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September 21, 2007

The Kingfish Masters

Success on the professional king mackerel circuit often comes down to a matter of ounces and minutes. Here are some of the ways Team Wal-Mart gains the winning edge.


Whopper Stopper, skippered by Conrad Lau, is one of five Evinrude-powered Wellcraft Scarab Sports, co-sponsored by Wal-Mart and Loadmaster Trailers, that are taking the Southern Kingfish Association by storm.

Ed Mecchella's deep baritone voice resonated from the VHF loudspeaker. "We've got a good fish, boys, in the 50s," the captain of Fish Fever told us excitedly over the airwaves, followed seconds later by, "Make that upper 50s! We're not taking any chances; we're heading for the hill."

As the shouts and high-fives faded on the relentless wind, we watched while Mecchella, his son Shawn, and fellow teammates Jim Conway and Fred Hoyt made preparations to get underway. They quickly packed their kingfish on ice and stowed the gear, then turned their 32-foot Wellcraft Scarab Sport on a northwesterly heading toward the scales. It was midafternoon on the first day of the 2002 Southern Kingfish Association National Championship, and the scoreboard at tournament headquarters would soon be christened by an insurmountable entry.

Last year's SKA championship epitomized how much competitive kingfishing has changed in the last decade. At the crowning event in Biloxi, Mississippi, more than 1,200 anglers fishing aboard 335 boats battled eight-foot seas for the chance at the top prize package exceeding $200,000. The fleet sported specialized tackle, state-of-the-art center consoles and dual- or triple-outboard power that allowed contestants to range beyond the 100-mile threshold.

The Kingfish Masters
Three-quarters of the Fish Fever team - Jim Conway, Shawn Mecchella and Fred Hoyt - show off their 63 1/2-pound smoker, the largest fish caught in 2002 SKA National Championship.

So with all this sophistication in a crowded field of highly qualified anglers, how does one boat gain the competitive edge over others? I accompanied two of Team Wal-Mart's boats to find out.

Advance Party

Mecchella & Co. didn't just happen upon their big king - the team did its homework long before the tournament started. The St. Simons Island, Georgia-based team always pre-fishes an area beforehand, and that advance scouting has paid impressive dividends. Team Fish Fever finished first in Division 10 in 2000, and second in the 2000 and 2001 World Pro Nationals. The team was also sixth overall in the 2001 SKA Pro standings, and has qualified for the National Championship 11 times.

"We pre-fished that same rig for several days before the 2002 championship," Mecchella explained, "and there was a ton of bait, with kings skyrocketing through the pods. We caught and released one king every day, and they were all over 40 pounds. So we decided to go back during the tournament and the bait was still there. It was slow at first, but we finally got our second bite at 2:30. Shawn was on the reel and we got the fish to the boat in about seven minutes." The resulting 63.51-pound smoker turned out to be the largest king caught in the two-day event, earning Fish Fever the 2002 Yamaha Professional Tour grand championship with an overall 234.33-pound, seven-fish aggregate.

Mecchella utilizes local reports and dock intelligence for every tournament, but he also likes to personally check out an area. The availability of bait is always a good indicator that kings may be present, but weather and salinity levels are considered as well. The ultimate factor though, is water temperature.

"Kings prefer a temperature range of 68 to 73 degrees," he says. "But we always try to find the spots where warm water jams up against cooler water to form a temperature change of several degrees. We troll the hot side of those temperature breaks because that's where the bait will be concentrated and that's also where the kings will be. That's why pre-fishing is so critical. You have to develop your game plan before the tournament starts so you know where to go. These fish are highly mobile and are found at all depths. You can't expect a spot that held fish a couple of years ago to still be productive today."

Match the Hatch

The Kingfish Masters
The SKA teams that finish in the money may get lucky, but they also do plenty of pre-competition research that includes pre-fishing an area, examining lunar tables and rigging baits that match the natural forage.

With the exception of novice junior angler Randan Frazier, the Emerald Isle, North Carolina-based Team Attitude Adjuster is a veteran group. Team captain David Murphy and 1993 SKA National Champion Jim Davis have joined forces with charter-boat captain Bobby Townsend and junior angler Kevin Murphy to produce a trophy-case worth of SKA awards over the last five years. Included on the list of laurels is the 1998 SKA Junior Angler of the Year title for angler Kevin, first place in the 2000 SKA National Pro Championship and second place overall for that year's pro standings. The team competes from a 35-foot Wellcraft Scarab Sport with triple Evinrude Ficht outboards. The center console's huge live well enables Attitude Adjuster to "match the hatch."

"I make our terminal rigs to match the size of the bait we're using and for actual conditions, such as water clarity," Davis explains. "The whole object of live-bait fishing is to make the baits look as natural as possible. When you use heavy leaders and big hooks on small baits, they just can't swim as well, and kings will avoid something that looks suspicious."

