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October 26, 2001

A Boat Rigged For A King

Much of the same specialized gear kingfish tournament anglers use to improve their fishing productivity will benefit you, too.

Kingfishing has become the hottest saltwater tournament competition. Thousands of anglers enter their boats in events from the mid-Atlantic all the way around to Texas. As you'd expect, the consistent winners take it very seriously. They must fish 20 to 30 tournaments each season in many different venues and myriad conditions. Obviously, top boats must be rugged and rigged especially for kingfishing. But the unique kingfishing features incorporated into today's winning boats can be adapted to improve the productivity of your fishing boat because, above all, they're based in common sense.

The Goals
Several thousand boats with this common mission compete each year in search of the huge payoffs associated with winning a kingfish tournament. These boats must:
* Run competitively among a pack of as many as 1,000 boats at a time into unfamiliar waters.
* Quickly capture an adequate bait supply.
* Navigate to a location as far as 100 miles away.
* Catch the largest single kingfish possible.
* Return within time constraints regardless of sea conditions.
* Knowing the secrets of how my Gatorbait - a 32-foot Wellcraft Scarab - and boats like it on the SKA circuit rig for success can help anyone catch more and larger kings.

Mounting the Engines
To run 100 miles, fish, and get back within the time limit, kingfish boats obviously need to be fast, so lots of horsepower are the norm. Gatorbait gets its speed from twin 300-hp Mercurys. Regardless of power selected, jack plates allow the operator to adjust engine height for varying sea conditions, making the boat handle and perform better. Tilt and trim come standard on most outboard engines. Using the engine mount as a fulcrum point, this type of adjustment raises the bow of the boat as you trim the drive out and lowers the bow as you trim in. A jack plate, on the other hand, moves the entire engine and mount up and down vertically. In calm water, you should trim the jack plate up as far as possible (without exceeding the maximum height where intakes on the lower unit get enough water to cool the engine properly). Raising the jack plate results in reduced drag, increased rpm and speed, and better fuel economy. Conversely, running in rough water, you should lower the jack plate for better handling, slower speed on plane and less cavitation. Other jack-plate benefits include the ability to completely lift one engine out of the water to run on the other and a wider range of propellers to choose from to maximize speed, range or rough-water handling.
Dave Workman of Team Donzi and this year's SKA Angler of the Year offers one other piece of advice. "In addition to big horsepower, be sure you have the fuel capacity to go along with it. It takes some serious fuel to run 100 or more miles and back at 60 mph."

Electronics
Most kingfish boats have fish finders, chart plotters, radars and VHFs with liquid-crystal displays (LCD) because they can be seen easily in bright sunlight. LCD units weigh less and are more waterproof and more compact than cathode-ray tube units. A total system from a single manufacturer often provides uniformity in programming and buttons, which makes using the equipment much easier in adverse conditions. My chart plotter, fish finder and radar all use common keypads, making them very user friendly. I also find that I experience fewer integration problems when all the instruments "speak the same language."
High-quality electronics make navigating in unfamiliar waters to search out new fishing grounds in a limited amount of time (which we do on a weekly basis) much more efficient.
You'll find this level of electronics worth the investment.
Our fish finder includes a side-looking option and split-screen zoom, which allows us to easily pinpoint fish and bait at specific depths. Radar, critical when running in fog or at night, lets us readily navigate in and around severe storms on open water as well. Chart plotters have simplified the navigation process immensely by providing a convenient visual reference of the boat and its location on an electronic map. The old-fashioned method of plotting everything on a chart just wouldn't work running in rough water at high speeds the way we do. It's neither practical nor fast enough. With the plotter, I can put the cursor on a chosen destination (a waypoint) and push a button. Then I can just follow the boat across the screen like driving a car down a highway. For fishing a certain spot, the chart can be zoomed down in scale, allowing marks to be placed when the fish finder says we're over bait or fish. The operator can easily navigate the boat to and over the exact same spot time after time by simply looking at the screen and steering the boat to the marks.

T-top
In today's health-conscious world, it's important to have a source of shade when you're constantly on the water. The T-top provides that; however, we've designed our top to be much more than a nautical parasol. It must provide unobstructed 360-degree vision and access around the boat as well as be able to store several critical items. When you run boats in the kinds of weather conditions we do, it's not good enough to have life vests stowed forward in a cuddy or at the bottom of a locker. We store our life vests directly over the helmsman's head under the T-top, immediately accessible in case of emergency.
We also weld heavy-duty handholds to the back of the top for passengers behind the helm station. Since the combination of wet hands and smooth metal doesn't offer a secure grip (and requires much more energy to hold on), we wrap each of these grab bars with 1/8-inch twine to provide a non-slip handhold.
We make sure both the top and our installation are much beefier than what comes straight from the factory. Running at such high speeds in rough seas really puts some extraordinary stresses on a T-top. We can't afford to have it come loose or break underway.
Another feature totally unique to kingfish boats is kingfish-style "outriggers." Instead of installing outriggers, kingfishermen weld rod holders to the T-top so the rods extend over and parallel to the water. These holders allow baits to be deployed and retrieved more easily than running lines through regular outriggers. Additionally, they weigh less than full-size outriggers and suffer less momentum damage running at high speeds in heavy seas. Finally, rods can be easily reached from the helm.

