Ed Walker knows a tournament-winning fish when he sees one. The veteran angler had not planned to enter last month's King of the Beach tournament, but when he got his first glimpse of the monster king mackerel beneath his boat, he was glad he did.
"I know what it takes to get at the top of the (leader) board," said Walker, a regular on the local kingfish circuit for more than 20 years. "This fish looked like a winner." The only problem was that the monster king was just beyond the reach. "I have a 12-foot gaff," said the Tarpon Springs charter boat captain. "But this fish was about 2 feet too deep. He just wouldn't give up those couple of extra feet no matter what we did."
The water that Saturday, April 30, was exceptionally clear. Walker could practically see straight to the bottom at his favorite shallow-water grouper spot.
"The tournament was a last-minute thing," he said. "Usually we spend days scouting, catching bait … but we decided to enter the tournament the night of the captains meeting. Under normal circumstances, we'd run all over, but this day we just stayed close to shore."
When Walker and his friends left the dock, they had seven "tired-looking" blue runners in the live well. But in a tournament, all it takes is a single bait to put you in the money hunt."
Under normal circumstances, Walker wouldn't dream of heading out without at least 50 freshly-tied stinger rigs. "But I just didn't have time to prepare," he said. "Our hooks and wires were bent and rusty. Sometimes you have to just do what you can."
Armed with a 12-pack and a handful of cigars, Walker and his two buddies figured they would just do what they could. After all, fishing is always better than cutting the grass.
"We were in 45 feet of water about 15 miles off Tarpon Springs," Walker said. "We were fishing a ledge, an old grouper spot, but I thought there might be a kingfish or two there."
At first Walker thought the fish that took his bait was an amberjack. "He ran deep and stayed deep," he said.
Then he saw the silver flash of a kingfish, and he went into tournament mode. "I knew that 25-pound test wouldn't hold for long," he said. "We had to get that fish in the boat."
Walker's friend Fred Hosley kept the boat moving slowly forward as the fish swam parallel to it. Another buddy, Andy Travnicek, was on the rod. Walker, gaff in hand, waited for the opportunity to strike. "But it just hung there, out of reach, almost like it knew how long the gaff was," Walker said.
Then the fish turned, rose a few feet and looked like it was about to make another run. Walker knew his worn-out terminal tackle wouldn't last, so he ran to the stern and took a swing. The long gaff caught the big king between the dorsal fin and the tail. But the fish kept swimming.
"I wasn't about to let go of a $75,000 fish," Walker said. "So I went with it."
Walker's friends watched in disbelief as he disappeared off the stern. "My friends on the boat said I looked like the guy in the movie Jaws getting pulled across the surface," Walker said. "Then the fish went under."
Walker, an avid free diver, is used to getting towed under water by big fish. So he kept his wits about him and held on.
"I got down to where I could see the ledge, and I started kicking back to the surface in my rubber boots, still holding on the fish," he said. "I expected that when I got to the surface, somebody would grab the gaff, but the boat wasn't there."
His friends wisely had put the boat in neutral so no props would be turning. After a few tense, awkward moments, they got Walker, the gaff and a 48-pound king on the boat. The fish ended up taking third place in the tournament, which was won by a 62-pounder, and earnings a payout of $16,000.
Walker and his friends kept trying that morning for a bigger king.
"Not long after we hooked a big amberjack but before we could get it in the boat, an 8-foot sandbar shark swam up and ate clean up to the head," Walker said. "I couldn't help but wonder if the shark had been out there watching me fight my fish."