Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Outdoors

Last-minute trip nets king mackerel

CLEARWATER

Sonja Tutwiler had homework to do, but it didn't take much to persuade her to close the books and put it off for another day.

"My husband said let's take the boat out," Tutwiler, a student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, recalled. "I said why not."

Rick Tutwiler, who grew up fishing along the local beaches, was itching to catch a king.

"I didn't know if the big push had come through yet," Rick Tutwiler, 31, said. "But I figured why not? I might as well give it a try."

King mackerel are a migratory species. Found in the western Atlantic Ocean from Maine to Rio de Janeiro and the Gulf of Mexico, they are consistently on the move.

They spend winters fattening up in the warm waters off the Florida Keys. But as soon as those spring winds blow, the fish head up both coasts of Florida to their summer breeding grounds in the northern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Traditionally, March was the best kingfishing month. But in recent years, it seems the mackerel run, from Naples to Pensacola on the west coast and Miami to Jacksonville on the east coast, has been starting later and later.

In the old days, you could set your watch by it. As soon as the college kids showed up on nearby Clearwater Beach for spring break, the kings would arrive on the Clearwater "hard bottom" just a few miles offshore.

All that swimming makes a fish hungry. So when kingfish slow down long enough to grab a bite, they'll eat anything in sight: sardines, herrings and blue runners.

And while every kingfisherman has a favorite bait, the locals know nothing will stop a big king dead in its tracks like a big, fat mullet. It's like flashing an all-you-can-eat buffet sign in front of a bunch of frat boys. They just can't resist.

Rick Tutwiler had been out the day before with his fishing buddy, 15-year-old Hyadi Clemente, whom he met through Big Brothers Big Sisters.

"He helped me net the mullet," Tutwiler said. "I knew we were going to catch something."

Every fisherman knows that if you want to catch big kingfish, you have to use big bait. Whenever possible, it pays to "match the hatch," or use bait caught near your fishing area.

Clemente and Tutwiler netted their mullet in the Intracoastal near Tutwiler's home in Belleair. A 2- to 3-pound mullet is guaranteed to catch a king 10 times its size.

"They put the mullet in a bait motel overnight off our dock," Sonja Tutwiler explained. "So it was nice and fresh the next morning when we went fishing."

The trip was almost an afterthought. Remember, Sonja was supposed to be doing homework.

"I don't think we got out there until 11 o'clock," she said.

"It was kind of late."

Die-hard kingfishermen usually hit the water before the crack of dawn. But you never know what will trigger a kingfish bite. Smaller kings tend to travel in schools, and while they are fun to catch, most serious anglers target larger ones.

Those big ones, females weighing 30 pounds or more, take the top prizes at local kingfish tournaments. Anglers call these big fish "smokers" because they burn up the drag on a fishing reel.

Smokers are often found close to land; sometimes within reach of the beach. They tend to be loners. They love to hang around the passes, such has the one that separates Clearwater Beach from Sand Key, where they can feed on the bait being swept to sea on an outgoing tide.

The Tutwilers hadn't been trolling more than 10 minutes when Rick saw something swim through baits trolling behind the boat.

"I thought it was a cobia at first," he said. "Then it came back for a second pass."

Tutwiler thought the fish was gone. Then it suddenly skyrocketed out of the water as it grabbed the monster mullet dancing in the prop wash. It nearly landed in the boat then took off running, peeling line off the reel.

It took about 20 minutes for Sonja to coax the king back to the boat.

"It was the biggest fish I ever caught," she said.

The fish, which Rick Tutwiler cut into steaks, weighed 27 pounds.

"It ended up feeding nine people," he said.

The king wasn't a "smoker," but a "griller" is the next best thing.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]

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