Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Anglers brave conditions to chase big kingfish

GULF OF MEXICO — Twenty miles offshore, and the seas were rough and getting rougher.

"You know, if you want, we could run another 30 miles or so offshore," Jim Breazeale said with a smile. "I know we'll have better luck out there."

We had caught our share of fish, but they were the wrong species. The barracuda were thick over the wreck, and a baitfish, no matter how large, didn't stand a chance in the water.

But Breazeale, a veteran tournament angler, had been in this situation before. He knew that catching kingfish is a lot like selling real estate. What really matters is location.

"Sometimes you have got to run," said Breazeale, whose DeLosa's Pizza/Doughmaker Team will be in Biloxi, Miss., this weekend for the Southern Kingfish Association National Championships, where it is not uncommon for a boat to travel 100 miles each way to and from a spot. "And when we run, we run all-out."

Team Doughmaker, one of several kingfish crews from the Tampa Bay area in Mississippi this weekend, runs a big boat with three engines, capable of handling anything short of a hurricane swell.

But you don't need a fast boat to catch big kingfish. In fact, anglers in 20-foot center consoles stand just as good of a chance at winning the top prize in the Old Salt King of the Beach as those in 36-foot Yellowfins.

This tournament has long been known as an "everyman's" event. The Old Salt Fishing Foundation, a Madeira Beach-based club, keeps the playing field level by limiting the west boundary to 30 miles offshore.

Anglers can run as far north as Cedar Key and as far south as Boca Grande Pass, but if you're thinking about sneaking off to catch a 60-pounder in the Dry Tortugas, forget it. With a $20,000 first prize up for grabs, the winner can be asked to take a lie detector test.

But while kingfish don't care how big your boat is, the size of your bait is another story. Every fall these open-water predators pass along our area beaches on their migration, gobbling up everything they can find to help fuel their journey.

In the Gulf of Mexico, king mackerel spend the summer near the mouth of the Mississippi River. When the weather turns cool, about half of the population heads west and then south along the coast of Texas to winter off the Yucatan Peninsula.

The rest of the fish swim east and then south along Florida's beaches to the waters off Key West. Anglers started catching the first southern-swimming kings off Naples in early October. But at that same time, fishermen still were catching kings off the Panhandle.

November is usually the peak month for big kings on the Suncoast, although the schools can arrive as early as October or linger as late as December. Peak feeding times often coincide with the arrival of cold fronts, which is why tournament anglers are prone to say, "If it ain't cold, rough and raining, you ain't kingfishing."

While king mackerel can be caught on artificial lures, most successful tournament anglers fish exclusively with live or natural bait. The baits of choice, at least in this area, are large blue runners.

"That is where all the pressure comes in," Breazeale said. "Fishing the tournament is easy. It is finding the bait that is often the hard part."

If you're planning to fish this weekend's King of the Beach, count on needing at least a 40-pounder. In Biloxi, it will take a 50-pound fish to get near the top of the leaderboard.

Over the years, tournaments have been won by anglers actually fishing east of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. So while it often pays to cover a lot of territory to find the fish, sometimes the best location is the one a mile from the boat ramp. You just never know.

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