When men dare tread among kings

No pain, no gain sometimes is the motto when angling for kingfish, but a little homework before setting out makes any aches tolerable.

Published May 5, 2007

Sometimes pain is a good thing - especially when it means success.

In this case, success meant I had connected with my targeted quarry, a feisty Crystal River kingfish. The pain came from the king's sneak attack.

When deploying live bait for slow trolling with conventional reels, it's best to hold your thumb on the spool and apply just enough tension to keep the line from backlashing if the bait makes a sudden dash.

So I'm easing out this live blue runner when suddenly I hear that familiar sound of line screaming off a reel much faster than any baitfish can swim.

Immediately, the pain signals from my thumb reached my brain. This jolted me from my focused stupor just in time to realize I was seconds away from permanent print removal.

In one motion, I pulled my blistered thumb off the spool and flipped the reel in gear.

Now that's a dangerous move, as sudden pressure on the king's delicate mouth can pull hooks loose. Fortunately, my light drag setting allowed the jolt to transfer down the line and my fish stayed connected.

The setup

A morning of coastal fishing off Crystal River found local angler Joe Bertine at the helm while I ran the deck along with Joe Grano, a pal from Sarasota.

We had live pinfish and frozen threadfins for grouper. Plus Bertine had his trusty Mann's Stretch 25 plugs, which tempt grouper and kingfish. But I wanted to hear a reel screaming, so we needed live bait.

We would target a wreck about 14 miles southwest of the Crystal River nuclear power plant, but I asked Bertine first to jog over to a nearby rock reef where I expected to find a variety of kingfish candy.

A few minutes of jigging a No. 8 sabiki rig with a 2-ounce weight produced plenty of squirrelfish, but relocating to a different section of the reef yielded a plump blue runner and a 9-inch cigar minnow.

Knowing I could always return to this spot for more bait, I rigged both for immediate deployment as Bertine set up a trolling pattern toward pods of baitfish flipping near the surface.

For diversity, I rigged the cigar minnow with a chartreuse skirt. We trolled the runner bare.

Nearly intercepted

As I got the second bait set, we spotted a group of dark bodies cruising just inches from the surface about 20 feet off portside.

"Cobia!" I shouted prematurely.

In truth, the brown bombers would have been a very likely sighting over local rock piles. Bertine's closer inspection from a bow perch confirmed our sinking suspicion.

"They're barracuda," he said. "Do you want one of these?"

Had I not been facing aft, my rolling eyes and grimacing scowl would have been sufficient answer. But I confirmed with a disgruntled "No!" and my captain took immediate evasive action.

"Hold on," Bertine shouted as he powered up and ran about 75 yards from the last cuda sighting.

Barracuda do have their place in the ecosystem and they do put up a respectable fight. But we were after kingfish and losing one or both of my only live baits was not worth the fleeting thrill of a rod bent by an unwelcome guest.

As we gained steam, Grano and I quickly retrieved the baits to avoid beating them up in our wake. We dropped them in the well and I instantly realized my mistake.

Fortunately, this tangling did not hurt the baits and I was able to separate the rigs and deploy both of the troublemakers again.

Getting back to the thumb thing, I chose to set out the blue runner first, as this was the heftier bait. I figured I'd keep the cigar minnow close in the prop wash, but I never got the chance.

About 20 feet from the boat, my baitfish had a close encounter of the toothy kind. Burning reel, burning thumb - this is kingfishing.

Up to this point, the mission had run fairly well. But when my kingfish surfaced, the stark realization that we did not have the usual long-handled gaff was chilling.

Working with what we had, Bertine grabbed a short-handled grouper gaff and leaned far over the high gunwale of the 29-foot center console.

With the utmost caution, I led the tired king in a big circle that ended with the fish sliding right under Bertine. As the leader cleared his head, my captain stuck the fish and hoisted him aboard.

A little shaky at the end, but this plan came together with a rewarding conclusion.

Know your quarry, know what it eats, know how to find that food and you'll bag your share of big fish.