Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring, but everybody knows those Yankee varmints know nothing about kingfish.
"It's still a little cool," tournament angler Dave Bayes said of bay area water temperatures. "We are close but just not there yet."
Cold and rainy sounds good to a Pennsylvania groundhog that has been living in a hole since Halloween. But here in the Sunshine State, we like warm with a light breeze out of the east, especially if you are looking for king mackerel.
"The water temperature is about 64 degrees offshore," veteran charter boat captain Steve Papen said. "We need it to be around 68 degrees.
"Then we'll be in business."
Papen and his colleagues have been catching "schoolies," 10- to 15-pound kings, the kind that bring smiles to the faces of those tourists accustomed to catching sunfish and smallmouth bass.
But a baby king mackerel won't put you on the leaderboard at a major kingfish contest such as this weekend's opener of the Wild West Kingfish Tournament Series. The four-event tournament has a 100 percent payout, so it attracts the top offshore anglers on Florida's west coast.
Traditionally, bay area anglers start celebrating the return of the kings around St. Patrick's Day. The predators spend their summers in the northern Gulf of Mexico then sit out the winter in the warm waters off Key West. At the first hint of warm weather, they begin their run back north.
Some years, the kings can be as predictable as a puppy at dinner time. But some years, all it takes is a late-season cold front to stop the migration. The fish will get here, but the $7,000 question (how much you would earn by winning this weekend's tournament) is when.
If the weather breaks, as it is expected to this weekend, and we get a few days of sun and calm seas, anglers can look forward to an action-packed month ahead. The 26 boats that have signed up for the Wild West Series will have three more chances this year: April 21, Oct. 5 and Oct. 19. (Sorry, registration is closed.)
Weekend warriors can still register for the Suncoast Kingfish Classic, a Southern Kingfish Association event to be held April 19-20 at Gator's on the Pass on Treasure Island. To register for the event, go to fishska.com.
One week later, April 25-27, the granddaddy of all kingfish tournaments, the annual Old Salt Spring King of the Beach, gets under way on Madeira Beach. The KOB, as it is called, pays $80,000 in cash and prizes and usually draws more than 300 boats.
Now in its 20th year, this "everyman's tournament" has been fished by anglers in 18-foot flats skiffs as well as million dollar yachts. The key to this tournament's success is the level playing field. A modest $195 entry fee and a 30-mile fishing boundary mean you don't have to be a seasoned SKA veteran to win.
"I just couldn't believe it," said Frank Quinto, a 42-year-old aerospace engineer from Seminole who won last year's event.
"I fished the tournament for years and always watched the guys weigh in their winning fish."
Last spring, just a few minutes after he caught his 46-pound winner, Quinto called his wife as he motored back.
"Honey, this is not a drill," he said. "Call everyone, I got it this time!"
When he finally pulled into the dock, he had 30 friends and family waiting.
"You just can't beat it," he said. "Those were the best couple of hours in my life."
To learn more about the tournament, go to oldsaltfishing.org.