sapelo Island, between Savannah and Brunswick. For more information, go to https://graysreef.noaa.gov/visit/welcome.html.
“G Reef and Grays Reef are both worth a try this month, they both should have a pile of kings scattered on them,” Don said.
Do some more homework. Georgia’s Coastal Resources Division has a host of artificial reefs listed on their website at https://coastalgadnr.org/HERU/offshore.
As mentioned earlier, Don opts to catch fresh pogies for bait, and he says you won’t find a better offering for a hungry king. He did mention that ballyhoo, which can be purchased frozen in tackle shops, are also good to have on hand in case pogies are hard to catch or if you run through your supply fairly quickly. He said that sabiki rigs are also a good option to have in case you run out of bait while out on a reef. He says normally if you drop a few around deep structure, you can quickly put some more bait in the livewell.
To target kings, Don’s tackle selection is fairly simple and straightforward. He opts for Shimano TLD reels, spooled with 30-lb. monofilament line. He mounts the reels on 7-foot, fast-action rods to create a pretty balanced rig for targeting kings.
“Kings have a pretty tender mouth, if you try to overpower them you will pull the hook out every time,” said Don. “I keep my drag set really light, and I let them strip a pile of line while they wear themselves out. You’ve got a much better chance to get the fish to the gaff if you let him beat himself.”
Don says that though leaders can be bought easily at tackle stores, it only costs a fraction to make your own. For those new to the process, Don mentioned YouTube as a good place to learn how to tie your own.
For his leader, Don likes to use 18 to 24 inches of 32-lb. single-strand, coffee-colored wire. He attaches a No. 4 treble hook to the front of the leader and a No. 6 treble hook to the rear as a stinger hook.
“The smaller hooks seem to help get good penetration when they hit the pogie, and as long as you don’t try to put too much pressure on the fish, they’ll hold. That stinger hook on the back does a good job of catching fish that come up and would otherwise miss the pogie,” said Don.
Don says that he will use skirts on a couple of the rigs he’s running, and more often than not, he likes to use a chartreuse or pink-colored skirt.
“You can mix it up and see what the fish want,” said Don. “Usually in my spread, I’ll have at least one or two rods that have skirts on them.”
Don usually doesn’t use weights ahead of his pogie. This helps to give it a natural appearance as it swims, but he says that if it’s rough, a 1/2-oz. sliding sinker can help keep the bait down in the water column.
When Don finds bait on the reef, he checks his Garmin electronics to see what kind of structure he’s dealing with and what the depth of the general area is.
“If there is a ledge where the water drops off good, I like to keep my boat on the edge of it as I troll. The fish will really stack up anywhere there’s a significant depth change on the reef,” said Don.
Don runs a spread of five poles when he trolls—two downriggers, two outriggers and one pole directly behind the boat in the prop wash. He sets the downriggers where one is approximately one-third the depth of the water column and the other is two-thirds the depth of the water column. The outriggers and prop-wash baits run at 2 to 5 feet below the surface.
“This setup allows you to fish a bunch of different water fast,” said Don. “You’ve got a few baits up top, one in the 15- to 20-foot range and one down 35 feet or so, depending on what depth of water you’re fishing. Once you get bit a time or two at a specific depth, you can adjust your other rigs to fish the same depth and really get on the fish.”
Don uses a trolling speed of 1 to 2 mph, citing that it gives your bait the ability to swim naturally as opposed to being awkwardly dragged through the water column. He will also periodically bump the boat into neutral and kick it back in gear to give his rigs a little added action.
Don will normally troll a mile or so in one direction before slowly turning his boat to avoid rigs getting tangled.
“If I hook up a few times on the first pass, I’ll come back through the same general area,” said Don. “If I haven’t, and I haven’t seen many fish suspended on my electronics, I will try a different area. It’s not hard at all, you just have to move around a little until you find them.”
When going out in the windy months of fall, Don encourages anglers to be familiar with the weather and wind forecasts, as well as the capabilities of their vessels.
Don is currently in the process of getting his captain’s license and says it has really opened his eyes to the dangers of the ocean.
“Make sure you’ve got plenty of life jackets, somebody knows what time to expect you home, and monitor that VHF radio for potential changes to the weather,” said Don. “You can always head in a little early and live to fish another day. There ain’t a kingfish in the ocean worth losing your life over.”
For anglers interested in contacting Don, he says that Facebook messenger is about the best way to get hold of him. Just search Don Driggers, and he says he will be glad to help anyone with any questions they may have. Just shoot him a message, and he will get back to you in a day or two.
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