Downriggers
I don't know many kingfish tournament boats without electric downriggers. Obviously, it's ridiculous to think that all feeding kingfish come to the surface. To increase the odds of catching fish, we need to cover more of the water column. Although most pros use electric downriggers, manuals certainly suffice for casual fishing. Most tournament anglers prefer 100-pound-test mono line vs. the steel cable included as standard with the downriggers. When fishing in close quarters around other boats (normally the case in competition), any fishing line attached to a hooked fish that comes in contact with your monofilament downrigger cable will cut the larger of the two lines. A steel cable, on the other hand, will instantly result in a lost fish. With mono cable, all that's lost is a downrigger weight - a small price to pay for good sportsmanship. Additionally, a slowly trolled steel cable traveling through the water produces an annoying hum while mono remains relatively silent. At the moment, Penn and Scotty make electric downriggers with an auto-stop feature that works with mono cable. Most downriggers provide a rod holder right on the downrigger; this allows sharp turns in a strong current without tangling lines in the props.

Gaffs
Short of long-range boats in California with decks 10 feet above the water, professional kingfish anglers probably use the longest gaffs around; most run 12 feet long. Why a 12-footer? Because it's the maximum length the rules allow. Otherwise, we'd be using 20-foot gaffs. Kingfish gaffs run longer due to the use of lightweight 15- to 20-pound-test line and a very short (12- to 18-inch) leaders. Big kingfish get very shy around lines, leaders and boats. Getting a tournament-winning kingfish within reach of a standard gaff is a long and difficult process. I'm not saying it can't be done, but many more fish are lost at or near the boat where the fish becomes spooked and makes a sudden run which often pulls the hook or breaks the line.
Using a 12-foot gaff requires some practice. Many anglers start with an 8-footer and move up in length as they gain experience. Stowing a 12-foot gaff can be almost as difficult as using it. In most cases, the gaff can be mounted under the cockpit bolsters. Also, always carry a spare.

Fish-Oil Dispenser
Fish oil has long been used to supplement a good chum bag or, in some cases, instead of chum. Putting a fish-oil slick behind your boat offers several advantages in addition to the obvious scent trail to attract predators. Perhaps the most important added advantage concerns the visibility of your baits. Fish oil takes the friction off the surface of the water. When deployed correctly, it leaves a calm, slick area behind the boat, allowing the angler to easily see all baits on the surface as well as any fish in the spread.
Typically, kingfish anglers put the oil into an intravenous (IV) bag/dripper system placed on the outside of the boat. Problems with this system include the fact that these bags hold only one quart of oil, and refilling an already used IV bag becomes messy and wasteful. Storage is also problematic; fish oil feels and acts like grease and smells terrible. Fish-oil scent lasts forever. Consider anything it comes in contact with totally ruined. I've solved these problems by using a fish-oil dispenser made of PVC pipe and fittings with clear tubing that holds about a gallon. Fish oil can be stored in the dispenser between fishing trips, and a T-valve sets the desired rate of flow. Such a unit should be mounted on the back of the transom (outside the cockpit) and the tube run out of the splash well alongside or between the engines. While slow trolling, the oil is dispersed by mixing with turbulent water around the propellers. The total cost of this unit runs about the same as the IV bag from a medical supply store.
Some boats also mount an electric meat grinder to a rod holder and grind fresh chum as needed.

Live Baitwell
Every bit as important to professional kingfishing as the engines, a live baitwell must be big enough to hold enough bait for a full day and efficient enough to keep baits healthy whether running, trolling or drifting. Rigging a baitwell properly requires some prescience - raw-water baitwell pumps will undoubtedly break at a critical (and inconvenient) moment. In general (and for tournament kingfishing purposes), baitwells fall into three categories: 30 gallons or less (purely decoration); 40 gallons (adequate); 50 gallons or more (optimum). Workman provides a well-accepted rule of thumb for any baitwell. "Figure 1 1/2 baits per gallon of water. So a 50-gallon well should be able to accommodate about 75 baits. But if the water gets really warm, cut that back to one bait per gallon," he says.
Rig wells with a minimum of two pumps. Many anglers install three low-capacity pumps (700 to 1,000 gph), which allow them to adjust the intake flow to match the amount of bait they have in the well while still saving amperage for other accessories.
Also, drainage is as important as intake. A well that fills only from the top and drains only from the bottom won't hold enough bait nor keep it lively enough. Each well should have a minimum of three drains: two at the top on each side, and one at the bottom. Water should enter near the bottom of the tank in such a way as to cause clockwise water circulation (if used in the Northern Hemisphere). Baitwells should also be round or oval with no sharp edges or protruding fittings.

Bolster Seats
Leaning posts with rocket launchers have been standard equipment on center-console boats for years. Typically, the driver and one passenger stand between the console and leaning post while underway. In calm conditions, sitting atop the leaning post is also possible. But in rough seas at high speed, the driver and companion must hold on for dear life to the wheel, throttle and handholds. The bolster seat, long used in sport and racing boats, has found its way onto kingfishing boats. You'll find this style of seat both comfortable and very supportive whether running flat out or slow-trolling. The heavily padded sides restrict lateral movement, the seat's major advantage over a leaning post. Additionally, dropout bottoms allow you to sit or stand while underway.
The specialized features we include on our boats do much more than simply allow us to run 60 mph through rough seas to catch fish. Rather, they represent common-sense refinements. Your live bait will last longer. You'll come home from a day of fishing offshore and be less tired. You'll lose fewer fish alongside the boat. You'll navigate more easily and attract more fish to your boat. You don't have to be a tournament kingfisherman to appreciate any of these attributes. You just have to want to fish smarter.

Capt. Sandy Smith and his crew on Team Wellcraft's Gatorbait won over $110,000 in prize money on the Southern Kingfish Association's tournament trail this year. When not fishing the circuit, Smith charters out of Fort Pierce, Florida, and can be reached at 561-466-5564.