THIS IN-SEASON FISH HAS A FLAVOR FIT FOR ROYALTY.
Story by Bailey Gilliam
King mackerel, or kingfish is one of the most important game fish within its genus. Though there are commercial fisheries, recreational catches are almost 10 times larger than commercial catches. “It’s a recreational blue-collar fish,” said Grant Kaple, general manager of The Boathouse. “Great fish for fishermen in small boats.”
This fish is fun to catch and readily available. Despite the large amount of king mackerel caught every year, it is still of “low concern” in terms of conservation status. If you know what to look for, you’ll probably have no trouble finding this fish. “In fact, sometimes while you are sitting on the beach you can see a king skyrocket through a school of bait,” Kaple said. Keep reading to learn more about this fish and how you can catch and cook it up this summer when it is in abundance here in the Lowcountry.
King mackerel can vary in size but they grow quickly and up to 5 1/2 feet long and 100 pounds. To match their large bullet-shaped size, they are an iron-gray color on their backs and a silvery color on their sides and belly. They have a long, spiny dorsal fin followed by a second with tiny finlets along the back and belly towards the tail. Smaller king mackerel sometimes have spots like Spanish mackerel, but king mackerel can be distinguished by their sharply dipping lateral line and gray anterior near the front dorsal fin.
Plenty of fish in the sea
This recreational fish is found in the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Brazil, including the Carribean and the Gulf of Mexico. King mackerel love to hang out around wrecks, buoys and reefs and spend most of their time in 30-110 feet of water. According to Kaple, they are found near shore in front of the island. “Around here the closest fishing will be Savannah Ship Channel, 2PR, White Water Reef, Tire Reef, Beaufort 45, and of course the Betsy Ross,” Kaple said. “Also look for them on life bottom around 90 feet.”
It’s all about the food chain. King mackerel are known to snack on Menhaden, which is readily available in the Lowcountry. Kaple says the favorite live bait for the area is “pogies,” or Menhaden, which is a small bait fish found around the island during the summer. “A quick cast net onto a bait ball and you are on your way to fishing,” he said.
If you’re up for a challenge or enjoy the thrill of the hunt, try an expert’s favorite method. “My favorite method and the most exciting method is to ‘bump troll’ live pogies over reefs or live bottom,” Kaple said. “This is the process of trolling live bait behind the boat and moving the boat just enough to keep the bait swimming naturally, but behind the boat.”
A 62-pound king mackerel caught by J. Brownlee, III of Charleston is the state record. Brownlee caught the fish in Charleston in 1976. Though a few have come close, no one has topped the record in recent decades. View and report state records at dnr.sc.gov.
King Mackerel is a dark-fleshed, oily fish bursting with a stout and savory flavor. It can be prepared a variety of ways but the most popular choice is grilling or smoking. Kaple says that grilling preparation begins with cleaning. Luckily, he provided some tips “You are going to steak the fish with the skin on, so take a minute prior to cutting your steaks and scrape the fish with a fillet knife,” he says. “Once in steak form, use your favorite seasoning and butter, cook to medium-rare and bon-appetit.”
• King mackerel can live up to 20 years in their natural habitat.
• They are the largest members of the mackerel species.
• While most mackerel species look nearly identical, only king mackerel have a gray dorsal fin.
• They are prey to dolphins and pelagic sharks.
• Females release between 200,000 and 300,000 eggs in each litter. During spawning season, they may lay as many as 12 million eggs.
• The females are much larger than males, which is an evolutionary feature intended to increase reproduction and protect the species’ existence.
• Once fertilized, king mackerel eggs hatch within 24 hours and grow incredibly rapidly, which helps protect the young fish from predators. LL
Fried king mackerel
1 piece king mackerel
Salt, to taste
1-2 tablespoons oil
Fish sauce, optional
DIRECTIONS  Pat down king mackerel until completely dry. Sprinkle with salt.  Pour oil into a small pan over medium or medium-low heat. Fry each side of the fish until golden brown. Let each side cook thoroughly before flipping it, about 10 minutes per side. Serve hot with fish sauce.
Grilled king mackerel with toasted garlic butter
2 medium mackerel, filleted, skin on
5 garlic cloves, smashed
4 ounces butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
DIRECTIONS  Preheat an outdoor grill to medium heat and oil the grates with a brush or towel.  In a small saucepan, melt the butter and add the smashed garlic.  Make 3 deep cuts on each side of the fish. Season the fillets generously with salt and pepper. Place flesh side down and cook for 2-3 minutes. Flip over and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes. Remove from grill and brush with some garlic butter, about 2 tablespoons.  Squeeze 1/2 of a lime over each fillet and serve immediately.
King mackerel cakes
2 pounds king mackerel fillets
1 large onion
3 celery ribs
1/2 green pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon hot sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons creole seasoning
1 cup French breadcrumbs
1 cup flour
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup butter
DIRECTIONS  Scrape the fish from the skin and connective tissue and chop it into small pieces, about the size of mixed nuts. Finely chop the onion, celery and bell pepper.  In a large bowl combine the fish, onion, celery, bell pepper, Worcestershire sauce, eggs, hot sauce and 1/2 tablespoon of creole seasoning. Mix well with your hands. Add the bread crumbs and 1/4 cup of flour.  Form the mixture into large meatball-sized handfuls. Flatten to about 1/2 inch thickness. Add more flour or breadcrumbs if the mixture is too wet and won’t stick together.  In a shallow fish, mix remaining flour and 1 tablespoon of creole seasoning for breading. Pat both sides of the fish cakes with this mixture.  In a large frying pan add a few tablespoons of canola oil and a tablespoon of butter and heat over medium heat. Fry cakes until browned on both sides. Transfer to a dish lined with paper towels.