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Kingfish hunt is all about teamwork

It was mid-March and the king mackerel, or kingfish, weren’t biting yet in the Gulf of Mexico off St. Petersburg, Fla. That was the word at Mastry’s Bait and Tackle. So my friend, Wally Szeezil, and I postponed our much-anticipated fishing trip — the first of the year.

It was mid-March and the king mackerel, or kingfish, weren’t biting yet in the Gulf of Mexico off St. Petersburg, Fla. That was the word at Mastry’s Bait and Tackle. So my friend, Wally Szeezil, and I postponed our much-anticipated fishing trip — the first of the year.

The report from Mastry’s improved. The next weekend arrived, but so did a 15-20 mph northwest wind. I called Wally on the eve of the outing after checking the NOAA Web site: small-craft advisory until 11 p.m. It would be foolish to fish in that kind of wind, we concluded. Oh, his boat — a 26-foot Glacier Bay catamaran — could have delivered us in relative comfort to the fishing grounds 15 miles offshore. The boat, a 1997 Canyon Runner center console with twin 140-hp Suzuki four-strokes, boasts one of the best head-sea rides in the business. But this was just too much wind to fish.

Trip No. 2 down went down the drain. By now our fishing itch had morphed into a full-blown rash.

Three days later — on a Wednesday — Wally phoned and said he was going the next day, no matter what. I told him I would be there, no matter what.

I arrived at Wally’s at 6:30 a.m. He had hooked the boat/trailer to the truck the night before. After a few minutes of small talk and a quick handshake, we hopped in the truck and were under way.

Many anglers in Florida prefer trailering a boat over a slip or a mooring.

“You have the freedom to fish in different areas,” says Wally, 45, who hauls to the Keys just about every year to fish and lobster. “And with gas prices, it’s cheaper to trailer and drop than run by water.”

Off we go

Wally’s 1996 Ford F-250 uses all 205 horses to pull the 9,500-pound cat with trailer up and over the 5.5-mile Sunshine Skyway Bridge and onto the Fort DeSoto Park boat ramp. Here, we meet up with Wally’s longtime fishing mates, “Big” John Williams, 52, and “Little” John, or “L.J.” Wesley, 38, who both work at Wally’s dry-cleaning business in St. Pete. The only thing they want to clean on this day is a couple kingfish.

It’s about 7 a.m., just early enough to catch bait and get to the first spot.

I hop on the boat and take the helm. Wally pushes her into the drink and we head west.

Like any successful fisherman, Wally takes meticulous care of his rods, reels, tackle, tools, boat and engine(s). If Felix Unger owned a boat, it would look like this one. My friend has custom-made canvas covers for the Glacier Bay, the outboards and even the gosh-darn wheels of his trailer.

The cat is clean, but also customized with certain additions — and subtractions. On the plus side is the 45-gallon live well that sits on the boarding platform between the engines. It’s a jury-rig setup, no doubt. He picked up the live well tank at Boater’s World for a little more than $300 and installed it himself with oversized hoses and fitting. Wally cut a 2-inch-diameter drain hole and installed a powerful 1,100-gallon-per-hour pump to ensure a healthy flow of water. “Most bait wells that come with boats have these three-quarter-inch or one-inch-diameter drain holes. It’s ridiculous,” says Wally. “The water can’t drain out fast enough and be replaced with fresh water. In the summer, the water in the live well gets warm. If the bait is in there too long, it dies.”

The weight of a full tank and a couple cords hooked from the tank to the transom keep the unit secured to the platform. For lobstering trips, it can easily be detached and removed.

The Glacier Bay’s original live well was part of the boat’s leaning post. Wally swapped this live well/leaning post with a Birdsall Marine leaning post without a live well. He prefers to house the bait in the aft portion of the cockpit to make it easier to dump bait from a cast net into the well.

The cast net can get tangled in the rod holders that usually accompany leaning posts, says Wally. “It’s not only all the stuff on the leaning post,” he says. “The T-top above limits your space to hold the cast net while trying to get all the bait out of it. You’ll only have to do it once to see how much easier a transom live well is to deal with.”

In addition to the leaning post, Wally removed the boat’s thigh-high bow rail. It was getting in the way too often when fish pulled anglers to the bow.

Into the Gulf

We face 2- to 3-foot seas with a 10-mph northeast wind as we cruise at 23 mph through Bunces Pass and into the Gulf. The Glacier Bay, with its twin hulls and high freeboard, is noticeably tippy in a following sea (and with the sea on the beam and when adrift). Its side-to-side movement was a problem for the previous owner. “He tied lines from the T-top to the stern cleats, so they could hang on [when fishing],” says Wally.

Wally likes the Glacier Bay’s head-sea ride and huge cockpit (“You could park a small car in it”), but he’s ready for a boat that’s not so tender. “My kids and wife get seasick,” he says. He’s fond of Contenders and was scheduled to test out a 27 at press time.

“Boats have pros and cons,” says Wally, who has also skippered a 26-foot Calcutta cat and a 23-foot SeaCraft. “I’m ready for a change.”

Sabiki rods

Many Tampa Bay area anglers catch their live bait around the Skyway State Fishing Piers. In 1994, the state turned the remains of the old Tampa Bay Bridge — damaged by a barge and demolished in the 1980s — into two fishing piers. The piers are the longest in the world and pack tons of bait. But the scaled sardines found here are too small for our purposes. We need some meaty Spanish sardines and cigar minnows. The offshore kingfish are feeding on them, so it only made sense to catch a couple dozen.

And we do, using Sabiki jigs — a series of miniature hooks with pieces of fish skin attached. These rigs can easily get tangled on the rod’s line guides when fishing or in storage. Enter the Sabiki rod. (Wally has three of them.) These $80 seven-foot rods are long hollow tubes — with no eyes — that swallow the entire jig when fully retrieved. The rods can be used with any type of spinning reel.

