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The bigger the better


© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 19, 2001

NOKOMIS -- Big boats. Big baits. Big fish.

"You might only get one chance," Tony Ballam warned. "Be ready for a fight."

[Times photo: Terry Tomalin]
A group of anglers stops 26 miles offshore and fills its live wells with blue runners caught using gold-hook rigs near a buoy.
It seemed like just minutes before we were standing on the dock at the marina admiring the new Dorado 40 that Ballam and his skipper, Gary Mahle, had rigged for blue-water fishing.

Like many anglers, I dread long trips offshore, and that's because I usually make them in small boats. When you run all out

for a couple of hours in a 20-footer, even a light chop can leave you bruised and battered.

But this journey had been different.

The big, wide 40-footer was built for comfort and speed.

"I have nearly doubled my fuel economy without sacrificing any speed," said Mahle, a Sarasota charter-boat captain. "The boat also rides nice, which is important when you do back-to-back charters in one day."

With that said, I hunkered down on a cushioned bench for what I thought would be a long, rough trip offshore. About 45 minutes later, the mate tapped my shoulder and said it was time to catch bait.

"We're looking for blue runners," Mahle said. "The bigger the better."

The water boiled as the predators ripped through the schools of baitfish that clung to the weather buoy for safety 26 miles offshore. It took about 10 minutes to fill the live well, then it was back to my cushion for another hour or so of shut-eye.

"The first bait usually gets hit by the biggest fish," the mate Ballam said as he roused me from my slumber. "And if you are not ready, it will take you down into the spring and break you off on the rocks."

The freshwater, located in 140 feet of water 44 miles offshore, was an oasis of life in the usually barren desert of the Gulf of Mexico.

As Mahle readied a rod, I tried to explain that I usually wasn't so sleepy.

"I've got a sick 4-month-old at home," I said. "He kept me up most of the night."

The hungry amberjack waiting below, they said, would accept no excuses.

So I dropped the blue runner over the side and let it sink slowly to the bottom. I counted to myself, trying to picture the bait as it screamed through schools of hungry fish on its way to the bottom. Then I felt a bump, so I locked the reel in gear and gave a big heave to set the hook.

"Wow, this fish has some size to it," I said as the rod bent toward the water. "It feels like I'm snagged."

That's when Ballam and Mahle started to laugh.

"You're not snagged," Mahle said. "Just hold on ... the fish doesn't know that it is hooked."

I pulled back hard on the rod and regained a few feet of line, but then the monster started pulling back, and it took everything I had to stay on my feet.

"What a beast," I grunted. "Good thing we're not on a wreck."

I had fought big fish before, only to lose them to the jagged edges of rusted metal 100 feet below. But I had confidence in the stout rod and 50-pound test line. And with each crank of the reel handle, I knew the distance between us was getting smaller.

"My back feels like it's going to snap," I said as I tried to horse the fish off the bottom. "This thing must weigh 100 pounds."

Ballam smiled. "No, maybe 70," he said.

That was when the amberjack got a second wind and took back all the line I had fought so hard to retrieve. I held the rod, my feet braced against the side, then suddenly the line went limp.

"Must have taken you down into the spring," Mahle said.

Thoroughly whipped, I handed the rod off to the next angler at-bat. Fortunately, the next fish was a little smaller and a lot more agreeable.

"You're up," Ballam said, handing me the rod.

This time, I was ready and turned the amberjack before it had a chance to get up a head of steam. We caught two or three more fish, all in the 20- to 30-pound range, then the sharks and barracudas arrived and made a mess of everything.

"I know where we can go catch some grouper," Ballam said. "It is pretty much a sure thing."

I stowed my rod in the rod-holder and went straight for the cushion before somebody else could get to it. I told my friends that I could use the rest.

Kingfish time

The top 40 teams in the Southern Kingfish Association's Pro Tour will compete this weekend in the Pro Tour World Championship at Gators on the Pass, (727) 367-8951, in Treasure Island. At stake is a total purse of more than $95,000 with a $30,000 first prize.

Upcoming tournaments

OCT. 28: Fall Kingfish Classic, Billy's Stonecrab, Tierra Verde, (727) 542-3900.

NOV. 1-4: 11th annual Suncoast Kingfish Classic, Kingfish Wharf, Treasure Island, (727) 363-0071.

NOV. 8-11: Third annual Suncoast Kingfish Classic, Holiday Inn Harborside, Indian Rocks Beach.

NOV. 10: Captain's Invitational Kingfish Tournament, Hurricane Pass Angler's Club, Home Port Marina, Ozona, (727) 785-3018.

NOV. 15-17: Old Salt King of the Beach Kingfish Tournament, Crabby Bill's, Indian Rocks Beach, (727) 319-0568.

NOV. 24: Thanksgiving Kingfish Shootout, Billy's Stonecrab, Tierra Verde.

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