“For the love of king mackerel fishing” was the mantra onboard as the Henderson family—Mark (father), Josh (older son), and Crockett (younger son)—checked to make sure James (my middle son) and I were properly bundled up to make a big run on this cold, late-November morning.
The lines were a little blurred on whether this was a Liquid Fire Sportfishing or a Liquid Fire Fishing Team trip. The Henderson family has been competing at the highest level in king mackerel tournaments, enjoying great success in North Carolina and beyond, but just this past year they started running charter trips full time. The beauty was that no one really cared whether this was a charter trip or a fishing team trip—we just wanted to finally get on the water together (for years Mark has been on my list of people I can’t believe I’ve never fished with) and catch some kings.
We left the Newport River boat ramp and idled out past the Morehead boat basin. The sun wasn’t showing any color on the horizon yet, so my eyes went immediately to the FLIR thermal imaging device, basically a night vision camera, on the boat’s console. Fishing is fishing, and there are never any guarantees, but I liked our chances on a high end boat (390Z SeaVee with quad 400 Mercury Verados) with state-of-the-art electronics and a slew of Star rods and Accurate reels, but the best asset onboard by far was the Henderson family’s experience and knowledge in chasing down big king mackerel.
We turned left to make the run through Core Sound to go out Drum Inlet before heading up the beach towards Hatteras. The Hendersons have been making this Core Sound to Drum Inlet run in king mackerel tournaments for several years now. The tracks on the screen I was looking over as we ran about 50 mph all came from making the journey on their big boat, but they originally figured out the path by going slow in their bayboat.
Josh pointed to the depth finder, which showed us traveling through mostly 3’ of water, and he smiled when he explained that reading 3’ of water on plane meant we had to keep the boat on plane, as this big boat not on plane may very well be on sand.
With the sun now cracking the horizon, we started through Drum Inlet. Josh and Crockett picked our best line through the waves, and then we turned a hard left to make our way up the Core Banks’ coastline.
South of Ocracoke Inlet, we pulled off plane, and while we saw some working birds, there were no “flips” and nothing was visible up top. Josh was marking scattered bait on the electronics, though, so when we registered a much bigger mark, the Hendersons decided it was worth a blind cast to see if we could pull up something from the bottom in 20’ of water.
I’m a 6-foot cast net guy, so I watched with respect as Josh threw out their 12’ Betts Morada cast net. It wasn’t quite a pancake, but I awarded him some difficulty points for throwing the big net while bundled up in layers of winter clothes.
Up came six small-ish pogies, and they went quickly in the livewell. We continued to move north, and it was off Hatteras Inlet that we finally found some bait. One cast brought up a handful more of 5-inch pogies. The cold front that had come through days before had clearly scattered the bait, so we were thankful and very carefully got all of the pogies in the livewell. A follow-up cast finally brought up more than a single digit total of baits, and we decided it was time to fish. Josh turned the boat to head out to our fist stop, the Bad Bottoms, an area about 15 miles off the coast in roughly 100’ of water.
The fleet (roughly 25 boats on this day) was already trolling the area when we pulled up, and the chatter on the radio was that the bite was a little slow but there were fish around.
The typical Liquid Fire king mackerel spread is one line on each of the two Cannon downriggers and three lines up top: a short, medium, and long line. For 103’ of water, the first downrigger was set to 70’ and the second at 30’. And no longer than the time that it took to get all five lines in position, the 70’ downrigger line dipped down once, and then dipped down and stayed down as drag started screaming.
James had honors. He fumbled with taking off his gloves as he hurried his way to the port stern corner where Crockett handed him the bent rod, but his cold hands (and feet) were suddenly forgotten in the excitement of feeling the hard pull of a Hatteras king.
While James waited for his fish’s first big run to end, I asked Josh what advice he gives anglers on how to best fight a king mackerel.
“Always keep the line tight. That’s number one,” Josh shared. “And don’t reel when he’s running. If we’re driving up to the fish, and you can just reel and gain line, then don’t pump the rod. Once you get over top of the fish, just lift the rod as much as it will let you without pulling drag off, and then wind down to it. We use light drag, and you get a feel for how hard you can lift the rod without pulling drag.”
Mark had gone to work clearing lines as soon as the fish started on its run.
“If the fish is running and it seems like there’s any size to it whatsoever,” Josh continued, “we get the downriggers up first. We clear those, and then clear the top lines, unless the fish is running off and towards one of the top lines. We clear the most immediate lines first. You get everything in, and then turn around and get over top of that fish.”
By now the lines were up and James was making steady progress on his fish. Crockett escorted him to the bow of the boat, as Josh turned the boat and started heading towards the fish.
