GULF OF MEXICO — Pharmacist Derrick Benton admits that he struggles with addiction.
"This is my drug," the 42-year-old confessed as he readied his sit-on-top sea kayak. "I have got to go fishing."
Benton and two of his paddle-fishing brethren had spent the previous two hours slowly making their way to a series of wrecks about 30 miles offshore.
"We've got everything out here …grouper, snapper and 'jacks," said Capt. Mark Hubbard, who dreamed up the idea of a blue-water kayak fishing trip. "If these guys are lucky, they might even catch a kingfish."
Hubbard, whose family has been running fishing trips out of John's Pass for more than 50 years, decided to put together what he called the "Amber-Yak Attack" after seeing the large number of paddle fishermen who work the flats around Fort De Soto.
He ran his first blue-water kayak trip last year aboard the Friendly Fisherman, a 75-foot party boat that cruises at a speed of about 12 knots. Lunch and bait are included in the $350 charter fee.
"It is one of the fastest growing types of fishing," said Hubbard, whose company also runs a ferry shuttle service to Egmont and Shell Keys. "But most of the kayak fishermen catch small stuff. Out here they can hook up with a 50- or 60-pounder."
Benton, like most kayak anglers, usually fishes close to land. But on this May morning, he brought the tools favored by most blue-water fishermen, including a GPS and bottom machine.
Hubbard anchored the Friendly Fisherman just off the series of wrecks and then drew the kayakers a map of the site on piece of notebook paper.
"Your best bet is to drift over the wreck, fish one line on the surface and another on the bottom, then paddle back and do it again," Hubbard explained.
Benton was the first kayaker on the water and he wasted no time in leaving the mother ship behind. He paddled straight to the wreck and started his drift, just as Hubbard had instructed. He made his first drift — no bites — paddled back up and looked at his bottom machine.
"This guy knows what he is doing," Hubbard said. "He's marking his spots."
While the other kayakers were getting their vessels in the water, the mate dropped a bait off the stern and tried to scare up a bottom fish or two.
He hooked a small 'jack, but before he could get the fish to the surface, a sea monster the size of Volkswagen Beetle suddenly appeared out of nowhere and tried to inhale the fish.
"Goliath grouper!" I yelled as the fish turned away at the last second. "I'd hate to hook one of those in a kayak."
It didn't take long for the anglers to start hooking up. But it was hard work. The current rips 30 miles offshore. So it was drift with the current, then paddle-paddle-paddle, drift with the current, paddle-paddle-paddle.
Benton made the most of the predicament, and after a few hours and a smorgasbord of caught fish, he finally hooked the thick-bodied brute he had come for — an amberjack, which immediately dove deep toward the safety of the wreck.
Boat-based fishermen often go their knees fighting big jacks, but a kayak fisherman has no such luxury. They have to battle the beast while hoping they don't tip over in the water full of feeding sharks and barracuda.
But Benton finally prevailed, landing the 'jack, then held the fish over his head and let loose a victorious warrior's yell.
Back on the mother ship, after eight hours of nonstop fishing fun, the kayak anglers had just a few words for the captain.
"When can we do this again?"