“The idea behind the Sabiki rod is to allow small boaters to have rods with Sabiki rigs ready and set to go without having the exposed hooks and having people — particularly children — get snagged,” says Larry Mastry, owner of Mastry’s Bait and Tackle.

The best part about Sabiki rods, for me anyway, is knowing that anglers without them on other boats are looking over at you with envy.

At navigational marker No. 2 in the shipping channel, a mass of bait gathers under the buoy.

Everyone on board has a job. Wally and Big John work the Sabiki rods, Little John unhooks the baits and deposits them in the well as they came aboard, and I man the helm. The driver must keep the boat as close to the buoy as possible without smashing into it. With a strong current and wind, I find this challenging, but the Edson knob on the Glacier Bay’s steering wheel helps.

With about 35 baits in the well, I motor away from the marker. We begin a slow troll — about 1 to 2 mph — with four lines in the water. The professional jury-rigger has constructed a pair of homemade outriggers with two 14-foot surfcasting rods. After running the baited line though the release clips on the ends of the Wal-Mart specials, the “outriggers” are placed in horizontal T-top rod holders that face outboard.

The three other rods are 7-footers with spinning reels and 20-pound test monofilament line connected to rigs designed to catch quick-striking fish with sharp teeth. The “stinger” rigs consist of 24 inches of No. 3 wire with a Mustad model 9174 2/0 livebait hook that is run though the sardine’s nostrils. The stinger is the 4 inches of additional wire with a treble hook on the end that hangs feely and often catches short-striking kings. Before the trip, Wally strung up two dozen stinger rigs, and placed each in a plastic Ziploc bag.

We let out about 100 feet of line from each reel. It’s not critical that you hold the rod. It can stay in a rod holder until a fish hits. Setting the hook is unnecessary.

All about the action

There’s little talk. Everyone watches the rods. Little John says, “Come on now, I’m ready for some fish. I expected to have one by now.”

Three kingfish strike one after the other within 30 seconds. Wally grabs a rod, then Big John, then Little John. I throw the engines into neutral and grab the gaff. “Hooking up … that’s what it’s all about,” says L.J.

I’m not so great with the gaff, so Wally sets his rod — with fish on — in the rod holder and gaffs LJ’s fish, then hands the gaff to him. (LJ is the self-proclaimed master gaffer.) We get the two other fish on board. They’re from 5 to 10 pounds, pretty much what we’re shooting for.

We want action — lots of fish. They don’t have to be behemoths. The guys who compete in the Southern Kingfish Association go for the big kings, says Wally, and they fish closer to shore.

“Chris, this one’s all you,” says Big John, pointing to the rod with the screaming reel. I put down my reporter’s notebook and get to work. The five-minute fight ends in mild disappointment. It’s a Bonito, about 7 pounds. We release him.

The fish keep feeding. I get a couple kingfish, bringing our tally up to about five. We can relax a little now. It’ll rank as a decent day even if we’re skunked from here on in.

We fish only two rods now. Big John begins to talk about how much he wants to catch a fish on his rod (all the others are Wally’s). “I want to hear her sing,” says Big John, speaking of the “zzz” sound of a fish ripping line from a reel. (Yes, he refers to his rig as a female and also as “my baby.”)

Wally needles him. “When’s the last time you replaced your line on your baby?”

“A year,” says Big John.

“You sure you want a fish on that line?” says Wally. “It’s probably brittle as hell.”

John shrugs him off.

He brings up a story about the time he, LJ and Wally were fishing for kings with two downriggers out. Some “thing” hit the 8-pound lead downrigger ball, which was about 60 feet below the surface. “We’ll never know what it was,” says Big John. Wally guesses the lead-eater was probably a shark or goliath grouper.

The action with the live bait has slowed so much that we try trolling with some lures. After about 20 minutes without a bite, we bag the artificials and go back to live bait. But we move the cat to another location, where we begin to catch fish again.

I get hit as I’m letting line out — which is cool. The bait is only 30 feet from the boat when I flip the bale and begin the fight. The kings seem smarter, however, evading hooks by chomping baits in half and then fleeing. This gives me a chance to learn how to use the wire straightener, a folded-over piece of aluminum about the size of a matchbook used to remove the kinks in the wire after a fish has wrestled with it.

The boat has met its limit of two kingfish per angler, with a minimum size of 24 inches. Wally reminds us we’re now in catch-and-release mode. The gaff will remain tucked in its home along the gunwale.

John’s reel sings, and he pulls it out of the holder. The fish leads him on tour around the boat. He tires quickly. A recent stroke has weakened his right arm, so he hands the fish to LJ. He does a superb job of getting the fish to the boat. It’s a big one, and the crew begins shouting out predictions of its weight.

I’m worried about getting this fish on board. The net we have is too small, so Wally will have to grab him by the tail. With the high gunwales of the Glacier Bay, Wally has to hang over the side until his feet leave the deck. I grab his ankles so he doesn’t fall in. After a few passes — and few curse words — he grabs the fish.

He’s 43 pounds and the biggest kingfish they’ve ever landed.

“A guy could fish his entire lifetime around here and not get a fish like that,” says Mastry. “It’s no record breaker, but a damn good fish.” (The world record is 93 pounds; the Florida state record is 90 pounds.)

Wally and John work quickly to remove the hook, throw a rope around the fish’s tail, weigh it and pose for a Kodak moment. Upon release, the king struggles a bit, but regains his strength and swims away.

High-fives all around. Teamwork — and the rod with the brittle line — brings home the best fish of the day.