Scotty Gramling had a good feeling when a reel started screaming before the sun got above the horizon at last week's King of the Beach tournament.
"We had just put the baits out," said Gramling, a 17-year-old from St. Petersburg Catholic High School. "That stretch of water between Egmont Key and the Sunshine Skyway always holds some big fish."
Gramling had fished countless tournaments over the years with his father, Scott. "All he wants to do is fish," the elder Gramling explained. "He is out there every chance he gets."
But like most young men his age, Scotty wanted to prove himself this year. So he gathered up three buddies — Gavin McLay, Anthony Boggini and Jordan Halsted — and they decided to fish the state's premiere king mackerel contest on their own.
"We caught our bait on Friday and everybody slept at my house," recalled Scotty. "But we were up all night … all we kept thinking about was the tournament."
The King of the Beach, the state's largest kingfish tournament, typically draws more than 500 boats. But with strict geographical boundaries, this big-money event can be won by just about anyone, even four teenagers in a 24-foot center console fishing boat.
It takes a beast — 40 pounds or more — to land on the leader board. All the top kingfish teams, including those that fish the Wild West Tour and Southern Kingfish Association Tournament Series, compete, but in the end, it's still just fishing, so anybody can win.
These young guns knew they stood as good a chance as anyone else of bringing home the $50,000 first-place cash prize. They had the right baits — big blue runners and fat ladyfish — and awesome attitudes, so why not them?
"We were just getting the rods set up when Gavin tossed a big blue runner into the prop wash," Gramling said. "He was still free spooling the bait when he said, 'I think something got it.' "
The fish ran straight toward the rising sun and stripped 100 yards of line off the reel before Gramling could get the boat up and running to give chase.
"I thought we were going to lose it," said McLay, 16. "The fish stayed deep and we never saw it until right near the end."
The big king circled the boat a few times, its neon chrome body barely visible 20 feet below.
"Then it just gave up and its head popped above the surface," McLay said. "That's when we knew we had a big fish."
Gramling positioned the boat while McLay brought the fish alongside for Boggini to gaff. The first swing was a miss but on the second try, Boggini hit pay dirt and brought a 36-pounder on board.
"I wanted to go in right then and there," Gramling said. "I knew we were not going to catch a bigger fish."
The boys headed back, wondering whether to take their chances in the open division or enter the fish in the single-engine class. In the end, they chose the latter, a wise decision since Gramling's Boater Republic II Team ended up with a 300 HP Engine valued at $20,000.
"We still can't believe it," Gramling said. "It is kind of unreal."
The top prize of $50,000 went to Brian Hasson's Team Kindred Spirit for a 42.74-pound fish. He was followed by Steve Stalba's All Jacked Up with a 41.6-pounder and Morgan Kein's Hooked on Old School with a 40.72-pound king.
"These kids are just all about fishing," said Gavin McLay's father, John, a veteran tournament angler. "I wish I knew what they know when I was 16. Who knows how far they will go?"