A Kingfish Story
Words by David Fielding and Justin Baker
As Justin “Sleepy” Williams and I stand in the boat ramp parking lot impatiently awaiting the arrival of the consistently 15-minute-late Justin Baker, I can’t help but wonder what the day of freedive spearfishing will bring. After a three-month hiatus away from my beloved mother ocean, I have an itchy trigger finger and dwindling fish supply. The dense fog, cool west breeze, and the surprisingly pleasant smell of an old two-stroke being warmed up in the neighboring boat ramp further increase my excitement. Finally, 20 minutes late and disheveled as usual, Baker arrives with a truck bed full of loose gear including a tangled mess of float lines, wetsuits, and extra shafts. Smiling ear to ear and always stoked, you can’t be mad at the guy. What he lacks in organizational skills, he makes up for in the water; Baker is a true waterman.
After getting reports that the viz was hit or miss out in 60-90 feet, we decided to consult the local salty dogs in the old two-stroke about our plan of attack. Earl, hollow eyed, reeking of alcohol, and showing off his last four teeth, surprisingly seems to be a credible source. He claims that the first three reefs off Vero Beach were clear yesterday. That is exactly what I needed to hear! Having grown up in Vero, I have some awesome numbers that we need to raid.
After the very meticulous Sleepy recovers from his OCD attack, all the gear is organized and we are off. As we crack the inlet, it soon becomes apparent that we are blessed with crystal clear water. It was top to bottom well past the third reef. Dancing around like little teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert, it’s a race to get our gear. The plan is to head straight to my best snapper hole, Stacey’s Ledge, appropriately named after Baker’s girlfriend when she massacred the mangrove and mutton snapper the prior summer.
Baker and I were first in the water. I couldn’t see the bottom and that wasn’t for lack of viz., rather a thick school of large Spanish mackerel slowly circling the boat darkened the sea below. Laughing through my snorkel, I could taste the smoked fish dip. On the bottom, I could see well over a dozen decent mangrove snapper and countless sheepshead. It wasn’t soon after that the fish were hitting the deck. Having dived the ledge many times, Sleepy and I swam north looking for the large snapper. Baker on the other hand had total entrapment on his mind. When Sleepy and I returned to the boat with a few bruisers, we found Baker prepping for a full-on massacre. He spent a solid ten minutes chumming and dropped flashers behind the boat so we could ambush the unsuspecting snapper, sheepshead, and mackerel. It wasn’t more than 30 minutes before the boat was a bloody mess! Baker and I were just slinging the bodies into the boat while Sleepy waited for his trophy grover. Sleepy did work on the grovers and claimed the MVP with a stout 22-incher. After a few hours of amazing hunting at a few of our premier spots, we had our limit of mangrove snapper, two nice hogfish, one mutton snapper, six sheepshead, and all the mackerel we wanted to harvest for the fish dip.
After a celebratory lunch and quick cleaning of the boat, it was time to turn our attention to harvesting some lobster. Our unorthodox method of “hit it and quit it” has always served to be prosperous. The hit it and quit it method is best for freedivers with multiple numbers in a certain area. The captain will drop a few divers on a number to investigate quickly and prospect for lobster while he idles in the area. Understanding that lobsters constantly move, it is a good method to limit out without spending too much time at a certain spot.
