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AKA: kings; kingfish, snakes, smokers

Description: King mackerel are long, slender fish with greenish-blue backs and silvery sides. Faint bronze spots along the sides may fade as the fish get larger. They have large, forked tails and a lateral line that starts high and dips sharply downward at the second dorsal fin. King mackerel lack a black area on the anterior portion of the first dorsal fin.

Size: King mackerel are found up to 72 inches, but most catches range between 30 and 45 inches. 

Sometimes confused with: Spanish mackerel (see this mackerel identification guide)

Habitat: King mackerel live in open ocean waters near the coast, from North Carolina to southeast Florida, making inshore and offshore migrations that are triggered by water temperature and food supply. In the winter, they congregate just inside the Gulf Stream along the edge of the continental shelf. In the summer and fall, they move inshore along the beaches and near the mouths of inlets and rivers.

Eating habits: King mackerel are opportunistic carnivores that favor menhaden, mullet, thread herring, sardines and squid. Feeding fish often leap out of the water in pursuit of prey. Fishermen refer to this as “skyrocketing.”

Life cycle: King mackerel mature at about age 3 and spawn at sea in the spring and summer. They can live up to 26 years, but most are between 3 and 12 years old.

Fishing tips: Anglers catch king mackerel from boats or from the ends of ocean fishing piers. They are taken by trolling with various live and dead baitfish, spoons, jigs and other artificial lures. Slow trolling is the most popular method used. Multiple baits are pulled behind the boat at a very slow speed. Live Atlantic menhaden and cigar minnows, along with dead ribbonfish, are the baits most often used. King mackerel is a primary target species for countless fishing tournaments along the coast.

N.C. Saltwater Fishing Tournament

Award for harvest of fish, 30 pounds or greater.
Award for the live release of fish, 45 inches or longer.

See the list of weigh stations

Apply for a release citation online


Persons engaged in recreational fishing in North Carolina coastal waters are required to possess a Coastal Recreational Fishing License in accordance with G.S. 113-174.2.

Current Proclamations

Recreational Size and Bag Limits

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