Seconds after the rod had doubled over, Ronnie Lewis was beside it, checking if the fish was still on. He was setting the hook when the second rod went, and the third. Anticipation turned to glee. "This is what it's all about!" he shouted. "You get three or four of these going at once and you don't care about anything else."
As his partner, Harold Heglar, maneuvered the 22-foot boat to avoid tangling the lines, Lewis set the hook hard on the first rod. Then he walked it away from the stern, away from other lines and thrashing fish, away from the huge twin 115-horsepower engines. He handed the rod to me without a word. I took it uncertainly. Within seconds, I realized this was undoubtedly the biggest fish I'd ever encountered.
I was not a rookie to fishing, but I felt like one. A king mackerel was on the line. Powerful, determined fighters often reaching more than 40 pounds, they are prized game fish throughout the Southeast. I sensed immediately it would be a more formidable opponent than the bass or bluefish or sea trout I had fished for.
Indeed, that was why I had come out on this boat. This year, I would move up. It would be a larger, stronger and more aggressive fish that pushed me, that made me learn more and use better what I already had assimilated.
Now, while wrapping my left forearm around the rod and putting the butt into my stomach, all I could think about was not making a fool of myself.
It is so easy to pick out what someone else is doing wrong, and so often hard to use the same scrutiny on yourself. I struggled to keep the fish away from the stern and from the bottom of the boat. It was hard. Kings don't fight with the all-out frenzy of blues; rather, they let you bring in some line, then take it right back and more. An angler must combine strength, intelligence and perseverance. At this point, pulling hard, I was maybe one for three.
"Be careful--you've only got 18-pound test line there," Heglar said in a gentle tone. "Keep it steady. You don't whip a fish like that with the line, you use the rod against it."
Lewis, involved with another fish, added, "Once you get the king close to the boat, bring it in like this." Firmly but evenly, he pulled the rod tip high, then reeled in as he lowered the rod. The idea was never to reel in while pulling. "With a fish like that, the line will pop in no time," Heglar said.
Swell, I thought. It's just that I'm getting no cooperation from the other end of the line. Again and again, I walked the bow, bringing in line, getting the long, lean, silvery mackerel nearly within gaffing distance. Then it would turn and go out to sea, or toward the bottom, and I would stand helplessly as line was stripped. After 10 minutes, my arms had no strength. My hands were sweaty and raw. The other fish had been brought in a long time ago. I felt like I had just started.
Finally, with good coaching making up for bad technique, I brought in the fish and Lewis gaffed it. "Not too bad," he said, putting the mackerel on a hand scale. "Looks about 18 pounds." We had brought in a 26-pounder earlier, but it was still a respectable fish.
Later, as we slow-trolled with live menhaden, waiting for another mackerel to hit, I got my report card. Not unkindly, I was told: Never let the fish get under the boat, or the side of the boat will cut the line. Synchronize pulling the rod and reeling in, avoiding too much slack. Keep the rod tip high. Don't jerk the rod; movements must be firm but steady.
"These are the same things I read about when I started fishing," I told Heglar.
"Oh, yeah," he said with a smile. "It's just that you've been going after one-pound bass and could get away with it." Surprisingly, Heglar never had done any freshwater fishing, although he had gone after nearly every kind of saltwater fish from Hatteras to Key West. "This is real fishing," he said, teasingly.
It was that and more. Kings are so popular that several tournaments have sprung up within the past decade. Lewis and Heglar, part-time commercial fishermen in this part of southeast North Carolina and the two best anglers I've ever met, frequently compete in tournaments and have won a few against stiff opposition. The one we were entered in this weekend was the East Coast Open, with prizes including $10,000 for the largest fish and $3,500 for the second largest. There were about 150 teams entered, and you knew they meant business.
"Fish on!" Lewis broke in. He moved quickly to check the line, then looked at me and said, grinning, "It's not too big. We'll let you have it."
It was smaller than the other, but still a strong fighter. Again, I set up near the bow and tried to concentrate on first principles.
This time I would adapt to the mackerel's way of fighting. I tried to wear the fish down, letting it take line but always keeping pressure on. It would take time, certainly. But I had the advantages of weight, strength and leverage, plus this time--I hoped--the knowledge of how to use them.
In less than half the time it took previously, the king was at the bow. It gave a few frightened runs as Heglar moved to gaff, but persistent pressure brought it back. Heglar easily gaffed the tired fish and put it in the keep. It was about 11 pounds.
"A little better this time around?" I said, simultaneously flip and unsure.
Heglar leaned back in the captain's chair. "Well, I don't know," he said with a straight face. "You weren't awful."
"At least it looked like you had some idea of what you were doing," Lewis said helpfully.
"Thanks, guys," I said. Fishing didn't seem so tough after all.