Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament

Fish Tales

After the early news broadcast one night in 1981 the phone at my desk rang and it was Don Brewer. Don was well known and active in the community so when he asked me to come meet him at some trailers on Beach Blvd, I didn’t think twice.

“We’re going to have a fishing tournament,” he exclaimed as we made our way through a temporary, makeshift office.

Spread out on some tables in the room was plans for the tournament as Don explained the idea. Don, Ed Bell,, John Lowe, Pete Loftin, Bob Gipson, Bob Pittman, Charlie Hamaker, Dave Workman Sr. and Gene Leary were all well known names in town and especially in the fishing community. They came up with the idea in 1980 and put the first tournament together a year later with Don as the chairman. And the Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament was born.

“This is a tournament that everybody can fish,” he continued, likening it to other tournaments. “No matter what kind of boat you have, you can get in this tournament.”

“I need to call the station,” I told him explaining that I wanted to get the story on the late news.

“Use my phone,” he said, pointing to the edge of the table.

I looked around but there wasn’t a phone in sight. I must have had this perplexed look on my face because Don laughed and said, “It’s in the briefcase.”

That’s when I laughed, opening the briefcase looking for some kind of “Slimline Princess” phone inside. Instead, it looked like something from the “Get Smart” TV show: A handle, a cord and a rotary dial.

“It’s a mobile phone, use it,” Don said as he gestured to the parts.

It was the first cell phone I had ever seen, remember this was 1981, and the first one I ever used. I did call the station and even remember saying, “Can you hear me?” when they answered.

When you hang around long enough you reach certain milestones. This is the 40th Annual Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament. I’ve attended and covered and reported on every one. I’ve seen the ups and downs, the moves, the trials and triumphs of every iteration of the GJKT.

That first year the tournament was at Beach Marine. A long run from the ocean to weigh fish, but over 500 boats registered. Everything from fifteen to fifty-footers were entered. I saw one guy drop his fish in the water handing it over from the barge to the dock. He dove for it for the next ten minutes until they made him come out.

For a few years the tournament was housed at the Pablo Creek Marina. Those years were highlighted by a dedicated home for the tournament and unprecedented growth. Everybody wanted to be in the tournament or just part of the social atmosphere. It was kind of like the TPC, but different at the same time. Anyway you looked at it though, it was a big deal.

While at Pablo Creek, the tournament committee consulted the Coast Guard one year when three guys in a ski boat wanted to weight a fish they had caught in the “Chum Hole” just outside the Mayport Jetties. Their motor quit heading to the weigh-in on the Intracoastal. So they started swimming the boat to the marina.

“If the tide wasn’t coming this way,” the tournament chairman told me, “We’d have never let them do that.” Imagine, three guys, all with lines to the boat, swimming it under the Intracoastal Bridge at Atlantic Boulevard to the dock. It was quite a sight.

I’ve covered the tournament from a helicopter, seeing hundreds of boats around the “Chum Hole.” I’ve watch a wild scramble of boats coming out of the jetties, and a “Bimini” start with boats lined up along the beach. I’ve covered it from a boat and even fished in it a few years, with no success. And on Friday of the tournament in 1990, my wife called me while I was a couple of miles offshore (I had a cell phone that looked like something out of WWII) to say she was in labor. I had to get a special ruling to allow me to get off the boat and to allow the rest of the crew continue to fish and not be disqualified. I headed to the hospital and our youngest was born that night.

Over the 40 years of the GJKT, it’s had ups and downs some related to the economy, the competition, tournament leadership and location. From having to put a limit of 1,000 boats, this year’s tournament hopes to have 300 or so.

“We had no idea what to expect with the corona virus,” this year’s tournament chairman Glenn Morningstar sad this week. “We’re excited because we’re ahead of last year and if the weather looks good, we’ll have a lot of boats register before Thursday.”

Morningstar is determined to bring the tournament back to what it once was. In a way they’ve gone back to their roots with the “High Roller” tournament on Monday and the Jr. Angler kids day on Tuesday. They’re adding a past champions tournament as well.

“I’ll seek the advice of the captains and the fishermen in the area,” Morningstar said of his chairmanship. “They know what’s going on out there. They fish these tournaments and they can make it better.”

In recent years the GJKT has tried to level the competition by added a single engine class and creating north and south boundaries.

Last Wednesday I fished aboard the “Ankle Shot” with my long-time friend Billie Nimnicht in the media day tournament. We actually caught fish! Billie’s back as a sponsor of the tournament this year despite the smaller numbers expected.

