Tournament—there’s something about that word that gets the blood moving in many anglers. The competition, the recognition, the camaraderie, and the possible winning purse all combine to make tournament fishing something special.
Many bass anglers have fished in tournaments, from local club events all the way up to FLW and B.A.S.S. sanctioned affairs. But until the early 2000s, saltwater tournaments were almost nil; and the ones that did take place were for what I call “the big boys.”
All that has changed for the saltwater angler, and now even the little guys can enter tournaments and have a chance at winning some big prize money. While inshore events for trout, flounder or red drum are gaining in popularity, the most popular tournaments lately have been for king mackerel.
Kingfish! From spring through fall, they roam the coastal waters of Georgia. From the beach, just behind the breakers to the radar towers 50 miles out and beyond, kingfish can be caught and they garner the attention of more anglers than ever—and of late anglers in smaller boats.
I pre-fished with a boat entered in the Sapelo Open King Mackerel Tournament a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to see just how to go about preparing for a tournament and what it takes to fish one.
The Sapelo Open is a Southern Kingfish Association (SKA) sanctioned event. Put on by the Sapelo Saltwater Fishing Club out of Darien, it is the first of five events this year in SKA’s Division 4 on the Georgia coast, and for this 2006 event there were 128 boats registered.
Prizes in these SKA events range from cash to vehicles to fully rigged boats. The Sapelo Open first-place prize this year is $15,000 cash in the Overall or General Class. Prizes are also awarded for Class of 23, Ladies, Juniors, and Seniors.
“Sea-N-Double” is the boat I fished on the day prior to the tournament. Owned and captained by Jim Mason, the boat’s fishing team included Jim’s brother Tim Mason and their cousin Billy Mason. The four of us headed out from Shellman’s Bluff early on the Friday before the Saturday tournament.
The “Sea-N-Double” is a Pro-Line 23 Sport center-console. Like most kingfish anglers, this team fishes from a center-console. The boat model says 23, but the boat is actually over 23 feet in length from bow to stern along the centerline. In a curious measure, this boat qualifies for the “Class of 23” in SKA-sanctioned tournaments. The boat must be 23 feet or less as measured at the waterline to qualify.
Some makes of boat are quite large above the waterline but still meet the requirements to fish in the lower bracket. This is a definite advantage when the weather kicks up. Heavy seas that keep most 23-foot boats at the dock are still fishable on those “larger” boats in the 23-foot class.
This was the first kingfish trip of the year for the “Sea-N-Double” team. It was designed to attempt to find some fish, ring out their tackle, find any faults with rod, reel or line, and to bring their skills up to par after the off season.
Like many bass-tournament anglers, the team needed a fishing plan. Even if they found no fish on the practice day, they would at least eliminate some water. Fish had been reported far to the south off the Florida coast, and while their boat is capable of making the run on a good day, the forecasted sea conditions precluded that run today and on tournament day.
Running out from Shellman’ s Bluff, we headed for Sapelo Sound. Instead of running out the sound, we took a shortcut into Blackbeard Creek. This creek runs through the island dividing Blackbeard Island from Sapelo Island and comes out on the beach at the south end of Sapelo. Navigable only at high tide, it allowed us to get to the beach area that Jim had planned to look for bait without having to run all the way around the sound.
We came out of the creek and across the several sand bars, looking for pods (schools) of pogeys (menhaden) along the beach toward the southern end of the island at Doboy Sound. A favorite bait of king- fish anglers, mainly because they are so abundant along the beaches in the summer months, these oily shad are also a favorite food fish for the kings.
It only took one cast of the net to haul in several hundred pogeys. Tim Mason threw the 12-foot castnet over the school of bait that was being marked on the boat’ s fishfinder. Most of these pogeys were small, less than five inches long, so Tim dumped the net and released all of them. We were looking for larger bait.
I asked Jim if pogeys could ever be too large. He grinned and said, “Not in our boat—the bigger the better.”
We idled about looking for a school of bait that would have larger fish. Pogeys generally swim in a school on the surface, flipping their tails out of the water and sometimes jumping out of the water. We watched and looked for larger bait.
We did find a school of larger bait. They were not as large as we wanted, but we needed to get lines in the water, so we filled the livewell and headed out toward our first stop at Gray’ s Reef.
On the way out we passed several schools of baitfish swimming along the surface. Even in the relatively heavy seas the telltale surface ripples were visible. We stopped to fish for them, hoping to find some larger bait.
The school we fished over turned out to be threadfin shad — a close relative of the pogey. These “greenies” as they are called were about the same size as the pogeys, but they would allow us to present some variety to our bait spread.
Using Sabiki rigs, we spent about 30 minutes catching baits, usually one or two at a time, but sometimes five or six at a time. A couple of rigs were cut off by larger fish, and we did end up catching a small Spanish mackerel on one rig.
Once we finished catching bait, it was on to Gray’s Reef. Gray’s is about 18 miles off the coast, almost due east of Sapelo Island. It is an area of live bottom and ledges that hold baitfish, bottom fish, and pelagic fish like king mackerel.
