OFF CLEARWATER BEACH — Dave Mistretta scanned the water a mile off the beach for signs of schooling fish.
For weeks, the only bait the charter boat captain could find were glass minnows, a bite-sized species of anchovy that might prove adequate for Spanish mackerel, but they hardly make a meal for the species' larger cousin, kingfish.
"We need something bigger if we want to catch a king," Mistretta told his mate, Morgan Kien. "We only need a handful."
Mistretta, skipper of the Jaws Too, has fished the fall kingfish run for more than 40 years. Kien, son of veteran tournament angler Ron Kien, has been on the water for much of his 24 years.
"His dad started taking him out on the boat when he was 6 months old," Mistretta said. "He'd be sitting there in his baby seat as people caught king after king, just taking it all in."
Yet, despite their more than 60 years of combined experience, the members of Team Yanmar thought they might have been better off just staying in bed.
"We lost two cast nets this morning throwing in the dark," Mistretta said. "That is not a good way to start the day."
But the anglers kept at it. With only a few days left before the final leg the Wild West tournament series, Mistretta needed to find the bait. Because where there's bait, there's kingfish.
Mistretta stopped by a channel marker hoping to catch a couple of blue runners, but he left empty-handed. Then he spotted a bird dive-bombing a school of baitfish and he knew half the battle was won.
"We usually start seeing these big schools of threadfin herring in mid October, but for some reason this year, they didn't show up until now," Mistretta said as he dropped a baitfish into his livewell. "The question now is, do the kingfish know where the bait is?"
Mistretta headed south along the beaches while Kien hooked up a couple of threadfin, known locally as "greenbacks," and tossed them off the transom. It was early, not yet 9 a.m., and the tide was beginning to rip, wreaking havoc with the trolling pattern.
The trick to fishing with live bait is to make the offering appear as natural as possible. Troll too slow and the bait wanders. Troll too fast and the bait looks like it is being dragged.
"You've got to speed up," Kien told Mistretta. "The tide is moving too fast."
However, achieving that precise speed can be difficult when dealing with wind, current and tide. Historically, inboard diesels have been the engines of choice for commercial fishermen, but they have not made great inroads among recreational fishermen.
But a new generation of diesels — clean, quiet and, most of all, responsive — have made it easier for charter boat captains such Mistretta to compete with his outboard brethren.
"In the past, it's been hard to keep the boat at the right speed, which is the secret to successful live-bait fishing," Mistretta said. "But I've got the new electronic trolling valve that lets me adjust the speed with the push of a button."
One-tenth of a percent faster may not seem like much to the average angler, but to a tournament fishermen looking to land a $10,000 kingfish, a little fine-tuning can mean the difference between the winners circle and an empty ice box.
Mistretta quickened his boat two "clicks" on the electronic monitor and that was all it took to trigger a strike. A kingfish grabbed the threadfin closest to the boat and headed for Texas.
The fish peeled off 1,000 yards of line and would have stripped the spool had Mistretta not given chase. After a 15-minute fight, the fish finally came alongside the boat. Then it ran again.
"Just take it easy," Mistretta told the angler on the rod. "That's a big fish."
The king, well over 30 pounds, would be a prize contender in any tournament. But for Mistretta, the fish came a few days too soon.
"It doesn't matter. … There's more where that came from," he said. "Now let's go catch a bigger one."