MADEIRA BEACH — It's easy to get discouraged about the offshore fishing scene. Red snapper season came and went in a blink of an eye. Grouper are off limits most of the year. Even amberjack, once the go-to fish of the charter boat fleet, are fair game for just two months.
But there is one bright spot: king mackerel. This migratory species, once fished to near collapse, is a conservation success story. Every fall and spring these open-water predators pass by off bay area beaches, delighting anglers, especially the 1,000 or so hard-core competitive fishermen signed up for this weekend's Old Salt Fishing Foundation's King of the Beach tournament.
Recreational anglers catch about 68 percent of the king mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico, according to Steve Branstetter, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg.
"The recreational fishermen never take their entire allotment," Branstetter said. "The stocks are in good shape."
In the gulf, king mackerel spend the summer near the mouth of the Mississippi River. When the weather turns cool, about half of the population heads west and then south along the coast of Texas to winter off the Yucatan Peninsula. The rest of the fish swim east and then south along Florida's beaches to the waters off Key West.
"But this is a slow process," Branstetter said. "It is not like they all get up and move at once."
Anglers started catching the first southern-swimming kings off Naples in early October. But at that same time, fishermen still were catching kings off the Panhandle.
"They get spread out," Branstetter said. "But they should be here for at least another three or four weeks."
This is good news for anglers. While the kingfish season can start as early as October, the best fishing is usually around mid November, when the air turns cool and the seas choppy.
The King of the Beach events, held during the height of the migrations, are among the largest of their kind on the west coast of Florida. It draws the region's top teams, all vying for the $10,000 first-place cash prize and the coveted title of "king."
But fall can be a tough time to fish for big kings. The Suncoast area typically has a half dozen tournaments scheduled for October and November, and success is usually determined with a roll of the dice.
The weather may be picture perfect for weeks and then a cold front blows through, muddies the water and scatters the bait. There's an adage among veteran tournament anglers that goes something like this: "If it's not cold, rough and raining, then you are not kingfishing."
While king mackerel can be caught on artificial lures, most successful tournament anglers fish exclusively with live or natural bait. They use blue runners, shad, scaled sardines (commonly called whitebait), threadfin herring (commonly called greenbacks), cigar minnows, ladyfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel.
The fish that win tournaments are usually female and tip the scales at 30 pounds or more. Any fish in the 40-pound range is considered a true contender and from time to time, 50-pounders are taken in local waters. But because the fish caught here are in mid migration, they tend to be thinner or lighter than their counterparts in the Keys or off Mississippi or Alabama.
Anglers call the big fish "smokers" because in the old days, when fishing reels used grease from animal fat, a big fish could literally burn up the drag and generate a good deal of smoke. Smokers are often found close to land, sometimes within reach of the beach.
Over the years, several west coast tournaments have been won by anglers actually fishing east of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
The big fish tend to be loners or rogues that hang around the passes, where they can feed on the bait being swept to sea on an outgoing tide. These big fish are fat and lazy, and they don't want to work too hard for their food.
And if you have never seen a big kingfish, you are missing out. It's quite a thrill seeing one of these monsters brought to a weigh-in, almost as much fun as landing one yourself.