Capt. Billy Neff was at the helm of the Fish Trap and didn’t see the fish that nailed the pinfish trailing behind the boat on the drift line.
The captain didn’t really think too much about it when 8-year-old Andrew Quinn, in Gulf Shores on a spring break trip with his family, grabbed the rod and started to crank.
Little did Neff realize that 30 minutes later a state record king mackerel would be lying on the deck of the boat, illustrating, as Jack Holmes of the Southern Kingfish Association (SKA) notes, that you don’t have to be a seasoned angler to catch big kings.
“We were on a six-hour trip with a family from Michigan, so we went out to the Trysler Grounds about 20 miles out to do some bottom fishing,” Neff said. “We had some drift lines out the back with some live pinfish. We were having a good trip. I think we already had two kings in the boat, and we were catching vermilion snapper, white snapper, lane snapper and triggerfish.”
The Trysler Grounds is a popular fishing area with natural bottom features that provide habitat for a number of species of fish.
“It was about midway through the trip, about 10:30, when that thing went off,” Neff said. “The 8-year-old kid, Andrew, grabbed the rod and it was on. The Fish Trap doesn’t really have a wheelhouse. It’s a 31-foot Island Hopper, so I’m down on the deck with the fishermen.”
Neff really didn’t think much about the fish as the fight started, thinking a fish pulling that much drag was likely going to be one of the many shark species that swim around in Gulf waters.
“It was hanging deep, so I thought it was a shark,” he said. “He [Quinn] really couldn’t do anything with the fish, so the deckhand [Kenny Collins] was just giving him instructions. I just kept driving the boat. I really wasn’t paying that much attention. As they finally started getting it closer to the surface, I left the wheel and ran back to look over the side of the boat. When I saw it, I realized it wasn’t a shark. I thought it was a wahoo. It was too big to be a king. The water was extremely clear. It was about 50 feet down and I could see the color. It was that light silver color. But I still thought it was too big to be a king. I yelled at Kenny, ‘That’s a wahoo; get the gaff.’
“So I ran back up and grabbed the wheel again. The fish finally came up to the surface and made three or four passes around the boat.”
That closer look at the fish is when Neff became nearly panic-stricken.
“That’s when we saw that it really was a king and we saw how it was hooked,” he said. “It was hooked right at the end of his nose and the wire leader was wrapped around the inside of his mouth. When I saw that, I said ‘Oh, Geez, there’s no way we’re going to get this fish.’ I don’t know how, but it stayed hooked.
“The deckhand was coaching him on what to do. About the third pass, the fish finally got within reach and we stuck it [with the gaff] and dragged it straight into the boat and into the cooler. It wouldn’t fit into the cooler. It was sticking two feet out of the cooler.”
Neff soon realized he had no idea what the state record was for king mackerel. He knew it was a really big king, but with only a half-hour remaining in fishing time, they decided to keep fishing.
“But Andrew was done,” Neff laughed. “He didn’t touch another rod the rest of the trip. We kept fishing and caught a few more vermilion snapper. But we couldn’t close the lid to the cooler. Two feet of the fish were sitting in the sun drying out. I think it weighed more than 68-3 originally, but there is no way to tell.”
When the boat got within cell phone range, Neff started trying to find out about the state record. The feedback was 67 pounds, 15 ounces caught in 2002.
“I said that can’t be right; somebody surely had caught a bigger fish since then,” he said. “I figured there was no way that record would have lasted for 10 years. I got on the radio and talked to a couple of other boats, and I was telling them I thought it was bigger than 60. When we got back in, I went to the charter office at Zeke’s Marina and found the 2012 Marine Resources Division calendar with the records in it. It said 67-15.
“We threw him up on the scales and it said 68-3. We went to whooping and hollering. I called Marine Resources immediately to come verify the catch. We wanted to make sure he didn’t lose any more weight, so we iced him. He didn’t lose any weight. He weighed 68-3 again when Marine Resources got there.”
Dave Quinn, Andrew’s father, said his son has become quite the celebrity with stories in seven newspapers, and he has been interviewed for two magazine features, as well as the local TV station in Michigan.
Quinn will share the record with Mobile’s Michael Kirchler, who caught the 67-15. Fish that are 25 pounds or more must beat the standing record by at least a half-percent to dislodge the current record. Quinn’s fish was 1.5 ounces shy of that mark. Therefore, Quinn and Kirchler will share the record
Holmes, who has seen some giant kingfish in his days as head of the SKA, couldn’t be happier that a second-grader has the largest king in the state record book.
“I think that a young boy caught it is absolutely superb,” Holmes said. “This goes to show you what I’ve said all along – king mackerel fishing is for the whole family. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a young boy or girl, female angler, senior angler, it doesn’t make any difference.
“King mackerel are not that hard to catch. For that youngster to come in and show people how to get the job done is just superb.”
The fact that the record king was hooked in early spring, when most people aren’t even thinking about king mackerel, proves a point Holmes has been trying to make to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“We have known for a long time that there is a resident population of big king mackerel that stays in the Gulf of Mexico year-round,” Holmes said. “They do not migrate. Some fish migrate, but a lot of fish stay there all year long. The reason we know that is we have the tuna fishermen in January and February and the wahoo fishermen in March and April who are catching kings right along with those other fish. If king mackerel migrated all the way to the Keys or Bay of Campeche, what are those fish doing there?
“The resident stock of king mackerel makes that fishery even more valuable to that area for the charter boat guys and recreational fishermen. That’s a great resource. And we’re not impacting that fishery one single iota. The stocks are getting better and better. And the fish are getting bigger. I’m amazed. We had a 70-pounder at last year’s National Championships in Biloxi.”
Holmes has been dealing with a dwindling number of die-hard king mackerel fishermen for a variety of reasons, which bodes well for the species.
“If you went from Pensacola to Galveston, Texas, I’ll bet you don’t have more than 150 king mackerel fishermen,” he said. “So many of them have sold their boats. Of course, I would have done the same thing myself. If you’re sitting there during the oil spill with millions of gallons spilling in the Gulf and they don’t know how long it’s going to take to clean up the mess, are you going to sit there and make payments on your boat? So they sold them. Now they’re thinking about buying a new boat, but they walk into the bank, and the bank says, ‘Well, things are tough right now. We don’t know whether we should lend you money or not.’
“Then you’ve got those who say, ‘I’m not going to buy another $200,000 Gulf boat; I’ll just buy a $70,000 bay boat.’ And that’s it. It took its toll on us.”
The result of the low fishing pressure means the king mackerel fishing should be excellent, Holmes said.
“I expect the fishing this year to be absolutely superb,” he said. “When you don’t have people participating in the fishery, guess what happens to the fish stocks. They explode. So I fully expect the fishing will be outstanding this year.”
Photo: Capt. Billy Neff