The invitation came late in the afternoon, but I couldn't say no.
"I'm thinking about buying a new boat," my friend Larry Hoffman said over the phone. "I want to take it for a test ride."
I'm always up for a day on the water, especially when the kingfish are running. But as a self-admitted cheapskate, I had to ask, "How much do I have to pitch in for gas?"
"Nothing," he said. "It's on me."
How Hoffman had convinced the owners to let him take a 35-foot triple-engine Scarab fishing boat 20 miles offshore for the day was still a mystery.
Most "test rides" are up and down the Intracoastal Waterway. A customer seldom gets to know how a boat handles in extreme conditions, which is probably the most important factor to consider.
"I want to see how it handles," Hoffman said. "If I don't like it, we will just clean it up and take it back."
High winds, heavy seas
The weather report for that day called for 15-knot winds out of the south and 4-foot seas. Not the best day for catching king mackerel, but not the worst. Hoffman, a Treasure Island charter boat captain, often finds himself far from land in bad weather.
"Don't worry," he said as we left the dock. "It will be just like fishing a tournament."
The four fellow anglers didn't get the inside joke. I have fished several big-money tournaments with Hoffman over the years, but never on a day when the sun was shining and the skies were blue.
"The weather could be great all week long," he finally explained to the others. "Then the weekend rolls around, and it is cold, windy and raining. But you are going fishing, either way."
We had hoped to cruise offshore, catch some amberjack, then on the way in, pick up a few kings. But after 20 minutes of pounding through the waves, we decided to stick closer to home and fish the Egmont Shipping Channel.
Big baits, big boat
Catching baitfish off a buoy on a good day is an art, but add wind, waves and tide, and it can become a battle for survival.
Hoffman was used to maneuvering his lightweight Donzi, but the Scarab was bigger, heavier, and the controls were in the wrong place.
"Don't you guys know how to catch fish?" Hoffman barked as he struggled to keep his hapless crew over the baitfish circling below.
With its 9-foot 11-inch beam, the Scarab Tournament edition was surprisingly stable in the waist-high rollers. This allowed several anglers to soak Sabiki rigs at the same time, which theoretically should mean more bait, but in reality, it just meant more lines getting tangled.
"I think we have enough bait," Hoffman said after we stocked the well with several dozen cigar minnows and Spanish sardines. "We need to get offshore before we miss the bite."
Running hard and safe
Kingfishermen spend a lot of time going from spot to spot looking for fish. As a result, they like big, fast boats that can make headway regardless of the sea. Hoffman typically cruises about 38 mph and gets roughly 1.4 miles per gallon on gas.
The Scarab, with triple 250-horsepower Yamaha engines, goes about 1.2 miles for every gallon of gas. With fuel prices going through the roof, I had to ask: "Why would you buy a boat that burns more gas?"
Hoffman thought about it for a second, then responded, "Safety."
The Scarab weighs about 1,300 more pounds than his Donzi, which has a stepped hull and was originally designed for powerboat racing. The Scarab's deep-vee entry is better-suited for rough water.
"With triples, I can still have an engine go out and make it home at a decent hour," he said. "I can also take six passengers instead of four."
With charter prices rising, anglers want to fish in larger groups to help defer the individual cost. While he may spend a little more in fuel, Hoffman figures he will make it up with increased charters.
Slow trolling along the shipping channel, four rods out, we didn't have to wait long for our first strike. But before we could clear the rods to fight the fish, a second reel started screaming, then a third, then a fourth.
Multiple anglers fighting fish would never happen in a tournament (you never want to risk losing a big one) but it is the stuff of dreams on a charter.
Bait after bait produced kings. We kept a few for a midday fish fry.
"Make sure you clean up the deck," Hoffman told us. "We need to take this boat back."
This was a first for me: cleaning blood off the deck at the end of a test ride.
Zooming back in across the wave tops, Hoffman finally got the hang of this new rig.
"Now that I figured out how to run it the right way," he said. "I might just have to keep it."
In fact, he did.
Larry Hoffman charters out of Treasure Island, call (727) 709-9396.