“We’re just back this year,” he explained. “When my dad was running the dealership, It was the Big 5 and Big 6 Chevy dealers who were the big sponsors.”

The Nimnicht family has always been civic minded since opening their first business on Riverside Avenue in 1941. Billie’s mother Anne is a former Chairman of The Players. His uncle Ed was chairman of the GJKT. So there’s a community involvement background that ties him to the tournament, but he says it’s practical as well.

“It’s the perfect demographic for our potential customers,” he said. “They have nice boats and want to have a good-looking truck to pull it.”

As the boats got bigger, and the motors multiplied, fishermen from all over, and especially the Carolina’s showed up at the GJKT and started dominating. No longer was a ski boat in the chum hole competitive. That’s one of the things that caused the GJKT’s boat number to dwindle.

“I’m leaning on the experts on our board who are fishermen to give us things we can do to make the tournament better for fishermen,” Morningstar explained.

A one-day tournament with an affordable entry fee, a limited fishing area and a great prize turned out to be the exact formula for a successful tournament this year. The “Old School Kingfish Shootout” happened on June 13 with perfect weather, a three-mile offshore limit, and defined fishing area and a $250 entry fee.

This year’s “Old School Kingfish Shootout” was such a success, organizer Paul Dozier is hoping that rubs off on the GJKT.

“It would be good for everybody,” he said. “The better everybody does, the better it is for everybody,” he added.

With nearly 650 boats registered in their first year, the Old School Shootout’s success was a surprise to everybody.

“The fishermen spoke and showed up in droves,” Dozier explained. “I had no idea, (it would be as big as it was) it just worked out perfectly, the weather, the fishing, It was everything we needed. Maybe it was everybody wanting to get out after being stuck at home. It was families fishing together, everybody having fun. We had the small guys competing with the big guys on a level playing field.”

My memories of the Kingfish Tournament are pretty special. The people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made. Those would have never happened without this weekend in July.

Walking through the aptly named “Liar’s Tent” at the GJKT was always a treat, especially in the early years of the tournament when Anheuser-Busch was involved. It wasn’t unusual to see Joe Frazier, Mickey Mantle or a number of other sports celebrities who were sponsored by the brewery. Frazier even won the VIP tournament one year.

Taking a polygraph has become part of tournament fishing prize winning. There’s a lot at stake and organizers want to keep things on the up and up. One night the tournament winner called me to complain that he had been harassed that night in the Liar’s Tent after taking his polygraph.

“You know it’s called the “Liar’s Tent” right?” I asked. “At a fishing tournament?”

He understood and eventually laughed it off.

It was always amazing to watch Jim King identify the boats and the captains and even the fish from a stand on the dock at the new Sisters Creek Park. I knew he had a little crib sheet on the stand and an assistant but he barely ever looked at it. He was doing that well before he ran for public office and served in the state capitol. He knew everybody and their boats by name. The park was built with funds raised by the tournament. That why, rightfully, the park now bears his name.

It was a great idea forty years ago and it still has a chance to be a fun summer weekend for competitors and spectators alike.

Dozier says the Shootout will return next year without much change.

“I’m not going to change much,” he said. “We’ll expand what we’re doing for women and kids in the future to encourage those people to keep fishing together.

Morningstar says the lessons learned from the Shootout will rub off on the GJKT, but agreed, people fishing together is the key.

“The best part is the kids day, the Jr. Angler. They’re the future of the tournament.”

There are a couple of changes to the weigh-in procedure to accommodate social distancing. You might be surprised they’re holding the tournament at all in the current public health climate. Morningstar says not to worry.

“We’re having the tournament with the current Covid orders in mind,” he explained. We know the fishing community wants to fish so we’re following the orders and we’re going to fish.”

Racin’ and Fishin’ at Daytona

I’ve been pretty fortunate in my journalism career to do some exciting things and meet some interesting people. I’ve often said that I had the second best job in the world, Pat Summerall and now Jim Nantz topping that list. And you might have heard me say more than once, “I’ve flown with the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. I’ve had breakfast with Ali, lunch with Richard Petty and beers with Arnold Palmer. Tony Trabert is one of my best friends. What’s not to like?”

Add to that list now, I’ve fished in Lake Lloyd.

If you’re not a NASCAR fan, you’ve never heard of Lake Lloyd and have no idea where it is. Because Lake Lloyd sits in the middle of Daytona International Speedway.

