Southern Kingfish

Southern kingfish, Menticirrhus americanus. Photo by Cláudio D. Timm
Photo by Jim Franks

Description

Southern kingfish are inshore bottomfish with elongated bodies and an inferior or downward pointing mouth with the snout extending beyond the mouth. They have a single rigid barbel under the chin.  Kingfish are demersal fish, meaning that they live close to the bottom. Southern kingfish are silvery grey, paler below, and may have coppery sheen. They often have seven or eight dusky bars along the sides of the body. The dorsal fin is divided into two sections. Male and female fish are similar in appearance.

Southern kingfish, Menticirrhus americanus. Photo by Cláudio D. Timm
Photo by Sam Clardy

Southern kingfish are relatively small, reaching a maximum length of about 16 inches and a weight of about 2.5 pounds. Most fish caught by anglers are somewhat smaller, typically about 12" in length and one-half pound.

Southern kingfish are a euryhaline species, meaning that they can thrive in a very wide range of water salinity from bayous and marshes to the open Gulf.

Kingfish are a very popular recreational species and are typically easy to locate and catch.

Similar Species

Three species of kingfish are found in Mississippi. They are similar in appearance and behavior. With live or fresh fish, they are easily distinguished by color and a few distinguishing minor physical characteristics.

All three kingfish are members of the drum family, which includes spotted sea trout and red drum.

Southern Kingfish, (commonly called ground mullet in Mississippi), Menticirrhus americanus. Illustration used with the permission of the artist,  Diane Rome Peebles.

© Diane Rome Peebles

Southern Kingfish
Menticirrhus americanus

Commonly known as ground mullet in Mississippi

Silvery to coppery colored, usually with dark bars on the sides, scales on breast are abouto the same size as other scales on the body, inside of the gill cover or operculum is dusky colored.

Gulf Kingfish, (commonly called whiting in Mississippi), Menticirrhus littoralis. Illustration used with permission from Diane Rome Peebles.  Illustration used with the permission of the artist,  Diane Rome Peebles.

© Diane Rome Peebles

Gulf Kingfish
Menticirrhus littoralis

Commonly known as whiting in Mississippi

Silvery, no dark bars on sides, dark edge on top of tail fin, scales on breast are smaller than other scales on the body, inside of the gill cover or operculum is silvery.

Northern Kingfish, Menticirrhus saxiatlis. Illustration used with the permission of the artist,  Diane Rome Peebles..

© Diane Rome Peebles

Northern Kingfish, Menticirrhus saxiatlis

Very dark bars and stripes on sides, the first spine of the dorsal fin is very long and extends beyond the fin, scales on breast are abouto the same size as other scales on the body. Northern kingfish are less common in Mississippi waters than the other two species.

The southern kingfish prefer estuarine waters and the deeper passes between the barrier islands, and tolerates a wider range of temperature and salinity. The gulf kingfish is primarily found in the high-energy surf zone.

Gulf kingfish above and southern kingfish below.
Gulf kingfish above and southern kingfish below. Photo by Sam Clardy.

Similar Name, Very Different Species

The name "kingfish" is also applied to the king mackeral, Scomberomorus cavalla, which is unrelated to southern kingfish, gulf kingfish, and northern kingfish.

 

Occurrence

Southern kingfish are common from southern New England to the southern tip of Florida, throughout the Gulf of Mexico, and southward along the east coast of South America to Argentina.

Southern kingfish prefer sandy bottoms, but are also found over mud bottoms and grassbeds. They inhabit inshore waters and offshore waters to a depth of about 30 feet. They are common on sandy beaches where wave action dislodges small crabs and crustaceans. Juveniles tolerate low salinity levels and are often found in estuaries.

Life Cycle & Reproduction

Southern kingfish live to four to six years of age, though few survive beyond three years.  They are batch spawners and spawn about every seven days through the spawning season, which is March through September in Mississippi waters.  In Mississippi, spawning occurs in the Mississippi Sound and south of the barrier islands. 

Southern kingfish in Mississippi waters reach sexual maturity by age one. At that age the males are approximately 5.3 inches long, while females are substantially larger, at a length of about 7.5 inches.

Southern kingfish inhabit inshore reefs, bays, and bayous from April through October.  In the cooler months, they move to deeper water and can be found in the deep channels around the tips of the barrier islands and in deeper water offshore.

Feeding

Southern kingfish feed primarily on benthic invertebrates, including shrimps, and other small crustaceans. They also eat amphipods, polychaete worms, molluscs, and small fish. The chin barbel is used to locate prey on the bottom. Larvae feed on zooplankton.

Harvest

Kingfish are a common and popular fish for anglers fishing from piers and beaches. Though not large, kingfish are considered to be excellent table fare, with firm, mild-flavored white flesh. Larger fish can be easily fileted, while smaller fish are typically cleaned and cooked whole.

There is not a significant commercial fishery for kingfish. However, significant numbers are caught as bycatch in shrimp trawls. Larger fish are typically kept, while smaller ones are discarded.

The recreational catch of kingfish is not regulated in Mississippi. There are no minimum size requirements, creel limits, or closed season.

Resources and References

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