What Do Kingfish Eat? Know the Facts

January 12, 2021

What Do Kingfish Eat? Know the Facts

There are at least three species of fishes referred to as “kingfish” throughout the world. In the U.S., people mentioning Kingfish are usually talking about King Mackerel or Scomberomorus cavalla. The Giant Trevally (Caranx Ignobilis) is commonly referred to in South Africa as the Kingfish, or Giant Kingfish. In comparison, the Yellowtail Amberjack (Seriola lalandi) is the Kingfish of New Zealand. So what do Kingfish eat?

The short answer is that Kingfish will eat almost all small baitfish that are unlucky enough to encounter a Kingfish. Anchovies, herring, grunt, and many other species of baitfish are favorites of Kingfish.

Let’s dive deeper into what Kingfish eat.


Scomberomumble the King Mackerel

Kingfish are deadly predators, recognized as some of the fastest species of fish in the oceans, reaching speeds of 50mph (80kph). When these fish run, they launch spectacularly from the water in leaps of up to 10′. Known to frequent most types of coastal marine habitat searching for food, adult kingfish will eat almost anything that they can fit in their mouths. 

The U.S. Kingfish is a member of the Scomberomous Mackerel, or Spanish Mackerel subspecies, which also includes Atlantic Spanish Mackerel. King Mackerel are sleeker in appearance than the larger, southern hemisphere Kingfish.

These guys can be aggressive when perceiving a threat. They can get defensive if there are people splashing in the water nearby and have been known to deliver sharp bites to fishermen overboard. 

What Do Kingfish Eat?

The King Mackerel diet is varied due to its migration and wide range. As it can run down almost anything smaller than itself, it has its choice of prey. They are known to favor taking schooling fish between 3.5″ – 6″. The adult King Mackerel also eats Threadfin, small Snappers, Grunts, and Squid. The smaller, younger fish prefer Anchovies, other small fish, and invertebrates.

While inhabiting their spawning waters around the Florida Keys, the King Mackerel’s staple is mainly Ballyhoo. As they begin their different migration paths, they encounter other prey resulting in the different migratory groups having quite different diets. 

Migration of Kingfish

There are a small number of known migratory groups of King Mackerel on the eastern coast of the Americas. There are an Atlantic group and two groups that migrate from the Gulf of Mexico.

Interestingly the two gulf groups take different migratory paths. Both gulf groups migrate south from their spawning grounds in the North Atlantic, off Florida, while the Atlantic group migrates north.

Kingfish Fishing 

The King Mackerel is a favorite of anglers from North Carolina to the waters around the Gulf of Mexico, mainly due to the great fight these fish offer. Their varied diet also means they will pick up most types of lure.

The exhilaration as it bites and the tone of the reel spinning as one of the fastest fish in the sea picks up the bait lets you know you’re in for an epic battle. They can easily be caught surf fishing for Kingfish or from a pier.

Ranging from 20″ to 35″ fully grown, the females are often double the size of the males and sometimes much more. The King Mackerel that reaches the fish markets is usually only half the average sport fish’s size.

Females have an average weight of around 22lbs, while males only average half that, weighing in at 11lbs. The largest King Mackerel tip the scales at as much as 88lbs, which is four times their average! 

No wonder they are such a popular sport fish when there are monsters of that size lurking, waiting to try and rip the rod out of your hand. We recommend using the most popular Kingfish rig – the stinger rig.

Eating Kingfish

King Mackerel that are available commercially are generally much smaller than those caught for sport, typically about half the size of the average adult female. King mackerel are mild in flavor and firm in texture. This is for several reasons.

King Mackerel are sold in the U.S. with a mercury warning and, as such, are not recommended for consumption by pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. As fish age, the more heavy metals they are likely to accumulate, so, as much fun as the big ones are to catch, eat the ones from the store.

Though not as common as in some other types of edible fish, there have been reported ciguatera poisoning cases from King Mackerel. This type of poisoning originates with coral grazers ingesting a toxic organism that lives on a particular type of coral. This gets passed up the food chain to piscivorous fish and then on to humans.

The odorless and tasteless toxin is the most common cause of seafood poisoning and is not destroyed by cooking. Ciguatera is mainly found on reefs in the Indian and Pacific oceans and the Caribbean sea between 35°N and 35°S. However, it is uncommon for ciguatera to contaminate pelagic fish, including King Mackerel. 

Symptoms of ciguatera poisoning can last months but can begin to cause distress after just half an hour or a few days, depending on how much of the toxin was ingested. Symptoms start with gastrointestinal discomfort, followed by Neurological and cardiovascular symptoms. 

South African Kingfish

This is the Kingfish species of South Africa, and as Africa offers the largest land mammals on the planet, it is no big surprise this is the largest Kingfish on the list. This species has been recorded growing to almost 6′ in length and can weigh in excess of 175lbs. This heavyweight is also no slouch, with an estimated top speed of almost 40mph.

Found in the Indian and Pacific oceans from South Africa in the west, through Japan and Australia, as far east as Hawaii, where it is known as Ulua.

These kingfish display possibly the most varied diet among the species here. The Giant Trevally has been documented hunting fledgling Terns that fall into the water, and even low flying parents can fall foul of these leaping kings.

As the species reaches adulthood, males and females become more comfortable to differentiate. As their size begins to exceed 50cm, the males take on a much darker, almost black hue. The females remain a much brighter silver color throughout maturity. This leads to the prefaces used in Hawaii describing the black, white, or simply the giant Ulua.

Although fighting this type of Kingfish is an excellent sport for an angler, it is more susceptible to ciguatera poisoning. So if you’re on vacation in the islands or other waters further afield, enjoy catching, but if you see it on a menu, better to steer clear. 

Yellowtail Kingfish

The Yellowtail Kingfish of New Zealand is possibly the best looking of the fish on this list, with its bright yellow tail that gives it the descriptive name. The biggest of these Kingfish are caught around New Zealand. Record-holding fish can reach up to 8′ in length and weigh in excess of 100lbs. 

Yellowtail Kingfish are excellent fish for a fight, even the average-sized ones are strong, fast, and Wiley, posing a significant challenge that the experienced angler will relish. They are encountered in tropical waters across the globe. 

Parting Thoughts

So you want to catch these bigger Kings but don’t want to leave the states? – Just don’t call them kings! The Greater Amberjack, said to be the largest species, can also be found in local American waters. North from Nova Scotia and as far south as Brazil, you can find Greater Amberjack at depths from 160ft to 985ft. 

Happy Hunting!

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