Eric Sidor can't decide what he likes most about the Wild West Kingfish Tournament Series.
"First there's the shotgun start," the 37-year-old captain of team En-Vi-Us said. "You have 50 boats all lined up outside of John's Pass, and when they say 'Go Fish,' everybody just takes off going 50 mph. It really gets your adrenaline pumping … what a way to start the day."
After an hour or two, Sidor and his teammates usually find themselves 80 or 90 miles from port, out in the deep blue where the sea monsters roam. If you want to catch big kings, the smokers of legend, fish so feisty they'll melt the drag on a fishing reel, you have to be willing to roam.
"This year I decided if we are going to really compete and make the long runs like we have then we need to step up and run what the big boys run," said Sidor, a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch who lives in St. Petersburg. "So I spared nothing putting the boat together … a 34-foot Yellowfin with triple 350 horse-power Mercury Verados."
A top-of-the-line kingfish boat can cost well over $200,000, more than some homes, and the prize money is good, as much as $10,000 for first place. The boat owner never recovers all of the his or her expenses, but there's more to it than money.
"I guess if you ask any of us why we do it, most people will say it comes down to the thrill of it," Sidor said. "When you hear a reel go off, and that line starts screaming, there is no other sound that comes close anywhere in the world."
King mackerel, free-swimming predators that can weigh more than 50 pounds, are like the big cats of the ocean. You don't appreciate the grace and power of a cheetah until you see it run. The same holds true for king mackerel — you can read all you want about their fighting prowess but you won't truly understand until you do the dance on the deck of a moving boat.
"The fight — that is what it makes it all worth it," said Sidor, who grew up in Miami and has caught everything from billfish to bull sharks. "I think that is what keeps us all coming back."
But tournament fishermen are not born, they are made, one long weekend at a time. Sidor has been on the tournament circuit since 2007, but his education started in elementary school.
"I had a neighbor who was a school teacher with summers off," Sidor said. "He'd supplement his income as a commercial fisherman, and he had one rule: no complaining no matter what the circumstances."
That "fish till you drop" ethic is essential for any serious tournament angler.
"The teams that fish the Wild West are the best of the best," Sidor said. "On any given day any team can win. Everybody is that good. So there is no room for mistakes."
Good equipment is also essential. After college, Sidor saved every penny he could to buy his first boat, a 21-foot Angler center console. "I was on that boat every chance I had," he said.
Like most fishermen, Sidor wanted to travel farther to catch bigger fish, so he bought another boat, then another boat, learning the tricks of the trade every step of the way. "Eventually I linked up with some co-workers who also wanted to work the Southern Kingfish Association Circuit," he said. "I fished with several successful teams along the way until three years ago I decided it was time to run my own team."
The En-Vi-Us fishing team (the name comes from a combination of family names) had its best Wild West showing, a fourth-place finish, last year. "Our goal is to win one," he said. "But I would be happy to finish in the top three."
Sidor describes his current team as "a mishmash of fishermen that put in the time, effort, money and dedication to compete at the highest level." He also partnered with Sammy Papia of Bada Bing fishing team, a well-known name on Florida's east coast.
"We decided I would fish with them on the east coast tourneys and he would fish with me on the west coast tourneys," Sidor said. "Together we would make a powerhouse of a team. We started off the year strong with a win in Key West and now we are hoping our luck continues as we kick off the season with back to back tournaments through May."
But in the end, Sidor knows that when it comes to kingfish, you can do everything right and still come home empty handed.
"After all it is still fishing," he said. "There is that element of luck."