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Ignore bad weather. Scoff at bad luck. When it's tournament time and you're on the trail of kingfish, there is ... no time to spare

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 2000


CLEARWATER HARBOR -- Thick fog smothered the dock lights like a wet blanket on a campfire. Checkout time for the kingfish tournament was an hour away, but with visibility in the Intracoastal Waterway measured in feet, not yards, it was questionable whether Team War Party would make it there at all.

photo
[Times photo: Terry Tomalin]
Paul Lokey holds up a bonito that put up quite a battle during a recent trip off Clearwater Harbor.
But Paul Lokey didn't care.

"Just don't tell me the score," the Seminoles fan declared. "I had to go to sleep before the game was over. I'll watch the tape when we get back tonight."

War Party weighed in a 20-pounder on Saturday, the first day of the Suncoast Kingfish Classic, but Lokey and his two teammates knew they would need a fish that weighed at least 10 pounds more to make the leaderboard.

"Keep an eye out for the channel marker," Lokey told his teammates as they inched their way through the pea soup. "We should be right on top of it."

Pat O'Connell and Larry Ray Spencer scanned the water for the wooden piling, but saw nothing. "It should be right ahead," Lokey said, his eyes fixed on the radar and GPS plotter screens.

Then O'Connell pointed to the left. "Eleven o'clock," he said. "Hard right."

They slipped past the channel marker and Lokey gave a nod of thanks to his friend. It always pays to have an extra set of eyes, especially when it is tournament time and the money is on the line.

But that is what tournament fishing is all about -- teamwork. Two are too few. Four are too many. Unless, of course, one is a reporter. Then make him cut bait all day.

"Those shad really do smell bad," Spencer would later declare. "But you are doing a fine job. Keep up the good work."

As the sun crept slowly above the horizon, the chum slick spread out across the surface, letting the kings, cudas and macks know that a meal was only a short swim away. Lokey rigged the largest of the ladyfish from the live well and tossed it off the stern.

"If there is a big one out there, this will do the trick," Lokey said as he let the bait fly. "All we need is one fish."

One bait. One fish. That's the bottom line.

You don't need a $100,000 boat or 20 years of experience to win a kingfish tournament. You just need to be in the right place at the right time.

"There was a couple from Michigan who won two in a row last year," Lokey said. "They had never fished a tournament before. It just goes to show you that anybody can win one of these things."

Lokey will be the first to admit that when he, O'Connell and Spencer first hit the tournament trail, they hadn't the faintest idea of what they were doing.

"We would troll anything out there behind the boat," he said. It took time, but they learned to match the hatch, and offer only the freshest baits to the discriminating king mackerel. Which brings us back to the ladyfish.

The tender morsel wasn't out more than a minute when the spinning rod began to scream. Lokey grabbed the rod and ran to the bow. Spencer followed, gaff in hand, while O'Connell handled the wheel and chased the fish.

By the length and sound of the run, the fish probably weighed at least 30 pounds, heavy enough to make a respectable showing at the weigh-in. But Team War Party would never know. After a 15-minute fight, the fish, whatever it was, tail-whipped the line and went back to feeding on the copious quantities of chum the reporter had deposited in the water.

"That is what kills me," Lokey said. "You fight a fish and lose it. If there was only a way to know how much it weighed."

But Lokey wouldn't let it happen again. The next time a fish grabbed a bait, the angler refused to admit defeat, even when the fish tangled the line around an anchor chain.

"Cut the line with your teeth," somebody yelled. "Reel it in by hand."

So like Santiago in Old Man and the Sea, Lokey battled the fish, foot by foot, until finally, he saw the animal's shining body a few feet below the surface.

"Oh, no," he yelled. "It's just a bonito!"

The fish may not have been a tournament-winning king, but unlike the Florida State game, at least he knew the score.

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