Clearing the jetties off Grand Isle, Louisiana,Steve Shook checked the area for traffic and aimed the bow of his 36-foot Contender toward the open sea. He pushed the throttles forward and the triple 250 Yamahas roared, pushing us instantly onto plane.
"We're going to head out about 12 miles, catch some blue runners and then go out a little farther and see if we can find a big king," yelled the 49-year-old Shook as we rocketed across the calm seas.
Shook's track record shows why he is the king of kingfishing from North Carolina to Louisiana. Two weeks before our trip, Team Kwazar - which consists of Shook, Mark Kennedy and Max Williams - won the Grand Ole Opry/TNN King Mackerel Tournament out of Clearwater, Florida, and collected a cool $100,000 in cash - the biggest payout ever for a king mackerel tourney. But Shook's accomplishments don't end there. In 1998 he received the Southern Kingfish Association (SKA) Angler of the Year award, and his team was the 1997 Division 8 champion. Steve also landed the first-place king of 42.4 pounds in the 1998 Sneads Ferry Tournament in North Carolina, and won the 1998 King Buster tourney in St. Augustine, Florida, with a 42.6-pounder. And in 1997 he took a king of 55.7 pounds to win a tourney in Cypress Cove, Louisiana. To top it off, kingfishing is a family affair - his wife, Ginger, was the 1997 and 1998 SKA Lady Angler of the Year.
So, what's Shook's secret for catching big kings and winning the big tournaments?
"Once you hook a king, it helps to have the right rod and reel, and know how to use it. Oh yeah, and speed is a factor, too."
Naturally, I could have deduced this from the three gleaming boats that Shook keeps in his driveway. One is a 35-foot Donzi, another is the 36-foot Contender and the third is a 23-foot boat he's in the process of designing and building. It's called a Rocket, and it's appropriately named.
Winning a tourney also involves a little investigative work. "What we do prior to a tourney is gather all the information we can on the whereabouts of the fish," says Shook. "That involves calling marinas, tackle shops and baits camps. We also download satellite information that'll show us where the warm currents are. Kings love warm water, and just a few degrees can make a big difference."
Steve proved the warm-water theory on our trip together last summer, which took us to a set of oil and gas rigs in the Gulf. As we approached one of the rigs, he pointed to the big cooling fan that was running. "That means the rig is circulating water," Shook explained. "And that increases the temperature of the water downcurrent of the rig by a few degrees."
Indeed, as we moved downcurrent, the surface temperature rose from 71 to 74 degrees. "That's exactly what we're looking for!" said Shook, beaming with excitement. And within 30 minutes we had boated a 40-pound king!
An Eye for Details
Shook is meticulous about his fishing, especially when it comes to rigging baits. His favorite rig for fishing live blue runners (hardtails) - his favorite "big king" bait - is a pretty simple affair. It's usually made with two hooks, although he'll sometimes use three hooks or even four. It all depends on the size of bait. Shook prefers an eight- to ten-inch hardtail. For a bait of that size he'll use an Owner 1/0 live-bait hook as the lead hook and a No. 1 VMC treble for the trailer. The hooks are connected with a section of No. 7 stainless wire. If a third or fourth hook is used, they are connected with the same length and type of wire.
The lead hook is run through the nostrils of the blue runner, while the stinger hook is inserted in the back of the bait, just behind the dorsal fin. The trick is to leave enough slack in the wire so the bait can swim. "You don't want to hinder the bait's movement," Shook points out. "It's got to look natural."
Steve uses an 18- to 20-inch section of Terminator titanium leader wire ahead of the lead hook. "Titanium is the best leader wire I've ever used," says Shook. "It's easy to rig with and it stretches when fighting a big king. But the main thing is that it won't kink. When stainless wire kinks, it breaks."
To finish the rig, the titanium leader is connected to a No. 10 swivel, which is tied to the 20-pound mono main line.
Covering the Water
Shook likes to fish a three-bait spread when targeting big fish. Two of the baits are fished on flat lines, while the third is fished off a downrigger. Another option is to fish one bait on a flat line and two off a pair of downriggers.
"Downriggers are very important," says Shook. "You never know what depth a big king will be feeding at. I like to fish one blue runner about midway to the bottom and maybe another one closer to the surface."
Trolling speed is vital when fishing live baits. Go too fast and you'll pull them out of the strike zone and tire them out. You also don't want the baits too near the surface, or skipping on the surface. Basically, you want the boat to be barely making headway.
Shook will often "bump troll" by intermittently taking the engines out of gear. This allows the baits to swim freely for a short time, and that's often when a king will cut loose and attack.
Shook's strategy of covering the water column paid off big time during last April's Grand Ole Opry/TNN King Mackerel Tournament, in which Shook and Co. caught a 46.78-pound king, the heaviest of the tourney. While most of his competitors chose to fish the beach, Shook's team caught the winning king on a live hardtail fished in 130 feet of water, about 90 miles west of Clearwater, Florida.
"We decided to fish an area called the Middle Grounds," says Shook. "It's really out in the middle of nowhere, but has a raised bottom that creates upwellings and attracts baitfish and kings. It took us 2 1/2 hours to get there, but after two hours of trolling live hardtails we got the bite we were looking for."
Another big reason for running 90 miles was the presence of warm water. Satellite data had revealed that the water on the Middle Grounds was a few degrees warmer than most of the other areas, so Team Kwazar decided to go for it.
In general, Shook says that when looking for big kings, it's always best to have a game plan - and to stick to it. Of course, it's also a good idea to fish areas that have produced kings in the past. In the Gulf, Shook says that nine times out of ten you'll be fishing rigs, wrecks, rocks, ridges and humps. When you reach the structure, seek out the warmest water, because that's where the big kings will likely be feeding. And when you do hook up with a king, be sure and mark the spot with your GPS or loran. Ditto for when you're trolling around an area and mark pods of baitfish. All that information will pay off in the long run.
It sure has for Steve!