Hurricane Gloria brought the ocean practically to the door of the Bald Head Inn here. It piled up monster seas on Frying Pan Shoals, wreaked havoc up the beach at Hatteras and left Arthur Smith Enterprises richer by $180,200, at least for a year.
"Well, there wasn't much we could do about that," said David Frankensteen, a perennial top money-winner on the king mackerel fishing tournament circuit. "It says right in the contract, 'No refunds for acts of God or natural disasters,' and that's what we had."
The eighth annual Arthur Smith Tournament, granddaddy of king mackerel competition, had been scheduled for the last weekend in September at Little River Inlet near Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Frankensteen was planning to win some of the $270,000 in cash and merchandise offered as prizes, but he and 900 others wound up leaving their $200 entry fees in Smith's care, instead, when Gloria stopped everything before it started. Contestants will have to try to get their money back next year, when prizes will total more than half a million dollars.
All of which indicates it may be time for tournament largemouth bass fishermen to slide over and make room for a saltwater cousin on the fish-for-big-money scene.
"In the last three years, king mackerel tournaments have taken off," said Joel Arrington, Saltwater Sportsman magazine's man in the Carolinas, where king mackerel fishing is about as popular as bluefishing is in Maryland and Virginia.
Arrington said development of a new and productive technique, slow trolling with live bait, helped popularize the sport, and the success of bass-fishing tournaments helped competition develop.
But largely, he attributes the sudden interest in tournament king mackerel fishing to the American love affair with gadget-filled, go-fast machines.
King mackerel boats are the offshore equivalent of what Arrington calls "bubba trucks," those flashy four-wheel-drive rigs with tires so big you need a stepladder to get aboard.
"The only difference is, most bubba trucks never get off the road, but king mackerel boats really do what they're supposed to, which is go offshore," he said.
Arrington arranged a trip with Frankensteen here last week to demonstrate what kingfishing was about.
When he said we'd be slow trolling, I envisioned some old geezer turning up in a leaky wooden boat. Instead, the youthful Frankensteen roared up to the inlet at Bald Head Island in a 25-foot, ultralight center-console rocket with twin 175-horse outboards. He brought along a buddy with the same rig. They looked like twin motorcycle cops.
Frankensteen apologized, explaining that "a lot of the guys are going to faster boats like Scarabs so they can get out to the fishing quicker."
I told him this would do. "Just give me a minute to refasten my dentures and fetch my kidney belt."
He blasted out into the ocean, where whitecaps were blowing off the tops of swells and a northeast wind was building under blue skies.
The slow-trolling technique uses live menhaden for bait, which keep so poorly you just can't buy them. So the first stop was along the beach, where pelicans cannonballing the surf indicated the presence of bait below.
Mike Bruce, the mate, flung a 12-foot-wide cast-net when he spied a school. The bait went into an aerated live-well.
Normally, the next stop for Frankensteen would have been 20 miles to sea, where kings are thickest this time of year, but the breeze had hardened to 15 to 20 knots. "That's no breeze, that's a wind," he said. "We'll try closer."
A couple of miles out, he put the baits over. I thought there was something wrong because he stopped the lines only 10 to 50 feet back and the baits flipped along the surface in plain sight.
No mistake. King mackerel like the bubbles of the prop wash and often shoot into the air to strike baits in what Carolinians call the "wheel water" just behind the motors. It can get exciting. Said Frankensteen, "If you see one coming at you, get down."
Conditions were bad and getting worse. It was hard to keep the lines straight with the wind. Trolling upwind, the boat smacked and lurched along in the steep swells; downwind it was hard to go slowly enough.
But Frankensteen said kings, which run from 8 to 50 pounds, feed well in rough weather. It wasn't long before an 11-pounder greyhounded in, smashed a surface bait and took off again, ripping 20-pound line off the reel noisily.
That was a little fish, by Frankensteen's standards. Before the day was done he'd put 23- and 28-pounders in the box.
The biggest one struck the closest bait, 10 feet behind the boat, and it must have been a sight when it came out of the water to attack.
But I couldn't say for sure. I ducked.
King mackerel run from southern Florida to Virginia Beach, with the season lasting roughly from April to November. There are about a dozen major tournaments during the season, mostly in the Carolinas, and plenty more charter, private boat and even beach and pier fishing for kings.
Clay Smith, executive director of Arthur Smith Enterprises, said enough money is being generated by the competitions that he wouldn't be surprised to see professional anglers, financially sponsored by equipment manufacturers, touring the circuit within a few years.
That would bring offshore king mackerel fishing closer to a par with tournament bass fishing, where professionals predominate.
Which would please some folks like Frankensteen, who would love to go pro, but displease some others who think professional sportfisherman is a contradiction in terms.