GULF OF MEXICO — To catch kingfish, you have to be a bit of a gambler. And Dave Mistretta isn't afraid to roll the dice.
"We are taking a chance heading offshore without any bait," said Mistretta, a veteran Indian Rocks Beach charter boat captain. "But I am pretty confident that we will find everything that we need right where we are going to fish."
Mistretta, like every other angler getting ready for this weekend's Old Salt King of the Beach tournament, knows that if you want to catch big king mackerel, you need big bait.
But whenever possible, it also pays to "match the hatch," or use bait that is caught as close as possible to the area you are going to fish.
"These are monster baits," Mistretta said as he jigged up bait lingering around a barge anchored 15 miles offshore. "Now all we need is one big blue runner and we will be all set."
King mackerel are a migratory species. They spend winters fattening up in the warm waters off the Florida Keys. But as soon as those spring winds blow, the fish head north to their summer breeding grounds in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
And Florida's west coast is right in the middle of this migratory run. April is typically the best month to fish for kings, but you can catch them as early as March or as late as May.
Successful tournament anglers use only live bait: scaled sardines (commonly called whitebait), threadfin herring (commonly called greenbacks) and of course, the previously mentioned blue runner.
Most anglers carry two 12-foot (1-inch mesh) nets and one 12-foot (3/8-inch mesh) net. But Mistretta, eager to start fishing before other boats showed up on his spot, decided instead to use a gold-hook rig (brand name Sabiki) to catch his bait in deep water.
Anglers may motor as far as 100 miles offshore to the gulf's Middle Grounds to catch a king worthy of winning the King of the Beach. Then again, if the wind blows hard out of the east, a prize-winning king could be caught within 100 yards of the beach.
"The secret is to find hard bottom," Mistretta said. "This whole area is full of limestone ledges, which is why the fish love it here."
Hot kingfish spots were once tightly guarded. But with today's advanced electronics, it is not difficult to find a rock pile the size of a dinghy in a vast expanse of water, so few fishing holes remain exclusive.
"There are no secret spots anymore," Mistretta said. "There will be dozens of boats out here come Saturday."
But on this weekday morning, the skipper of the Jaws Too had the place all to himself. So he rigged two large threadfin herring, tossed them off the stern, just to see if anybody was home.
Most tournament anglers prefer trolling live bait or artificial lures, but some like to anchor and chum.
When trolling live bait, speed is the key. Go too fast, the bait will "drag," which looks unnatural. Some anglers have been known to pull a couple of 5-gallon buckets behind the boat to slow the speed. Many a tournament-winning fish was caught when boats were at idle speed.
"Look at that fish," Mistretta yelled, as a large king boiled on a baitfish bouncing in the prop wash. "The fish are here."
Anglers call the smaller kings, the 8- to 15-pounders, "schoolies." As the name implies, these fish can often be found in numbers. While fun to catch, they won't win a tournament.
To get to the top of the leaderboard, which this year nets $10,000 for first overall, you need a "smoker," a 30-plus-pounder.
After boating five small kings, Mistretta broke out a large blue runner he had been saving.
"Remember," he said, "big baits catch big fish."
The 2-pound runner hadn't been in the water more than five minutes when the rod bent under the weight of the large king mackerel.
"This one has got some shoulders," I said as I brought the fish alongside to be gaffed.
Mistretta smiled and said, "Now if I can only find one of these this weekend."
Next month in our Fishing 101 series: hard-bodied artificial lures