One of the best things about fishing in the Tampa Bay area is that you never know what you might run into. I’ve seen more than a few strange things as co-host of the North American Fisherman-TV show, but one particular trip stands out. The plan was to leave Tierra Verde resort marina in St. Petersburg, Florida, to shoot whatever inshore action we could find for the show.
The weather was hardly favorable on that cool December day. A steady north wind was accompanied by high barometric pressure—typical post cold-front conditions—but still, my hopes were somewhat high.
After failing to get bait with a few throws of a cast net in the choppy, cloudy, 63-degree water near the marina, I decided to buy some jumbo shrimp just in case the fish thumbed their noses at artificials. But at the bait shop I discovered that the shrimpers hadn’t even gone out the night before due to foul weather. The only bait available was a few dozen small and ragged-looking pinfish. I nearly passed on purchasing the pathetic little baits, but knew the bite was going to be tough and figured, “What the heck.” Maybe they’d help me squeak out a nice redfish, or a big trout, for the show.
On board with me was a production assistant named Anna, whose job was to help out with still photos and other things that needed doing. I should mention that before this trip she had only caught one fish in her life—a small flounder, years ago, while fishing with her grandfather. Little did she know that she was about to become the main player in a one-in-a-million fishing story.
After pulling away from the dock, I stopped just outside the marina so the cameraman could set up on another nearby dock for some "out of boat" footage. The marina is in about 20 feet of water in a small channel that gets a lot of current and is riddled with pilings, sunken boats and other cover that usually holds bait. There is nearly always something to catch there and I hoped I could get a fish to bend the rod for the camera. I also wanted to let Anna have some fun and catch a few fish before we got started shooting video in earnest.
Armed with what amounted to bass tackle—a 4000-size Penn "Battle" reel spooled with 15-pound braid, 20-pound fluorocarbon leader, 2/0 circle hook and an 8-inch wire trace to protect against sharp teeth, we drifted the half-dead, silver-dollar size pinfish along the dock. After catching only one small bluefish in about five minutes of fishing (Anna was so excited she accidentally reeled the handle backwards completely off of the reel during the fight), I was getting anxious to chase reds and trout on the flats with artificials.
At the same time as I asked if the crew was ready to pack up and rock to another spot, Anna got a second bite. With the cameras continuing to roll, the rodtip danced as the spunky fish clicked the drag in short spurts, typical of a 1- to 3-pound “chopper” bluefish. But then the line started screaming off of the reel as if she’d hooked the transom of a passing speedboat. All I could think was that maybe we had gotten lucky and a half-starved cobia had actually gobbled the scrawny little pinfish.
Surprised and confused, I quickly cranked up the outboard so we could chase the mystery fish as it rocketed off toward the pilings of a nearby bridge. But as the fish closed on the structure, it took a hard left, blistering off another 100 yards of line in mere seconds. As I excitedly coached Anna through the fight—which basically consisted of me screaming REEL-REEL-REEL—the fish took another turn and headed under the span. It actually managed to get around the main bridge fender, which was encrusted with razor-sharp oysters, but the 15-pound braid somehow held.
During those treacherous seconds, I was barely able to maneuver the boat around the fender while my beginner angler struggled to retrieve line. Then came a huge stroke of luck. The fish turned back toward open water and made one more smoking 100-yard run before it began to tire. Needless to say, I was in shock and desperate to see what we had on the end of the line!
The fish began to slow as I explained to Anna how to lift-and-reel to gain line. Eventually it started to circle below the boat, and that's when I caught my first glimpse of the nearly 5-foot, torpedo-shaped monster she’d hooked. It was a trophy-class kingfish, and I was absolutely stunned.
With gaff in hand and knees shaking, I nervously waited for the fish to make a pass. When it did, I missed the mark with the first swipe, but connected with the second—at the same instant a kink in the wire trace caused it to part. And as if that wasn’t enough drama, I saw that the relatively tiny 2/0 hook was bent nearly straight. I haven't seen all of the video footage yet but I’m pretty sure that I was just wildly screaming as we headed into the marina to take photos.
Like I said, I’ve seen some peculiar things happen on the water, such as a tarpon jumping into a boat full of people, and another one that jumped clear over a fishing boat. Once, even, an unfortunate dog’s sad encounter with a hungry bull shark.
But the fact that a giant kingfish was even in that spot, miles from the open gulf, is mindboggling. Add to that the novice angler using super-light tackle under horrible weather conditions, plus that the fish didn’t break her off on the bridge piling, or that the small hook didn’t straighten out completely. This catch was a true miracle!
While working as a production assistant on a video shoot with NAF-TV host Tyler Kapela, Anna Birenbaum overcame some long odds in bringing this big kingfish to the boat.