Sleepy had a number sixty yards off the beach that he claimed held bugs. Baker and I jumped in while Sleepy manned the boat. Regardless if I’m focusing on lobster, I never get in the water without my gun; it actually seconds as a great tickle stick. On my second down, cruising from rock to rock looking for bugs, something large and shiny was approaching me. Shocked by his size, it was the biggest kingfish I have ever seen in the water. As he cruised within 20 feet of me, it almost looked as though he was smiling and saying, “Yeah right, buddy. You don’t have a reel or floatline. I dare you to pull the trigger.” Knowing all too well that large kingfish are infamous for their ability to break lines and rip off the ends of shafts, I threw caution to the wind and took a mid-body holding shot. As soon as the line tightened, I could feel the true raw power of the fish. He was pulling me through the water so fast that I had a hard time catching my breath. At one moment, I was actually considering reaching for my knife to cut the line. Between gasps of air, I yelled to Baker to come over and put another shaft in. Baker arrived laughing so hard from my water skiing event that he had a hard time doing his breathe-up. At that time, the king was trying to rub against the rocks below to free the shaft. With Baker’s second shot and a little more struggle, we managed to subdue the brute. After a small photo shoot with the fish, Baker asked if I wanted to know the true weight of the beast, seeing as he had a scale in his dive bag. We all waged our bets for the closest weight, winner getting an extra lobster tail. Sleepy guessed 45, Baker 47. I called 50. Impatiently waiting the results, I strained in the karate kid’esque position trying to clear the fish from the deck as Baker read the verdict. “Forty-eight pounds worth of extra butter for me suckers!” I couldn’t believe my ears, realizing that I had just landed a fish of a lifetime!
After a good laugh at a few of Sleepy’s comments, because he loves lobster so much, we decided to refocus on the task at hand. Sleepy pulled up his favorite lobster number in his GPS and decided to strap a bubble rig on and get to work. Baker and I rallied to work “the big rock” together as Sleepy swam north. Baker and I wrangled a few bugs for a short time and had the rock cleared of all five in 15 minutes. As we hopped on the boat for a quick swig of water, we watched Sleepy’s bubbles unwavering in the same spot for the length of our water break so we decided to swim over and investigate. We arrived to find Sleepy buried a 1⁄4 tank deep into a ledge and obviously onto something. I made a dive, looked into the opposite side of the hole and saw nothing but an empty, smoky hallway. I surfaced and told Baker what I saw, as we both watched Sleepy now beginning to Ping-Pong from side to side in the hole. Baker signaled to me that he was going and fired his shaft into the sand right next to the ledge. I watched him kick down, look into the hole, and then grab the shaft. I knew he was onto something as I watched Sleepy shove his 10-foot lobster pole down the opposite side of the hallway tunnel repeatedly as if he was trying to unplug a drain. Baker reached with the shaft into the hallway, tapped once, tapped twice, then a third time, dropped the shaft and then thrust both arms forward like a big brother pushing a bully with all his might to defend his blood. He rolled to his left with a hand on each of the lobster’s knuckles and as the 8-pound critter bucked with its tail, he released his right hand while swimming to the surface and gave the bug a hug as it hugged him back with its massive, spiderlike legs. “I don’t know who’s got who, but let’s get back to the boat,” Baker yelled. When Sleepy returned to the boat from his dive, he had six in the bag and Justin and I had added five more. One more stop at one of Sleepy’s trusty numbers and we finished our lobster limit. As the sun began to hang lower in the sky, so did the temperature with the approaching cold front as we began our long run back to Fort Pierce. We came up on plane and began to run when Baker’s hat and sunglasses flew out of their roost in between the T-top and the T-bag. “Hurry up,” Baker shouted as he slapped a pair of fins and his mask on. “That’s a hundred-dollar pair of shades!” Sleepy and I both looked at each other and laughed as we circled back toward Baker’s floating hat. “We were running at least 35 mph,” Sleepy shouted at Baker as he flipped into the water. “You’re never going to find them.” Baker popped up from a minute-plus dive empty handed and shouted obscenities “Dammit! Lost pair of sunglasses and of course I don’t have my gun right now. I just spooked at least a 20-pound black! Y’all better mark this spot!” At this point, it was apparent that Baker had little to no chance of finding his shades and we were getting cold. “Come on bro, let’s go,” I yelled, as Baker breathed up for one last dive. He slipped beneath the surface as it dawned on me. “Joe!” Sleepy and I rejoiced like a Baptist church choir as we remembered the trusty green thermos full of hot coffee in the center console hatch. Baker surfaced and shouted, “Didn’t you already learn once today not to bet against me sleepy?” as he held up the shot-in-the-dark pair of sunglasses and smiled ear to ear. We slurped some coffee as we all got a good laugh on how this great day with friends had transpired. Then Baker, feeling lucky, chuckled, “Y’all want to go for an over under on how long it’s going to take to clean all of these fish?”