Tom Verdensky and Jim Naset love playing hooky. It doesn't take much to get these Old Salts to call in sick.
"I just need one fish. …" I told Verdensky, president of the local Old Salt Fishing Foundation club. "I just need enough to smoke."
Every spring, my mother-in-law starts bugging me about fish spread. Grandma, or "GMA" as she is known in our texting circles, is a fish-eating machine.
She doesn't get a chance to catch many herself, so she counts on me to bring home the fillets. It is what marine biologists would call a symbiotic relationship. I feed her; she helps nurture my often-unruly offspring.
Over the past 15 years, she has come to expect a spread of smoked fish — kingfish, amberjack or Spanish mackerel — as soon as baseball season gets into full swing. This year I was a little late with my delivery, not because of any negligence on my part, but because the unseasonably late-arriving spring had delayed the annual return of Scomberomorus cavalla, the kingfish.
This migratory species, once fished to near collapse, is a conservation success story. In the spring and fall, these open-water predators swim along our beaches, delighting Verdensky and Naset, and the other 1,000 or so hard-core competitive anglers signed up for this weekend's King of the Beach tournament.
In the gulf, 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 coast to the waters off Key West. Then, once the weather starts to get a little warmer, the fish make the run back north.
For weeks, anglers have been waiting patiently for the big schools to arrive. Verdensky and Naset had fished several times this season, with mixed results.
But I explained to them that I didn't really care about the King of the Beach's $20,000 first-place prize. I had just one thing on my mind: Make GMA some fish spread, or find a new babysitter.
"We should be able to catch at least one fish," Naset said after I explained my predicament. "That is the great thing about living and fishing here in Tampa Bay. It doesn't matter what kind of boat you have or your level of experience. Pretty much everybody can come out here and catch a king along the beach."
Verdensky smiled, noting the legendary outdoor writer's curse, but vowed to do his best.
For years, local kingfish tournaments were dominated by the angling elite, fishermen in big, fast boats that could run to the Dry Tortugas if necessary if it meant catching a winning fish. But the King of the Beach, with its tight geographic boundaries, levels the playing field.
"This is an everyman's tournament," Verdensky said. "You could be fishing out of a flats boat and on a good day anchor up right off the beach and catch a tournament-winning fish."
But as I explained previously, I didn't care about winning. I was interested in eating. And just when I thought I might have to face Grandma's wrath, a line started screaming.
Then, no sooner had we got one fish in the boat, our second line went tight as well.
"Double hookup!" I yelled.
Now, Grandma could have her fish, and I could eat one too.