Both the Attitude Adjuster and Fish Fever teams prefer big baits for trophy kings, with menhaden (pogies), blue runners (hardtails), mullet, bluefish and Spanish mackerel being top offerings, depending on availability. In terms of frozen baits, ribbonfish are universally accepted, no matter what the locale. "Ribbonfish are one of the most effective king baits available," Davis says. "The key is keeping them as shiny and natural-looking as possible, and that comes from proper brining and freezing. I prefer to catch and prepare them myself, but they are now also available commercially."

The Kingfish Masters
Ribbonfish are the frozen bait of choice on the SKA circuit.

Davis rigs his ribbonfish with evenly spaced treble hooks along the flank and a Hank Brown skimmer jig threaded through the lower jaw and out the top of the head. "Live ribbonfish like to suspend in the water column. The jig keeps the ribbon's head upright, giving it a more natural appearance. Sometimes I'll add a skirt for more attraction, but mostly I fish them plain."

Timing Is Everything

Besides natural baits, Davis and the other members of Attitude Adjuster swear by lunar tables to predict peak feeding times. Several commercially produced tables are available, but Davis uses a "Fishing Time" Casio wristwatch to determine the prime activity periods.

"Granted, conditions such as sea state and barometric pressure change, but I've been going by lunar times - moon rise and set, moon over and under - for 30 years and they are accurate," he says. "Once you know those times, you can put yourself in a position where you're fishing instead of running, and you've got a good shot a catching decent fish." Davis and Mecchella both credit the speed and range of today's kingfish boats with injected outboards for allowing contestants to get to the fishing grounds at the desired feeding times and before prime spots get congested.

Duty Calls

With the high stakes of today's tournaments and such slim margins for error, crew coordination and specialized skills among kingfish teams are reaching Special Forces levels. Chemistry is as important in competitive sport fishing as in traditional sports, especially over the course of a long season. The members of Attitude Adjuster get along well together, but they also have specific duties and serious attitudes once it comes time to fish. David Murphy is the team captain and designated angler; Kevin Murphy and Frazier are the junior anglers and crewmen. Davis operates the boat during actual fishing, while Bobby "Radar" Townsend mates and handles the gaff.

"On our team we each keep the same job and nobody switches," David Murphy explains. "We always know what to do and what to expect from each other. Those routines help minimize mistakes, and that's one of the reasons we've been successful. We do the right things at the right time, especially when the fish are next to the boat."

Make the Point

Timing and coordination are doubly important once a fish is within gaffing range. Murphy and Townsend give constant updates to Davis to ensure the line remains tight or to signal acceleration for a quick gaff shot.

Townsend uses eight- and 12-foot gaffs with three-inch hooks to bite into big fish, and he prefers to target the middle of the body to maximize contact. "I always make sure the angler is in front of me," he says. "I approach the fish tail-first, so if it does turn its head at the last moment I won't pull the hooks out or nick the leader with the gaff point. Once we get it aboard and into the bag, I plug the gaff hole with a piece of plastic. Cloth rags or paper towels wick away the blood, and we don't want the fish to lose any weight whatsoever. That's also why I keep the ice in plastic bags rather than breaking them open. The plastic is slippery, so it doesn't rub off any of the fish's scales or slime. In a tournament setting, every ounce counts!"

Ultimately, a combination of skill, teamwork and preparation is what it takes to be able to weigh in the heaviest kingfish. Of course, having a yellow smiley face for your mascot and good luck charm doesn't hurt, either.Editor-at-Large Dave Lear is a guide, writer and photographer who has traveled the globe in search of fish.

Meet Team Wal-Mart

The Kingfish Masters
Team captain David Murphy is designated angler for Attitude Adjuster.

W al-Mart, the king of fresh water bass-fishing tournament sponsors, strengthened its tie to the world of salt water competition when it joined Wellcraft Marine, Evinrude Outboards and Loadmaster Trailers as a co-sponsor of five SKA teams last year. In addition to Fish Fever and Attitude Adjuster, the sponsored group included three other boats. Rick Smith, the 1996 SKA Angler of the Year from Brunswick, Georgia, is lead captain for the team overall. His boat is the Wild Turkey. Conrad Lau of Neptune Beach, Florida, fishes with his crew aboard Whopper Stopper, and Johnny Gay, from Merritt Island, Florida, and his four anglers compete aboard Free Spool. The boats are 35- or 32-foot Wellcraft Scarab Sport center consoles, powered by triple or dual Evinrude FICHT Ram Injection V-6 250-hp outboards.

"Fishing is the national pastime for more than 55 million Americans," said Mike McFadden, Wal-Mart divisional merchandise manager and vice president. "Our association with FLW Outdoors and its series of 170 bass and walleye tournaments brings a great deal of pleasure to our customers each year, so extending our support to offshore fishing was a natural decision. It's another way for us to enhance the shopping experience through fun, family-oriented activities."

The combined association proved to be significant. Besides Fish Fever capturing the top pro title, the other four team boats were among the top 30 in the 2002 final standings. Team members also made numerous appearances at Wal-Mart stores throughout the Southeast, giving free fishing seminars and signing autographs.

- Dave Lear

The Kingfish Masters
Iced and plugged to prevent weight loss, this kingfish is headed for the scales.