By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
Large baits and long chum lines produce winning mackerel.
When Kevin Schmidt started fishing tournaments four years ago, he longed for the day he would see his boat's name on the leaderboard.
"I learned pretty quick that if I wanted to finish on top, I'd have to step up my game," said Schmidt, whose team, Fish Attack, leads the Southern Kingfish Association's Division 6 point standings.
There are few secrets on the kingfish tournament trail. Most anglers fish the same spots with the same equipment and the same bait.
"Once you get to that level, whether or not you catch the winning fish is really a matter of luck," said Schmidt, whose team includes his father, Bill, brother Will and friends Randy Stewart and David Miller. "The trick is making sure you get to that level."
Schmidt said what has helped Fish Attack turn the corner was refining its trolling technique.
"Without giving away the farm, I will tell you the two things that matter most: bait and chum," Schmidt said.
The strategy has paid off for Fish Attack. In the spring the anglers weighed a 35-pounder to take sixth in the Clearwater's Boaters World Tournament and a 40-pounder to win the Treasure Island Charities tournament at the Holiday Inn Harborside at Indian Rocks Beach.
Schmidt hopes his team continues its winning ways this weekend when the action continues at Gators Cafe and Saloon in the last Treasure Island Charities event of the kingfish season.
Schmidt's team spends a full day before a tournament looking for big blue runners, the choice bait for many competitors.
"Big baits catch big fish," Schmidt said. "But not everybody knows where to find big bait."
But bait alone is not the solution.
"Another thing that makes a difference is chum," he said. "We won't be fishing unless we have a block (of chum) in the water."
Not all chum is created equal. Some anglers their own, but Schmidt buys his off the shelf, "never the cheap stuff."
In some areas of the gulf such as the Clearwater hard bottom, where anglers often anchor instead of slow-trolling, a good chum slick often makes the difference.
Jay Mastry, a St. Petersburg angler who has won several West Coast tournaments, shares Schmidt's enthusiasm for big baits.
Mastry said he used to watch Gene Turner, a the legendary angler, sit in the same place all day, then show up at a weigh-in with a winning fish.
"Gene always had big bait," Mastry said. "You can sit there all day and wait for one hit. But when it comes, it is usually a big one."
Mastry recently removed the 50-gallon livewell from his boat and installed a 100-gallon monster in its place.
"I'll go out and catch 30 ladyfish, each one 18 inches long, and keep them alive all day," Mastry said. "Those baits work particularly well along the (Egmont) shipping channel, and experience has taught us that is where the big fish are."
It is no secret that the "90-Foot Hole" off Egmont Key has produced its share of winning kingfish. Mastry has caught three smokers of 51, 44 and 38 pounds within a quarter mile of the hole.
On a busy tournament weekend, it's common to see two or three dozen boats fishing within a few hundred yards of the popular spot.
But knowing where to fish and knowing when to fish are different things.
"You can sit there all day and not get a bite," Mastry said. "But if you have a big bait out there and there is a big king in the area, it will get hit."
Not everybody is willing to spend eight hours in one spot, but that kind of patience, Mastry said, is what it takes to win.
"If you can sell your crew on that game plan, it will often pay off," Mastry said. "You may only get one shot. You have to be ready."
In the end, it might be more than luck that determines a tournament winner.
"I think if you do everything right," he said, "you make your own luck."
Tournaments Because king mackerel are present in this area's waters about two months each year, a month in the spring and another in the fall, kingfish tournaments are anticipated events for local anglers each November. Here's a list of tournaments this month, some for novices, some for experts:
Treasure Island Charities provides the first area tournament this month, the 14th annual Loadmaster Suncoast Kingfish Classic, which starts at 7 tonight with a captains meeting at Gators Cafe and Saloon at Treasure Island. The weigh-in is Sunday at the Kingfish Wharf at Treasure Island. For information call 363-0071.
The 11th annual Fall King of the Beach tournament, sponsored by the Old Salt Fishing Club, is November 13. There is a captains meeting at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Madeira Beach softball fields. Fishing is Nov. 13, and the weigh-in is from 4-5 p.m., also at the ball fields. This tournament draws serious anglers. Top prize is $10,000, and payouts extend to 25th place. The team that finishes 25th wins a Triton 1650 boat with trailer and a 60-horsepower motor. For information call 497-1060.
While not local, the Southern Kingfish Association national championship takes place November 18-21 in Biloxi, Miss. Several local anglers will try to win this prestigious tournament, the last big event of the season. Contact the SKA at (904) 819-0360.
For those not burned out on kingfish, Billy Moore offers the Billy's Stonecrab Thanksgiving Kingfish Shootout on November 27. The captains meeting is Nov. 26 at Billy's Stonecrab Restaurant in Tierra Verde. Entry fee is $100 per boat. Contact Billy Moore at (727) 542-3900 for information.