by Robert Sloan
Twelve miles off the Sabine Jetties, Ron Jaap and I were completely mesmerized with a giant ling that kept surfacing beside my 16-foot Kenner, which we held close to the shady side of a steel island, better known as an oil rig.
That fish must have been five feet long, and for the life of us we couldn’t figure out how to catch it. So, I tied on a 1-ounce silver and blue Spoonfish to try and jig up the big ling. I lowered the spoon down about 20 feet. Bang! The Spoonfish was hit with the force of a run-away freight train.
But, instead of bulling its way into the rig and slicing the line in half, this fish rocketed off into the Gulf of Mexico. When it finally surfaced, it turned out to be the longest and heaviest kingfish I’ve ever seen. The catch wasn’t totally unexpected. Giant kings rule during the summer months on the Sabine Bank.
The fact that record class kings are regularly caught 5- to 40-miles off the Sabine Jetties is a well-guarded secret. The locals don’t talk much about the superb kingfish action out there.
Perhaps John Read of Beaumont sums the action up best.
“Sabine kings are just big, silver and powerful bullies,” he told me one day as he worked at baiting up a chum line near the 18-mile light off the Sabine Jetties. “Just watch. Within a few minutes you’ll see 5- to 6-foot long missiles shooting through this chum line. Schools of kings love the shallow water on the Sabine Bank. And, they’ll stay here into October. The most amazing thing is that very few boats go after them here.”
Read, true to his word, had rather large kings nearly snipping off his finger tips as he tossed chunks of chopped up pogies over the transom of his 31-foot boat.
Corey Bell of Dallas stared over the gunwale watching the frenzy.
“Throw that crankbait over that chum line and see what happens,” ordered Read.
Bell picked up a rod and reel better suited for flipping jigs to largemouth bass and cast the 8-inch long Giant Snooker lure out. He made about four cranks on the reel handle before a whopper-sized king blitzed the plug and rocketed from the water.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” laughed Read.
You’ll find going after king mackerel on the Sabine Bank to be one of the most exciting days of offshore fishing you can experience.
Kings seem to be partial to this area and I’ll tell you why. During summer months, kings are shallow water feeders. Therefore, they naturally migrate to the shallow Sabine Bank, which parallels both sides of the ship channel leading out of the Sabine Jetties. The Sabine Bank is like a sand bar in a bay. It’s a plateau that rises up off the Gulf’s floor and forms a sort of flat. For shallow water species like kings, it’s a wonderland of endless food fish like shad, pogies, mullet, bluefish, hardtails and even jumbo shrimp.
The Sabine Bank extends about 40 miles out of the Sabine Jetties and roughly 40 miles east and west. That’s a lot of water that attracts a whole lot of kings. Water depths on the Sabine Bank average 35 to 45 feet deep. Once you get off the bank, the depths increase rapidly, especially as you head southwest towards Galveston.
Dr. Curtis Thorpe of Beaumont is one of the top offshore fishermen out of Sabine Pass. One of his specialties is catching big kings from the many rigs near the 18 mile light, which is located due south of the East Sabine Jetty.
“Around the 18 mile light, the water depth will be about 20 feet deep,” says Thorpe. “That’s very shallow for being that far offshore. Just to the east of that light is the Phillips Field Block 118. There are several rigs in this area. Around the rigs, which are about four miles from the light, the water depth drops to 30 feet. What I’ll do is troll diving lures from the light to the Phillips Field. You never know where schools of kings will be feeding. This is a very good area to drop lines and troll. Lures like the Fred Arbogast Giant Snooker, Magnum Rapalas and Boone Cairns Swimmers are excellent for big kings on the bank. Other lure options are the 6-inch, 1 1/2-ounce trolling feathers on downriggers.”
When trolling diving lures, Thorpe will mostly fish open water away from the rigs and 18 mile light. That’s an especially effective tactic in choppy seas.
“Top colors with the hard plastics and feather jigs will be green/yellow, blue/white or pink/white,” says Thorpe. “The pink/white combination is better in the sandy, green water. Top colors overall are the green/yellow. But there are days when blue/white draws the most hits.”
Since the water is so shallow on the Sabine Bank, the water clarity you’ll find here will range from murky sandy to ultra clear bluegreen. The greenish-clear water is usually the best, especially for trolling diving plugs.
Kings get spooky when the water gets too clear.
A nice thing about chasing kings out of Sabine Pass is that you’ll find rigs within about six miles off the mouth of the jetties. That water will be from 25 to 30 feet deep. At times, those rigs can be loaded with kings, especially when the water takes on a clear green color.
Those are called the short rigs locally. And one of the best methods of catching kings around those rigs is to jig them up with silver spoons. It’s wild fishing that anybody in just about any size boat can take advantage of from June through September. Talk about getting the rod yanked out of your hand. Kings will do it, leaving you stunned and empty handed.