When Bill France, Sr. was building the Speedway in the late ‘50’s, they dug down in the middle of the racetrack to grab enough dirt to build the 31-degree banking in the turns. When the track was finished in 1959, France named the lake after a local car dealer in Daytona who had given him his first job as a mechanic in the 1930’s.

At 44-acres, the lake was a little close to the edge of the track and a few times cars did end up in the lake so it was trimmed down to it’s current 29-acre size. Early NASCR Driver “Tiger” Tom Pistone was so fearful about driving into Lake Lloyd. he’d keep scuba gear in his car. Just in case.

France also had the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission come in and stock the lake with bass. And it rarely gets fished.

So when the invitation came from NASCAR to fish in Lake Lloyd with 2011 Coke Zero Sugar champion David Ragan, I immediately said yes.

I’ve bass fished for about 35 years and since my friend and former Georgia and NFL quarterback Matt Robinson taught me how to bass fish, I thought it was only fitting that I invited him to go along. Matt was there to get some pictures of me fishing with Ragan and if the chance came, throw a line in Lake Lloyd.

Ragan lists his hometown as Unadilla, Georgia, just south of Macon along I-75. “Being from a small town, I’ve had a chance to fish in some ponds,” Ragan said before jumping onto the bass boat waiting at the dock. He fished with Daytona President Chip Wile and looked right at home with a pole in his hands. The media was aboard two pontoon boats waiting our turn to join them.

Actually during the NASCAR races, any fan in the infield can fish from the dock at the lake. And there’s a charity fishing tournament held there before the Daytona 500. But a chance to get into a boat and fish some of the nooks and crannies, some of the structure and the drainpipes was something special.

Smartly, the folks from Bass Pro Shops who supplied the boats and the fishing equipment put an extra couple of poles in the media boats.

Before you knew it, Wile had caught three good-sized fish along the southwest corner of the lake. Ragan pulled two to the boat on successive casts. It was pretty windy but the tackle provided was able to handle that.

While we were maneuvering to get more pictures of Ragan and Wile fishing, Robinson, in the photographers boat, and me, in the reporters boat, rigged up some green worms and got lines in the water.

If you’ve ever fished with friends, you know those dual, simultaneous feelings that come over you when they hook the first fish. You’re thrilled for them, and at the same time more determined than ever to have something happen on the end of you line.

That’s how I felt when I looked up to see Matt standing on the side of the boat with his line bent in half reeling a bass to the boat. No sooner had he held it up to show me when I felt that familiar “tap-tap” in my hands. I set the hook hard but the line didn’t move so I figured I was snagged on the bottom.

That’s when the drag started signing with the line going in the opposite direction. A few minutes later, I brought what turned out to be a 4-6 lb. bass to the boat. He was big enough that I couldn’t get him out of the water with just the line and the pole.

I was feeling pretty good when I showed him to the guide on our boat who said, “You could throw a sledgehammer in here and catch a fish,” to a big laugh.

Ragan was clearly enjoying himself when I jumped aboard his boat. He had reeled in a few fish and helped a couple of novice reporters catch their first ever in the process.

After this season, NASCAR will move the second race at Daytona to the end of the year, the final qualifying race before the playoffs. Ragan was nostalgic about racing this Saturday at Daytona for the final time during the 4th of July holiday weekend.

“I love coming here,” he said. “When I was a kid, I knew we were going to sit around the house and watch the Firecracker 400 (now the Coke Zero Sugar 400). It was something we knew we were going to do. My dad (Ken Ragan) got to race here. I was fortunate to win here. It’s really special to me and my family.”

Ragan’s father is involved in his career and according to David, sometimes just shakes his head at how technology has changed the sport.

“He shakes his head a lot,” Ragan said with a laugh. “We have a group of engineers using simulation two weeks ahead of the race to prepare. We know the car, the engine. We’ve scanned the racetrack for the different bumps, the width, everything about it.”

“We know when we hit the racetrack about what we’re going to do,” he explained. “Just 15 years ago you’d have to do all of that with a smart guy pulling wrenches here at the track after a practice session. Now we’ve got smart guys pecking on the computer. But when they throw the green flag its still man vs. machine.”

At 33 years old, Ragan could be considered in the prime of his career. But the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are reminders that driving a racecar won’t last forever.

“Driving is a short window in the big span of my life and I want to make hay while the sun’s out,” he said. “Wives and girlfriends and children have to put up with a lot, but it won’t be forever.”

He admitted it was difficult to leave his two young daughters that morning for this appearance at Daytona.

