All we needed was one big fish. The water boiled with smaller king mackerel, but Steve Papen said he would rather go home empty-handed than have his photograph taken with a "schoolie." That's what veteran kingfish anglers call the little guys, the baby kings, 24 inches in length or smaller.
"We want a 'smoker,' " said Papen, referring to a fish weighing more than 30 pounds. "Something worth the effort."
Papen's group hit the water early, knowing that the bite wouldn't last past 9 a.m. His fishing party caught several small Spanish mackerel to "match the hatch" and then hooked them to the stinger rigs that now trailed behind the boat.
"A fresh (Spanish) mackerel will catch a big king," Papen said. "But you have to get them while they are fresh."
Every kingfisherman has his bait of choice. King mackerel are a migratory species that spends its winters fattening up in the warm waters off the Florida Keys before moving north along the coast to the summer breeding grounds in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
These free swimmers are voracious feeders. They eat on the run, and most successful tournament anglers say live bait is the key: scaled sardines (commonly called whitebait), threadfin herring (commonly called greenbacks), blue runners and, of course, the Spanish mackerel.
The fish dance
It didn't take long for a big king to zero in on a freshly caught Spanish mackerel trailing in the prop wash about 20 feet behind the boat. The kingfish, which probably weighed about 40 pounds, bit clean through the 2-pound bait and the wire of the stinger rig as it skyrocketed through the air.
"That was our chance," Papen said. "I doubt we will get another fish like that."
Papen motored slowly in circles as other boats fishing the hard bottom a few miles off the beach made do with the smaller, more plentiful schoolies. With only two baits left, Papen began to lose patience. The two kids on board, who were both tired and cranky, only made things worse with their incessant pleas to go swimming.
"You want to do something to help?" Papen asked my 8-year-old daughter, Nia. "Then get up on the deck and do a fish dance."
My little girl, a budding actor, rose to the occasion and began whirling on the foredeck. "Keep it up," Papen told her. "I think it is working."
She danced in circles for at least 10 minutes until her brow dripped with sweat. Then, just when it seemed like it might not work, a rod screamed under the weight of a fish. Before that king could be subdued, a second one hit the other bait.
"Double hookup!" Papen yelled.
It took about 10 minutes to get both fish on board. After photos, the 20-plus-pounders were tossed in the cooler.
"Hey, do you rent her out for tournaments?" Papen quipped.
Best of the West
Frustrated with the small payouts of local king mackerel tournaments, Papen and friends gathered several of the Tampa Bay area's elite kingfishing crews for the first installment of the Wild West Kingfish Tournament Series.
"These are the hard-core fishermen," Papen said. "We all fish the same tournaments. So we know all the diehards."
The tournament series, which will crown a "Best of the West" champion, has 25 teams preregistered for the four events. The first weigh-in is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at the Hooters on John's Pass.
"Each of those teams paid $2,400," said Dave Bayes of Dogfish Tackle, a tournament sponsors. "Each tournament will pay out $6,200 for the first-place fish."
The purse could increase if more teams join and pay a $500 daily entry fee for any of the three remaining tournaments. Those anglers, however, will be ineligible for the additional aggregate prize money, which could be as much as $6,000 per tournament.
"This is tournament is really unique because it pays out 100 percent of the entry fees," Papen said. "You don't see a lot of money wrapped up in overhead."
With a smaller playing field, anglers stand a better chance of winning. "The competition will be high, but so will the payout."
Dates for the three other tournament legs are April 22, Oct. 13 and Nov. 17. To learn more, go to angler armory.com.