Jim had several “numbers” cranked in to his GPS, numbers that put us over some very nice live bot- tom. As Jim pointed out a number of large bottom fish on the Raytheon color fishfinder, I was almost wishing we were on a bottom-fishing trip!
Baits went in the water at 10 a.m., and we began slow-trolling over the area. Slow-trolling means just that—slow. While you want the baits to cover the area, you want them to move as slowly as possible. Pogeys are somewhat delicate as baits go and dragging them through the water shortens their life span considerably. The boat needs to move just fast enough to make headway but slow enough to allow the baits to swim naturally.
In the 15- to 20-knot winds we had, we had to put a canvas sea anchor over the side to slow the boat while we trolled downwind. Trolling into the wind meant kicking the engine speed up to keep the baits in motion.
We rigged and fished three baits. One was fished on the surface about 40 yards behind the boat. One was fished on the surface about 20 yards behind the boat, and one was put about 35 feet down on a downrigger. This bait was clipped to the downrigger and ran about 30 yards behind the downrigger weight.
The pogeys and greenies were hooked sideways right through the tough part of the nose. One rod had a single pogey and the extra hook became a stinger, one that could hook into a king on a short strike. Another rod had two pogeys, one on each hook.
A kingfish skirt was placed ahead of one pogey, and another pogey was trolled “naked” as the term goes.
While we put baits out and before the downrigger could be set up, we had a strike on the downrigger rod. A short fight later we boated a 20-lb. barracuda. Barracudas roam this reef and any other bottom structure and many are caught while trolling.
We knew immediately that we did not have a king on because the initial run was very short. Kingfish hit a bait and make a long powerful first run, stripping as much as 200 yards of line from the reel. Larger kings will make several runs after being brought close to the boat.
The bait rigs we used were pretty standard kingfish rigs. Twenty-four inches of No. 4 leader wire, about 30-lb. test, is attached to two No. 4 treble hooks. The hooks are spaced 6 to 8 inches apart. The first hook is tied directly to the leader wire, usually called the main hook. The second hook, often called a “stinger” hook, is wired 6 to 8 inches behind and trailing the main hook. This is light leader and small hooks—remember that!
We fished with 20-lb. test monofilament line spooled on Penn 545 reels. These reels hold over 400 yards of 20-lb. line, and on a kingfish in the 50-lb. class, you may need every yard of it!
The rods we used were designed for kingfish. Seven feet long with light-action tips, they allow the fish to run and shake without placing excessive stress on the hooks.
Light line—remember? Light line and leaders draw more strikes, are easier to maneuver and generally perform better than heavy ocean gear. Given the light line and small hooks, the drags on the Penn reels are set rather light. The idea is to allow light line and drag to prevent the small treble hooks from pulling out on a big fish. Many very large kingfish have been lost because too much pressure was applied via the drag or the rod action.
Large kings take a long time to fight to the boat. The light drag often means chasing the fish down with the boat to recoup line—more often than not several times. This is where the center-console boats come into play. The angler fighting the fish moves to the bow of the boat, allowing the captain to maneuver the boat wherever the kingfish runs. Many times a boat in the distance can be seen with a lone figure standing on the bow. “Hooked up,” is the term that follows that sighting!
You may notice that multiple people are aboard a kingfish tournament boat. Each person has a job, and they act as a team. The captain drives and maneuvers the boat, never actually fighting a fish. One person is usually in charge of the bait—either catching it or placing it. In our case, Tim was the bait person, and a master at it! One person is usually in charge of fighting the fish, and another in charge of gaffing the fish. On a four-man team, this gives everyone a responsibility. If any one of them fails, the team fails.
As soon as a fish strikes a bait, everyone moves into high gear and performs a specific job. The fighter, in our case Billy, takes the rod and heads to the bow of the boat. The captain, Jim, turns the boat, slowly at first, to put the fish on the bow. As that takes place, the other two team members are quickly cranking in the other lines and winding up the downriggers to clear the water.
At that point, depending on the size of the fish, it becomes a battle from the bow of the boat, following the hooked fish and waiting for him to tire. Remember, that’s 20-lb. line and small treble hooks—you cannot horse a hooked kingfish.
Once at the boat, the fish is gaffed and quickly placed in a specially designed ice bag. The ice bags help prevent weight loss by keeping the fish cold and wet. Big fish can lose a pound or more before being weighed if they are not handled properly.
We caught one small kingfish on this trip—too small for any tournament purpose. But as a team, the “Sea- N-Double” was able to hone their skills and eliminate water where they did not find kingfish. Their plan for tournament day was to head far off- shore, perhaps 50 miles, to deeper water. The winds were forecast to lay down some from their 20 knots, allowing them to make that run in less than three hours.
The “Sea-N-Double” was set for tournament day. Barring any change in wind forecast they stood a good chance of weighing a good fish. What I learned on this trip was some information that you can use to enter a kingfish tournament on your own.
I’ve seen kingfish tournaments won in boats as small as 15 feet in length. Two years ago, a 17-foot Carolina Skiff with an entire family aboard won a major tournament. You can do the same in good weather. Just follow these basic tips!