The natural reaction of any veteran sport fisherman to a strike, especially when working a lure, is to crank and set. I always do it without even thinking.
Well, almost always.
One of the times I failed to react remains saved in my mental hard drive - and reaffirms why not much in the sport of fishing can top topwaters.
We'd anchored up in about 50 feet of water over the generally smooth Gulf of Mexico floor that had just enough relief, three or four feet. We'd left Key West about an hour earlier, running west aboard Capt. Robert "RT" Trosset's 34-foot center-console Yellowfin SpinDrift, powered by twin Suzuki 300s.
Our deckhand, Capt. Chris Trosset (RT's son), had just started throwing out live white-bait chum from the livewell - the 3-inch pilchards that Chris had cast-netted just off the beach on the way out that calm winter morning. RT had assured me and fishing partner Ray More with FinNor that, with some patience, we should see kings (king mackerel) start busting on the baits soon.
Not thinking "soon" would mean "right now," I tossed out a Sea Striker Gotcha lure on an ultralight spinning outfit, not expecting much yet, and had just begun reeling back with a hard, erratic jerk-pause retrieve when suddenly, a silvery missile about the length of my leg came flying up out of the water 50 or 60 feet back, having snatched my lure on its arcing broad jump that had to be more than 10 feet above the surface. It appeared to suspend in midair, and time seemed to stop. And everyone aboard stopped dead, in a quick The Day the Earth Stood Still moment, mouths agape.
Only after the kingfish had reentered its watery world headfirst, with barely a splash, was the resumption of time announced by a couple of loud whoops (one of which, I think, was mine) and shouts on the order of "Did you see that?" (along with some colorful descriptors that I'm better off not repeating here). Of course, by then it was far too late for any thought of cranking line and setting hooks; in fact, my wispy braided line had already been snipped somehow. I reeled in the slack, still shaking my head.
Casting surface lures (or those, like that Gotcha lure, just under the surface) over Gulf structure off Key West can be about as exciting as fishing gets, particularly with experts like the Trossets. After that initial, unexpected mack attack, More and I switched to large, bright, cup-faced poppers. Following a few uneventful casts, the action began, as the stingy trail of live chum proved enough to fire up kings, arriving to crash our party. While that didn't mean a strike on every cast, it did translate into a strike on many casts. And when you're working a noisy popper across the surface, even vicious strikes that miss will leave you gasping, the more so if you've never seen kingfish skyrocketing.
We released quite a few kings that morning on topwater plugs and missed many others. Even when the fish failed to connect with their intended target, they'd come soaring out of the water just behind it. Those kings we did hook, on light line right at the surface, had the chance to show what great game fish they can be.
On another morning, RT promised to put us on a different sort of action with our topwater plugs. We ran about 25 miles from Key West and anchored in about 25 feet of water off the Marquesas, an area of wrecks and reefs that promised quick action. Sure enough, soon we were seeing bogeys at 8 o'clock - and 5 and 6, and all around the back of the boat in response to the chum that Chris had put over. "That scent trail [from a chum block] is really critical once you're over structure to get the fish up," RT explains.