Anglers call it the Wild West for a reason. One hundred miles from shore, out in the deep blue water of the Gulf of Mexico, anything can happen.
It is a dangerous, unforgiving place. If the weather takes a turn for the worse, you are on your own. Only a select few have the fortune or fortitude to venture that far from land.
"You are out there," said Jim Naset, whose Pro Marine Team is known for its long runs and big fish. "It isn't always worth with it, but sometimes it is."
Two weeks in a row, Naset and his teammates fishing the Wild West Kingfish Tournament Series, came back to the dock with a tournament-winning 65-pound king mackerel.
"The first one was 'Wow!' " said tournament director James Malz. "But the second was 'Wow! This is disgusting. Are you guys going to weigh in a 65-pound king every week?' "
The first fish, which netted the Pro Marine team $13,000 and the top spot on the leaderboard for the four tournament series, weighed in at 65.15 pounds. At the time it was believed to be the largest king mackerel caught in a tournament north of Naples.
Kingfish are a migratory species. They spend their summers fattening up on baitfish in the waters off the Florida Panhandle. When the fall winds blow, they head south along local beaches to the waters off the Florida Keys, where they spend the winter months. Biloxi, Miss., and Key West are known for big fish, but a 65-pounder off Tampa Bay? That's pretty much unheard of.
"I know it sounds crazy … and if I wasn't on the boat, I probably wouldn't believe it," said Naset, a veteran of the kingfish tournament trail. "This second fish didn't have the girth of the first fish, but it was a little longer."
The Wild West Kingfish Series attracts the best of the best. The top kingfish teams in Florida compete, the rules are tight, and nobody would dare cheat. And it they did, they wouldn't get away with it. Tournament structurers are given a polygraph test.
But the way the tournament is structured makes big fish almost a given.
"The tournament boundaries are 100 miles north and 100 miles south," said Malz. "But (teams) can run as far west as they dare to go."
Naset and his team run a 36-foot Yellowfin equipped with triple 350-horspower Mercury engines, the ideal vessel for long runs in rough water.
"Nobody knows where they caught those fish," said Malz. "But everybody figures that they probably made a pretty long run."
Secret spring? Forgotten wreck? There are hundreds of possible locations.
"We had fished this spot before without any luck," said Naset, who, as expected, declined to reveal his honey hole. "But this time, as the week before, there were fish there."
Naset said the first 65-pounder, landed April 16, was hooked about an hour into the trip.
"This time we had the lines in the water a matter of minutes before the fish hit," he said. "This fish weighed in at 65.85 pounds."
The twin 65 pounders will make it hard for any other team to catch Pro Marine when fishing resumes in the fall.
"It really makes me wonder that if we had another tournament this spring, could they do it again?" Malz said. "I would have never thought they could weigh in two, so why not three?"
King of the Beach Tournament and Festival: The Old Salt Fishing Foundation will host the annual event Thursday-Saturday at Madeira Beach's newly renovated Recreation Complex, 200 Rex Place. Admission and parking are free. 5-11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2-10 p.m. Saturday. Info: oldsaltfishing.org.