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To catch a King

It takes more than luck.

By RODNEY PAGE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- So, you plan on entering a kingfish tournament, one of those big ones that pop up every spring and fall on the Gulf Coast with big prizes like a new boat or $100,000?

How hard can it be to spend a day on the water trolling for fish? Anyone with a sturdy boat and a line in the water has a chance, right?

Well ...

There is a reason the same names wind up on the leaderboard of the big tournaments such as the King of the Beach, the Grand Ole Opry or this weekend's Suncoast Kingfish Classic off John's Pass. While there is some luck involved in fishing, those who take it seriously will tell you it is more skill and preparation than anything else.

Jay Mastry, a St. Petersburg native who has fished bay area waters since he could hold a pole, is one who always seems to be on the leaderboard. Mastry is entered in this weekend's tournament, and his preparation began some time ago.

He recently shared some of his secrets to success.

Scouting the territory

Being a local has its advantages. Mastry says he will start fishing the Gulf of Mexico a week before a tournament begins. He may head south off Sarasota/Bradenton, hit the Egmont Key shipping channel or head north toward Anclote Key.

The key is trying to find where the kings are running, punching the numbers into the Global Positioning System and moving to another spot to find more. Mastry says he can't hit all the hot spots, which is why he counts on help from his friends.

"Obviously, you can't cover every area you want to cover by yourself," he says. "It's sure nice to have a network of friends that you can also count on that can cover other areas you can't. That's part of what my team does. If I'm covering one area, they can bridge around and cover another area. That's networking."

Setting the trap

Mastry has a simple philosophy when it comes to catching the big one: "They didn't get big by being dumb."

Gathering live bait is at the top of his list. He shies away from spoons and other lures.

"As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing more important than gathering the bait," Mastry says. "You have to understand, a whole lot of us are out there doing the same thing. Very rarely anymore do you go to a spot where you're by yourself. We have to have something that's a little better than that guy over there. And at tournament time, it's big bait."

The bigger the bait, the bigger the fish. Mastry says he will start fishing for bait at 2 a.m. for a tournament that starts at 6.

Ideally, Mastry wants fresh bait -- blue runners, ladyfish, mullet or mackerel. He will net the bait near bridges or pylons. Or he will use a Sabiki rig, a series of tiny gold hooks that attract baitfish.

As a backup, Mastry says he also will have some precaught bait in his live well in case he is skunked the morning of the tournament.

Mackerel is the best bait, but they must be caught in the open water and put on the kingfish rig immediately.

"I'll have a rod rigged just in case we catch a mackerel," Mastry says. "They're the best, but they won't live in a bait well. They have to be put right on the hook."

Attention to detail

Is the rod in good shape? Is the line frayed? Is the drag set properly? Is there a backup in case the live well breaks?

Mastry doesn't like to take any chances. If the fish wins, he wants it to earn it. His nightmare is losing a fish because of something that can be prevented. He uses 16- to 20-pound test and puts baits at different depths. He also places a treble hook off the end of the bait in case the kingfish hits only the bait's tail.

Mastry tells anglers never to set the hook on a kingfish, which have small mouths and tender flesh.

"You're not going to get a second chance to catch a 40-pounder," Mastry says. "When you get that one shot, you better not screw it up. You better put on new riggings. You've got to constantly be looking for things. Some guys say it was bad luck; well, was it bad luck or did you create the bad luck?"

Patience, patience, patience

This is not grouper fishing. Kingfish eat when they want to, so pack a lunch and enjoy the ride.

"It's boring and sometimes you have to grind it out," Mastry says. "If you don't get it done early, it can be a long day. By about noon, you're thinking, "Golly, why am I here?' But if you get that one bite, that's all that matters. You forget about the rest of it."

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