Surf fishing fans may already know that the kingfish is one of those species that has an unfortunately long list of names: in Virginia they’re called roundhead, farther south in the Carolinas and they’re sea mullet, yet farther down the coast many people call them king whiting, and in the Gulf some people call them minkfish. Don’t confuse these fish with king mackerel — also called kingfish by many anglers — which is a very different species. But do put them on your must-catch list, because these fish can offer great action in the surf, add to the bottom fishing catch in many portions of the Bay, and as an added bonus, they taste great.

angler holding a kingfish
Aubrey reeled this beaut of a roundhead up on the beach in Damneck.

What Are Kingfish

Kingfish can be identified by their body shape, which is nearly flat at the wide bottom and narrow at the top. Viewed from the front, they seem to have an almost triangular shape. They often have irregular bars running down their backs but these can be more or less prevalent depending on conditions and individual fish. Kingfish also have a big sail-shaped front dorsal and a lower, rounder back dorsal fin. There are two types that are found in the Mid-Atlantic zone, southern and northern kingfish, with the easiest differentiating factor being that the northern kingfish has a long filament on its front dorsal fin and the southern kingfish does not.

Despite what their name might imply, kingfish are a relatively small species. A one-footer is a nice fish, and an 18-inch kingfish is a monster. They’re related to spot and croaker and on occasion may be confused with croaker. They also frequent our Mid-Atlantic waters in a similar timeframe, first showing up in May and usually disappearing by the end of November, though on occasion you may still get a few in the surf into early December.

Record Kingfish

Delaware’s four-pound record was set back in 1973. That thoroughly eclipses Maryland’s record fish of 2.5 pounds, which was caught from the beaches of Assateague in 1975. Virginia’s state record was set a bit more recently, by a two-pound, 13-ounce kingfish caught at Sandbridge in 2002.

Kingfish Regulations

Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia have open seasons year-round with no minimum size on this species. However, kingfish under eight or nine inches long simply don’t have much meat, so most anglers will throw them back.

Best Kingfish Baits

Kingfish are opportunistic and will eat just about anything, but bloodworms are very difficult to beat when you want to target kingfish. That said, some other baits that are often effective include:

  • Fishbites bloodworm flavor
  • Squid strips
  • Small sand fleas, and especially soft or recently molted sand fleas
  • Small crab bits
  • Shrimp
  • Clam bits
sand fleas for bait
Small sand fleas make a great kingfish bait.

The most important thing to remember when baiting up for kingfish is that they have small mouths, even for their size. A sand flea as big around as a quarter, or a squid strip three inches long, is simply too large of a bait for these fish. Instead, look for sand fleas the size of a dime or use squid strips an inch long at most.

Best Kingfish Lures

This will be a very short section, because it’s rare to catch a kingfish on a lure. Fishing with bait is how you’ll catch them 99 percent of the time.

Techniques for Kingfish Fishing

Whether you’re fishing in the surf or in the Bay, bottom fishing with a top-and-bottom rig is the way to go for catching kingfish. The only real difference is that in the surf most anglers use rigs with small floats at the end of the hook shank (called a “doodlebug” rig). The floats keep your baits elevated a bit, which helps prevent crabs from stealing it.

roundhead fishing
Small "doodlebug" rigs are perfect for catching kingfish.

In either case, again, when it comes to rigs the key is to think small. A number-six hook is not too small for a kingfish, and the range on most store-bought kingfish rigs goes from number four to number eight.

If you’re surf fishing for kingfish another key item to keep in mind is that often, these fish will cruise along right behind the breakers. In fact, many anglers over-cast for them and would get more bites if they tried keeping the baits closer to shore every now and again. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, however, and sometimes they will be off the beach a little further. So, when taking their first cast of the day kingfish sharpies will often make a long one, and let the baits sit for just a few minutes. Then, they’ll reel the rig halfway back in. A few minutes later they’ll reel it closer still, and so on, working the baits back towards the breakers until they figure out where the fish are. Note that as the tide changes, the location of the fish can change, too.

If you’ve made a long cast and your line suddenly goes slack, start reeling as fast as possible — that’s a surefire sign a kingfish has grabbed your bait and is heading back in towards the breakers. If this happens more than once, take it as a sign that you’re over-casting the fish.

When you’re bottom fishing in the Bay, there’s really no “trick” to catching more kingfish. They’ll commonly be mixed in with other panfish like spot and croaker and more often than not are caught by anglers targeting those other species.

Finding Kingfish Hotspots

As we mentioned, in the Bay these fish will be mixed in at standard-issue bottom fishing spots. The farther down the Bay you are the better the chances of encountering them, and although some are caught in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake, kingfish thin out the further north you go and aren’t caught very often above the Tangier Sound.

In the surf, standard beach structure rules apply. Anywhere you find a break in the outer bar, a slough, or other anomaly is a good bet. Check out our Surf Fishing Guide to get some in-depth pointers on the finer points of “reading the beach” when you’re casting in the suds.