Tournament fishing for king mackerel is a lot like playing blackjack: If you're good with numbers, you will likely finish with a good hand.
"There is no secret to it," said longtime Indian Rocks Beach charter boat captain Dave Mistretta. "If you know how to do the math, you will catch big fish."
Kingfish, like many pelagic species, are sensitive to changes in water temperature. If the water is too warm, the fish might not stop along our local beaches as they migrate to their wintering grounds off the Florida Keys. If the water is too cold, the fish won't linger very long on their annual run south, either.
"Everything has to be just right," said Mistretta, who has been targeting kings for nearly 30 years. "Otherwise you won't find any fish."
The numbers game
A recent cold front dropped water temperatures in Tampa Bay by more than 10 degrees in just one week. The temperature on the grass flats was 65 degrees Tuesday, which was cool enough to give even cold-hardy species such as red drum and spotted seatrout lockjaw.
Kingfish love it when the water temperature is hovering between 68 and 72 degrees. So Mistretta, who is participating in Saturday's King of the Beach tournament, knew he would have to find warm water if he was going to catch king mackerel.
"Even off the beach, the surface temperature was still 64 degrees," Mistretta said. "So we headed offshore to deep water."
The deeper the water, the longer it takes to heat up and cool off. During the summer months, the subsurface temperatures 20 miles offshore can be 10 degrees colder than the water along the beaches.
And when the shallow, nearshore waters drop into the low 60s after the first cold front of the season, the waters a few miles out will still be a few degrees warmer.
"So we moved about 10 miles offshore where the water temperature was still 70 degrees, and we found our fish," he said.
The great push
Most teams entered in Saturday's KOB will head out today for "prefishing." Anglers typically scout favorite spots to see which wrecks, reefs and patches of hard bottom are holding fish.
"But the playing field can change from day to day," Mistretta warned. "A big push of kingfish can come into an area literally overnight and suddenly it is a whole different ball game."
Top tournament anglers typically fish several days in a row in order to determine their prey's pattern. For those in the know, the movement of kingfish schools can actually be predictable.
"It all comes down to location, location, location," Mistretta said. "Some spots are always good; others change from year to year. The only thing that gives you a real advantage is time on the water."
So finding the kings is one thing. Getting them to eat is a different problem.
Big baits, big fish
Veteran tournament angler Steve Papen believes most kingfish tournaments are won or lost before the first fish is even landed.
"It is all about the bait," Papen said. "If you want to catch big fish, you need big bait."
Papen, who runs a charter boat out of Madeira Beach, feared the recent cold front would ruin his chances in Saturday's KOB.
"The water was so cold, I was afraid it was going to send the fish skedaddling south," he said. "But fortunately a few days of good weather and east winds will warm up the water."
Come Saturday morning, most teams will have to make that fateful decision: stay close or run offshore.
If they fish close to the beach, mullet, shad and ladyfish will be the baits of choice. Spanish mackerel is a favorite kingfish bait, but they are a regulated species, so they count toward an angler's daily bag limit.
Offshore anglers favor cigar minnows, Spanish sardines and blue runners for bait. Tournament anglers love the large baits.
"The thinking goes that only a 'smoker' will think it can eat a big blue runner," said Papen, the term smoker referring to a big fish that peels off plenty of line.
The king mackerel fishing should be good this time of year. Anglers will probably catch plenty of 30-pound fish this weekend. But with that many big fish on the leaderboard, it will likely take a 40-pounder to be crowned "King of the Beach."