© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2002
CRYSTAL BEACH -- John Akers wanted to make one thing perfectly clear.
"We are not professional fishing guides, make no mistake about it," the captain of the Mutual $ Fun fishing team said. "And we don't know everything there is to know about kingfishing."
With that said, Akers shoved off from the dock and headed to deep water.
"One thing we have found is that prefishing really helps us when it comes to tournaments," he said. "It doesn't necessarily tell us where the big fish are, but at least we know where they aren't."
Akers and friends Phil Voelkel and Jeff Robinson have been fishing local kingfish tournaments for several years. They know they are not going to get rich, but a weekend tournament at least gives them an excuse to get together and fish.
"We know that twice in the fall and twice in the spring we are going to make time in our busy schedules for a tournament," Akers said. "And that makes it all worthwhile."
On this particular Thursday morning, the anglers checked out a spot in 60 feet of water they thought might hold big fish.
"It pays to have a game plan," Akers said. "That way we don't waste a lot of time running all over the place."
Each team member knows his job, so there is no confusion when a big fish hits.
"I drive the boat," Robinson said.
"I come up with a strategy and work the lines," Akers said. "Phil's job is to whine and complain."
Voelkel laughed. "And give John a hard time when things aren't working out," he added.
A sense of humor, Akers said, is just as important as a solid game plan, hence the team name Mutual $ Fun.
It didn't take long for the Fun guys to put a fish in the boat, a respectable 20-pounder, but certainly not a tournament winner.
But two days later, their preparation, persistence and patience paid off.
After prefishing the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before the $100,000 Grand Ole Opry King Mackerel Tournament, Akers and crew hit a promising spot north of the traditional fishing grounds.
"During the week we had eliminated a number of spots and eventually found some better quality fish," Akers said. "On Saturday, we caught a 20-pounder, so we knew we were in the right area."
Late that afternoon, Akers was ridding the live well of dead bait. He grabbed a big blue runner that had seen finer days and tossed it in the prop wash.
"The water was real clear, then this huge kingfish came out of nowhere and ate it," Akers said. "So we set up another spread of baits and got another good hit. The fish took a long run, but it missed the stinger."
That's when the Mutual $ Fun team decided it would return the next day and concentrate on big baits for big fish.
About 9:45 a.m. Sunday they hooked up and put a 26-pounder in the boat. The fish moved them up on the leaderboard, but it was too small to win any real money.
"We put another spread out and caught a fish well over 30 pounds," Akers said. "We were running low on big baits. But we had one big runner left, so we put it out there and it got hit by the 37-pounder."
With that, the team headed back to the dock. It weighed in its fish at 1:30 p.m.
"We were leading until 2:50," Akers said. "Then we got knocked back to second place."
But second was worth $15,000.
How do three regular guys wind up being contenders?
"When we are not on the boat fishing we are desktop fishing," Akers said. "We are always on the Internet looking at maps, trying to figure out where the fish are, learning everything we can."
Akers credits captains Dave Mistretta and Ed Walker for sharing tournament tips over the years. For tackle advice, the team relies on Dave Garringer and Matt Baldwin of Fisherman's World in Holiday.
"A lot of guys are real cryptic and won't tell you anything," Akers said. "But we have gotten a lot of help from some good people and that really helps."
Akers has some advice for other tournament fishermen new to the sport.
"Pre-fish, have a game plan and keep a log book of what works and what doesn't," he said. "And pay attention to detail. The difference between winning and losing is often very subtle."
Good, frisky, live bait also is important. The Mutual $ Fun anglers' motto is "We hold no bait back." If they run out of bait, they find some more.
And don't be afraid to try something new.
Akers has experimented with light wire leader, long shank hooks and colored line.
"We'd even wear camouflage clothes on the boat if we thought that would help," he joked. "We will do whatever it takes."