It takes a big king mackerel, the kind that will smoke the drag on a fishing reel, to win a major fishing tournament.
But that's exactly what Billy Miller caught last weekend to win the King of the Beach.
Miller’s team, Lucky Strike, took home more than $25,000 in total winnings at the event based in Madeira Beach. The King of the Beach draws more than 400 boats, making it the largest tournament of its kind in Florida.
The tournament, now in its 20th year, has long been known as an “everyman’s” event. The Old Salts Fishing Club keeps the playing field level by limiting the westward boundary to 30 miles offshore, which means the anglers in little boats have just as good a chance to win as those in big boats..
Anglers can run as far north as Cedar Key and as far south as Boca Grande Pass, but if you're thinking about sneaking off to catch a 60-pounder in the Dry Tortugas, forget about it. With a $20,000 first prize on the line, the winner can be asked to take a lie detector test.
But while kingfish don’t care how big your boat is, the size of your bait is another story. Every fall, these open-water predators pass by local beaches on their seasonal migration, gobbling up everything they can find, to help fuel their journey.
In the Gulf of Mexico, king mackerel spend the summer near the mouth of the Mississippi River. When the weather turns cool, about half of the population heads west and then south along the coast of Texas to winter off the Yucatan Peninsula.
The rest of the fish swim east and then south along Florida's beaches to the waters off Key West.
Anglers started catching the first southern-swimming kings off Naples in early October. But at that same time, fishermen still were catching kings off the Panhandle.
November is usually the peak month for big kings on the Suncoast, although the schools can arrive as early as October or linger as late as December. From here they travel down to the Florida Keys where the fishing will be good all winter long.
While king mackerel can be caught on artificial lures, most successful tournament anglers fish exclusively with live or natural bait. The baits of choice, at least in the Gulf, are large blue runners.