Kingfish Tournament, Family Style
The Veals spend their recreational time offshore chasing big kings.
The twin Yamaha 250s on the back of the big Contender offshore rig screamed as they came out of the water. In the next second the boat crashed into a 4-foot swell and leapt forward, at 45 mph, to meet the next wave which hit the bow almost immediately. We were racing back to the Darien waterfront to the tournament weigh-in with a 20-lb. kingfish on board. The storm had blown up suddenly, and we didn’t have any choice but to push hard in our race against the clock. After a 45-minute hair-raising ride, we entered the harbor and made the deadline with about five minutes to spare.
The world of competitive offshore angling is often viewed as distant and intimidating by those outside the sport. It is a world of BIG boats in BIG water chasing BIG fish for BIG prize money. It isn’t unusual for competitors to travel 100 miles or more to reach their special spot and then have to race back to meet the weigh-in deadline. For years the participants in these tournaments have been perceived as a tight-knit group of guys, living on the edge, and blasting through rough seas in conditions that are often uncomfortable and sometimes downright dangerous. To some degree that is still the case, but in the last few years the mix of participants has begun to change. Now there are female teams, as well as families, that work the circuit and compete very effectively for the elusive prize money. On this trip the group aboard included Todd Veal of Waycross and his partner Tom Whittingslow of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., along with Todd’s wife, Kelly, and their two sons, Dillon, 12, and Rhett, 11. I rode along to see how they approached a kingfish tournament.
We were fishing Captain Hap’s kingfish tournament out of Darien, a stop on the Southern Kingfish Association Trail, and the experience helped change my image of the sport. The Veals are tournament regulars on the SKA tournament trail and fish virtually all of the Division 4 (Georgia) events.
Todd has been fishing kingfish tournaments for more than 15 years. In the early days he fished with regular partners, a couple who still fish with him today on occasion. When Todd married Kelly she had been raised as an angler and was ready to go. When the boys came along they joined in the fray. Todd and Kelly introduced the boys to fishing at about age 4 (both inshore and offshore), and the Veals started tournament fishing as a family in 2002. They have done quite well for themselves. The Veals finished first in their division in 2002 and again in 2006, and Kelly and the boys have won multiple Lady and Junior Angler of the Year titles — not bad for a family of four in this rough-and-tumble game. Todd says that even though the tournament environment can be intense, he and his family like to treat tournaments as “fun fishing with an entry fee.” And my observation was that they really conducted themselves that way. While they were clearly interested in winning, they had fun with the experience and everyone contributed to the success of the trip.
I met Todd and the crew at the Darien wharf on the evening before the tournament. The captains’ meeting was scheduled for that afternoon as well as a festival complete with a band, barbecue and a “pogie-bobbing” contest. This unique event is just like bobbing for apples but with live pogies instead.
The following morning we were up at 4 a.m. to get down to the business of fishing. We left the ramp at 5:30 and headed downriver to the sound.
The first order of business was to catch bait. In the mouth of the sound there were several boats and probably a million birds waiting for the pogies to come to the surface. Right after daylight they did just that, and boats and birds went into action. With a few casts of his 10-foot net Todd caught plenty of bait (about 5 dozen) for the day, and we were off in search of kings.
Our first stop was about 2 miles offshore at an area near the old “D” Buoy at the entrance to Doboy sound.
Todd and the team pulled rods from the rodholders and checked rigs to ensure that they were sound and ready for use.
“We like to use light tackle,” said Todd. “There is plenty of room for the fish to run out here, so you don’t need to horse them to the boat.”
The Veals use 25-lb.-class rod/reel combos with a really good drag system. The reels are spooled with 20-lb. test monofilament line connected by an Albright knot to about 30 feet of fluorocarbon leader, also in 20-lb. test. This reduces line visibility and promotes more strikes. The fluorocarbon is terminated to a 50-lb. test swivel, and the rig is finished with about 2 feet of No. 4 wire leader.
I was surprised to see the size of the hooks; they were much smaller than I expected. A No. 6 size single-nose hook is attached to the leader followed by a treble “stinger” hook (also No. 6) on a short wire leader tied to the single hook. This makes the two-hook combination about equal to the size of the bait.
“The light tackle allows the live bait to swim naturally, and that is a very important factor,” said Todd.
He explained that the drags on the reels are set light for the strike, and the kings generally engulf the bait, hooks and all, so there are very few times when a hook pulls free, particularly since the fish are fought with so little pressure. The test of the line is less important than the amount of line on the reels. Todd recommends a minimum of 400 yards no matter which breaking strength you choose. These are fast and powerful fish noted for their long runs. Too little line on the reel will likely result in a short fight and a bare spool.
A variety of bait placements were used, shallow to deep and short and long behind the boat. The deep baits were taken down near the bottom using downriggers mounted on each side of the stern. Todd set these deep baits 10 feet or more off the bottom, and they were held virtually vertical by the heavy lead balls of the downrigger. One of these deep sets held a live pogie and the other a dead ribbon fish, which Todd describes as kingfish candy. The other rigs were freelined behind the boat and were set at different lengths and spread by the rod holders.
With the hooks baited the team set them out to begin our troll. But calling it a troll is a bit of a misnomer. The trolling speed was regulated by putting one of the big motors in and out of gear without touching the throttle. Going into a stiff wind you might need to engage both motors, but the trick is to be barely moving. I think the boat movement is better described as a controlled drift. It is best to have a slight bow in the freelines allowing the fish to swim naturally. The baits should never be dragged through the water, according to Todd.
As we were underway one member of the team kept an eye on the rods and lines while another watched the electronics. While we were fishing over natural structure and artificial reefs, the real key to catching kings is the presence of bait in the area.
“No bait, no fish,” says Todd. “If you don’t see clouds of bait on the graph after about 30 minutes in an area it is probably best to move and try another location.”
With no luck at the D buoy, we picked up the baits and moved farther offshore to Gray’s Reef. This is a well-known spot that is a favorite of area anglers and is generally very productive. Clearly it is no secret. When we arrived it looked like about half of the 116-boat tournament field was at Gray’s. However, this is a very large area, and there was plenty of room for everyone. We immediately began spotting bait on the graph and saw surface activity from some Spanish mackerel, both good signs. We fished the area of Gray’s for a good part of the day, but the action was slow. Fish were only spotty and the chatter on the radio indicated that no one was really busy boating kings. We caught a small king and a large Spanish before moving on. Each of the boys fought one of the fish to the boat.
We finished the day in the area around “J” reef and picked up a couple of kings including the fish in the 20-lb. range, which was our largest of the day. Then the storm came in, and we began our wild ride back to Darien for the weigh-in. Unfortunately our fish didn’t make the top five. The winning king, weighed in by Kenny Crawford of Fernandina Beach, Fla., came in at 39.75 pounds, and it earned him a fat $15,000 check.
Oh well, you can’t win ’em all, and the Veal family had a great day together at any rate.
Todd said king fishing is best when water temperatures range from the upper 70s through the low 80s, which is right about now. The kings will remain in the area through November as long as the water temperature stays up.
You have plenty of time to get yourself ready to head out and try some of this great saltwater action. A word of caution is in order, however. This is serious business, and you’ll need very good equipment if you want to give it a try. The boats that fish this trail are big, well built, have plenty of freeboard and are very seaworthy. With anything less than the Veal’s rig, I wouldn’t have wanted to make the run that we did through the storm.
To learn more about SKA kingfish tournaments in Georgia visit their Web site at <www.fishska.com>. There you will find tournament schedules, standings, rules and news. There is even a classified section if you are in the market for some gear.
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