TREASURE ISLAND — John Thomas isn't the kind of kingfisherman who likes to "run and gun." A veteran of the Southern Kingfish Association tournament trail, Thomas knows only two things put you on the leaderboard — time and patience.
Unlike many tournament anglers who believe the key to victory is covering as much territory as possible, Thomas prefers to come up with a course of action, then stick with it. This strategy does not work every time. But every now and then, it produces a winner.
On Saturday at the Suncoast Kingfish Classic, Thomas' game plan not only produced the top fish of the tournament but a record catch of 58.04 pounds. For nearly a decade, the catch to beat was 51.13 pounds by Debbie Crisp on April 8, 1995, during a tournament out of Gators on the Pass on Treasure Island.
In 2005, a 54-pounder was landed during a local tournament. But it was handled by multiple anglers and to this day remains a subject of controversy among the angling elite on Florida's west coast.
But Saturday, Thomas and his crew aboard the Walleye II captured a behemoth that shattered the previous mark. The smoker was long, but it sure was fat.
"We couldn't believe it," said Thomas, who has been fishing the local tournament scene for more than 20 years. "I've seen bigger kingfish but not around here."
King mackerel run along the Gulf Coast beaches during the spring and fall. These migratory fish tend to be a tad leaner than those caught in the summer spawning grounds off the Florida Panhandle or the winter feeding areas of Key West.
"My personal theory is that we have a few big fish that are residents year-round," said Thomas, who runs a charter boat out of Tarpon Springs. "I think they tend to be a little heavier than the fish that are running up and down the coast."
Thomas likes to prefish during the week of the tournament in order to find the big schools. After a couple of days of research, he narrowed his fishing grounds to an area 75 miles offshore in 130 feet.
"We left at 6 a.m. and got to our spot at 8:55 a.m.," the 54-year-old Tampa native said. "We got our first bite 15 minutes later at 9:10 a.m."
Aboard his 33-foot Contender were men he had fished with for 10 years: son Anthony, Steve McCracken, Brian Calzon and Randy Keys, the 1995 SKA national champion.
The bait, a large blue runner, was trailing deep on a down rigger.
"When it first hit, we had no idea what it was," Thomas said. "At first I thought it was a wahoo."
The anglers, all experienced blue-water hunters, were perplexed by the peculiar behavior of their prey.
"It made run after run," Thomas said. "Usually a big king will make one or two long runs but then give up. But not this fish."
Calzon, 36, was on the rod.
"It thought it might be a big shark," he said. "It would rip off 200 yards of line at a time like it was nothing."
But after a 50-minute fight, they caught the glimmer of a fish about 20 feet below.
"That is when we all knew it was a king," Thomas said. "Everybody was speechless."
The boat got real quiet, and the men began to worry.
"There was no way we were going to lose this fish," Thomas said. "No way."
Thomas and Keys both grabbed gaffs. If one man missed, the other would strike true.
"We gaffed that fish and realized how heavy it was," Thomas said. "We knew it was big … maybe even a record."
With the fish in the box, they stowed their rods and reels and headed toward John's Pass. They were back at the dock just before 2 p.m., then waited for the weigh-in.
"We were just happy to win," said Thomas, who split the $6,000 purse with his teammates. "We are just regular guys just out there having fun, which is what these SKA tournaments are all about."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]