Every year about this time, I start praying for fall to truly arrive. With the Gulf of Mexico water temperature hovering around 80 degrees right now, I know it will take another cold front or two to drop it to that magic number of 72. Sure, there are king mackerel scattered here and there, but the big smokers usually don't arrive until the weather turns nasty. There is an old adage among die-hard king mackerel fishermen that if it's cold, wet and windy, it must be time for a kingfish tournament.
King mackerel spend the summer months growing fat in the fertile fishing grounds in the northern parts of the Gulf of Mexico. In early October, large schools of these open-ocean hunters head south to the winter breeding grounds off the Florida Keys.
Anglers sometimes run as far as 100 miles offshore to the Middle Grounds in hopes of intercepting these tackle busters. When a cold front barrels in from the north and muddies the water, anglers know eventually the wind will clock around and blow out of the east. That is when the big kings hunker down within a sinker's toss of the beach.
The tourney gamble
The west coast of Florida typically experiences a dozen or more strong cold fronts each fall and winter. The first low pressure systems usually arrive in late October or early November, which is also peak season for kingfish tournaments.
For tournament organizers, planning is always a roll of the dice. If you schedule a tournament too early, the weather may be ideal, but the kings may not have yet arrived. Wait too long and the fish will be here in full force, but the weather may be so rough that most boats are forced to stay in port.
A big blow can also scatter the smaller fish that anglers rely on as bait.
Winning tournament anglers fish exclusively with live bait. But after a strong cold front, captains can spend days looking for these fish.
The blue runners, shad, scaled sardines (commonly called whitebait), threadfin herring (commonly called greenbacks), cigar minnows, ladyfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel that captains depend on can be difficult, if not impossible, to find.
That's when seasoned veterans rely on their depth recorders to mark patches of "hard bottom," the large limestone outcroppings that tend to attract bait. Even the smallest patch of rocks can hold bait. And where you find bait, you will find kingfish.
A winning strategy
But in the end, it all comes down to the weather. Anglers getting ready for next week's King of the Beach event are studying the extended forecast and fine-tuning a strategy that could help them win what could be the most competitive kingfish tournament on the west coast of Florida.
The KOB, as it is called, has a long and storied history. The prize structure is top notch, but the bragging rights that go along with victory, have no price tag.
Most of the gulf's wrecks and artificial reefs are well known to kingfish anglers, so those spots get hit hard by the charter boats during the week. Tournament anglers may choose to run to a secret spot, or stick close to home and fish with the pack.
Old-timers may choose to avoid the crowds and drop anchor close to the beach. They know the "smokers" — large fish that burn up reel drags — are often found close to land. 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.
Only time will tell. Right now, all we can do is watch, wait and pray the weather and kings will cooperate.