Not just any spoon will do. The most popular is a 1-ounce shad-shaped, silver spoon. The one I’ve been most successful with is a Spoonfish. It’s a 1-ounce silver spoon, that comes with flashy sides in all the top colors. I’ve done well with silver/blue and silver/chartreuse.
The tactic for jigging up kings off the rigs is to motor up to the rig on the down current side, take the engine out of gear and lower the spoon to the bottom. What you want to do is jig the spoon at various depths. Kings are apt to be at any depth on any given day. Another tactic is to cast the Spoonfish out and let it fall, wobbling back and forth like a wounded pogie or shad. Kings will dart out of the rig structure and hit the spoons like a flash of lightning.
This past summer, Keith Warren, host of the Texas Angler fishing show, and I used Spoonfish to hammer some monstrous-sized kings behind shrimpers no more than six miles off the Sabine Jetties.
“The fishing is so wild and the strikes are so furious I strongly recommend keeping a firm grip on your rod and reel,” laughs Warren. “When you cast one of those silver spoons up against the shrimper’s hull and let it wobble out of sight, kings will charge it like a scalded dog. I’ve had them strike so hard, the rod was slammed down on the gunwale and shattered.”
Out past the 18 Mile Light, due southeast about 10 miles, you’ll find the Mobil Field and Tenneco Field rigs. This is where you’ll be getting on the outside edge of the Sabine Bank. The water will drop off to 45 and 50 feet. This is also where the water gets very clear and the kings get spooky. That’s when chumming is a real good idea.
“I prefer to chum in open water away from the rigs,” says Read. “There’s no real secret to chumming up kings off the Sabine Bank. What I’ll do is look for the fish, first. In the area of the Mobil and Tenneco rigs, you’ll usually find lots of hardtails and pogies on the surface. If you idle alongside that surface activity, you can usually tell if kings are feeding. You’ll see flashes of silver ripping through the baitfish. Sometimes you’ll actually see the kings jumping out of the water. They’ll actually clear the water when actively feeding. When you can see them in the air, they’re usually thick in the water.”
Read’s favorite chumming fish are pogies. This is an oily fish that can be bought by the pound at Sabine Pass bait camps. What Read does is mash the fish up in a bucket, then pour the contents overboard. You won’t believe the oil slick a half gallon of pogie chum will create. Kings love it. I’ve seen them schooling off the stern of Read’s boat, wildly gobbling up chunks of chum and the schools of baitfish attracted to the food bits.
Once you establish a chum line, there are three great ways to catch the kings. Thorpe’s favorite is to slip a whole cigar minnow (ice fish) onto the treble hook of a 1-ounce silver/chartreuse Spoonfish.
“What I’ll do is free spool the Spoonfish down current,” explains Thorpe. “The trick is to twitch the Spoonfish as it’s sinking and drifting with the current. That gives the illusion of a live cigar minnow. Kings don’t hesitate to blast this life-like combo.”
Bill Panto of Houston prefers to cast diving minnow-like lures into chum.
“A Giant Snooker in a mackerel pattern is deadly on big kings,” says Panto. “This is a metal lipped diving bait that’s about six inches long. The green/chartreuse and blue/chartreuse are great color patterns on the Sabine Bank. What you want to do is stay close to the chum line and cast the bait into the feeding fish. Once it hits the water, start a fast crank, just like you would rip a spinnerbait for bass.”
Another option is to rig a live hardtail, mullet or hardhead catfish under a balloon and set it adrift in the current. What you do is inflate a balloon and attach it to the line with an overhand slip knot. I’ve caught some of my best kings by fishing live mullet 10 feet under a balloon.
I like to rig up with an 8/0 straight shank hook and a 2-foot steel leader for ballooning. A bridle hook rig is best to keep the baitfish alive. Another option is to hook the baitfish through the eyes. If the current is strong, add just enough weight to keep the bait down at the proper depth.
To get the most fun out of catching Sabine kings, try and take them on lightweight baitcasting tackle. The Ambassadeur 7000 reels are ideal. You can spool them with upwards of 200 yards of 20 pound test line. Mount that reel on a flipping stick used for bass fishing and you’re set. Or, if you want to beef up a bit, like for a balloon rig with live bait, or trolling divers, go a little heavier with something like an All Star 6 1/2-foot Master Series rod and Shimano SpeedMaster IV reel. This outfit will handle 30- to 50-pound test line and will stop any king mackerel you’ll find in the Gulf of Mexico.
The thing about fishing for Sabine Bank kings is that these great sport fish can be found from six to 40 miles off the mouth of Sabine Pass throughout the summer. With so many rigs and offshore shrimpers working the shrimp-rich bank, there’s plenty of water for practically any size boat to fish. Give this hotspot a shot, I think you’ll be impressed.