The Hendersons are a successful king mackerel fishing team, and good communication clearly plays a big role in how they operate as a team. Crockett, now with an 8’ AFTCO gaff in hand, stood by James while giving directions to Josh at the wheel.
“One in. Two in. Neutral. One in reverse,” were the basic engine commands that Crockett used to help Josh get the boat in the best place for the gaff shot. They like to have the king to one side or the other off the bow so that they are in the best position to get a broadside gaff shot, ideally a little behind the head and right over the shoulders. However, all three Hendersons will tell you that the best gaff shot is whatever gets the fish in the boat.
Another command that Crockett had yelled out was “fluoro,” letting Josh know that the fluoro knot was visible coming out of the water.
“The fluoro serves two purposes,” explained Crockett. “One is abrasion resistance, and the second is if the water’s dirty, I’ll see that fluorocarbon knot come up out of the water and I’ll know that the fish is getting closer and be ready with the gaff.”
Crockett, laying on top of the gunnel more than leaning against it, reached out and sank the hook into a near-20 lb. king. We pulled out the cameras, celebrated James’ biggest king mackerel to date, and then deployed the spread to find fish number two.
While the Hendersons made sure each of our five lines was exactly in the correct position, I asked about terminal tackle. Mark answered in detail, “For leader, we’ve tried everything there is out there, everything from titanium to straight wire to Surfstrand. Generally, we use American Fishing Wire 1×7 Surfstrand. It’s easy to tie. It’s very flexible. Overall, we found it to be the most consistent with less bite throughs.”
“We’ll generally use a live bait Owner hook for the nose,” he continued, “and then a rear treble hook that’s anywhere from #4 to #6.”
Mark, just as ready to talk about fluoro or any of the products they enjoy thanks to the strong support of their many sponsors, added, “We use Yo-Zuri H.D. Carbon. It’s tough. It’s been proven over the years. It ties good knots. It doesn’t fray easily. We use pink, as they say pink and red disappears quicker in the water column. Then we use Yo-Zuri Hybrid 20 lb. clear line on all of our reels.”
Our conversations about tackle were interrupted by steady king bites, mostly on the deep downrigger, but all our rods produced at least one fish. James caught his biggest king mackerel three times, as we continued to deploy, catch a fish, and then re-deploy. He bested his first 20 lb. king with a 25-pounder, and then James finished the day with a 30 lb. class fish.
The action was better than steady, and we could have stayed and easily ran up our catch totals; however, James and I were expected back in Wilmington to head out on the Hurley boat for Wrightsville Beach’s Flotilla, so we stowed away the tackle and started the run back to Drum Inlet and Core Sound. Being the great host he is, Josh knew that James, like most kids, loved speed, so once inside he gave us a little taste of what the SeaVee and Mercuries could do. I looked at the electronics, and then pointed James to the top number. It read 70.4 mph.
It took me about ten years to finally get on the water with Mark Henderson and his sons, and our fishing trip together is much better described as a fishing adventure. I’ve never made the Core Sound to Drum Inlet run, nor have I ever fished Hatteras waters without leaving from Hatteras Inlet. It was impressive to wake up in Morehead, be fishing off Hatteras, and then be back in Wilmington in time to catch the first boat in the Flotilla parade.
What was more impressive, though, were the Hendersons. Josh and Crockett ran a smooth and professional show, while Mark, the patriarch, watched with pride at the family tradition he has been nurturing for about two decades, happy to let his two sons now give him instructions on the boat.
If you’re looking for a fun and exciting fishing adventure, you don’t need to make the Hatteras run. Capts. Josh and Crockett Henderson and Liquid Fire Sportfishing fish out of Dudley’s Marina in Swansboro, offering nearshore trips (for spanish and blues), live bait trips (for king mackerel, amberjacks, mahi, and more), bottomfishing trips (for grouper, snapper, and sea bass), and Gulf Stream trips (for mahi, wahoo, and tuna).
You can find out more information about Liquid Fire Sportfishing by visiting www.liquidfiresportfishing.com, on Facebook at @liquidfiresportfishing, or by calling (252) 723-1113.
On our day the motto may have been “for the love of king mackerel fishing,” but the Hendersons have love for and enjoy pursuing any species of fish, and it’s also clear that they take great pride in being fishing ambassadors and serving up their clients a memorable, educational, and friendly fishing experience.
You can ask for the James’ Special (catching your three biggest of one type of fish species ever), and though that’s a daunting challenge, my guess is that the Hendersons would prefer that pressure to repeatedly blind casting the 12-foot cast net in 40-degree air temperatures in search of scattered bait.