“Sometimes you miss things you want to be at,” he said.

When I motioned to the water with a smile he answered,

“But hey, we caught fish!”

Kingfish Tournament Still Fishing

Hang out on any dock for any length of time and you’ll hear somebody say, “That’s why they call it fishin’ and not catchin’. But at the annual Media Day for the 2017 Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament, there was plenty of catchin’ going on.

Aboard the “D-Breef” with Captain Dennis Sergent again this year out of Sisters Creek Marina, News4Jax Sports Producer/Photographer Matt Kingston and I were on our annual fishing trip prior to the GJKT. Now in it’s 37th year, the GJKT has sponsored a media day almost every year. Sometimes we catch fish, and others we don’t. This year, the kingfish were plentiful, something Sergent expected early in the day.

“You could tell how easy it was to catch bait,” the veteran fisherman explained. “That’s why we just went a mile and a half off shore. The fish were following the bait and the warm water.

Catching Kingfish is a simple process. Slow trolling either live menhaden, known locally as “pogies” or use a ribbonfish. Pogies are small fish that school near the beach in big pods. Finding a pod and casting a net to it can be an arduous process. But Wednesday on the first cast, Sergent and his friend and 1st Mate David Shutterly brought several hundred baitfish into the boat.

They immediately went into the live well and we were off to put lines in the water. Most of the other boats were trolling a well-known spot called the “South East Hole” so that was our logical starting point. Sending out four lines with live bait plus two downriggers (a heavy weight that trolls the bait 20-40 feet underwater) with ribbon fish attached, it wasn’t five minutes before we got our first hit. Ten minutes later we landed our first king of the day, about 13 pounds.

“They definitely wanted the ribbon fish more than the live bait, which is weird,” Shutterly noted. “It’s give and take, one or the other.”

In it’s history, the GJKT has been won by locals fishing just off the jetties and by visiting competitors who have run all the way past Daytona Beach to find fish. But the values of the tournament have stayed the same: Everybody has a chance.

“My boat is a 22 foot boat,” Steve Thompson the 2017 Kingfish Tournament Chairman said after a day on the water. “We threw our net out, caught some pogies and we caught some fish. The fish seemed to have showed up just in time.”

At one point in it’s history, the GJKT boasted nearly 1,000 boats registered and billed itself as one of the largest fishing tournaments in the world. While it’s had it’s ups and downs, they’re hoping to have 300 boats compete this year. Sergent will be one of the captains on the water, looking for big kings.

“Over the years it’s become a social event,” Dennis said after bringing fish to the weigh-in at the dock. “The camaraderie, the friendship we’ve developed over the year. We see friends on the weekend we don’t see during the week. Some of us old timers see friends we don’t see all year. You can have a small boat, a large boat, one motor, four motors or five, everybody’s in the game when you leave that inlet.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Kingfish Tournament: Back to it’s Roots

In its heyday, the Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament would attract 1000 boats, mainly from Jacksonville, North Florida and South Georgia, for two days of fishing off our coast. Over the years, the focus of the tournament got away from the “local” aspect and concentrated more on the competition. As the rules changed and fewer and fewer local anglers felt competitive in the tournament, the numbers dwindled. Competitive fishermen from all over started to dominate the tournament with big and fast boats, capable of covering hundreds of miles to find and catch the biggest fish. Couple that with a downturn in the economy and rising gas prices, entries in 2014 were fewer than 400 boats.

“We’re getting back to the community event we once were,” 2015 Tournament Chairman Fred Holmes said on Wednesday at the tournament site on Sisters Creek. Over 33 years of the GJKT they’ve contributed $650,000 to charity, helped build the Sisters Creek boat ramp and recently helped host the “Down at the Docks” fishing day for the Downs Syndrome Association for the second straight year. “We want to be that family tournament where everybody has a chance to win,” Holmes explained. “We’d gotten a bit away from that but we’re on our way back.”

Going back to the two day fishing tournament on Thursday and Friday, July 16 and 17, Holmes believes gives everybody equal footing when it comes to winning. “The shootout format didn’t work for us. Too much pressure on one day. We’re back where we want to be.”

Local Captain Dennis Sergent thinks the playing field is level this year but for a different reason. “A thermocline came through here last week and scattered the fish,” he explained during the annual GJKT Media Fishing tournament. “The water temperature is down, there’s no bait on the beach right now so the fish aren’t in one spot or another. Having a big, fast boat is no advantage right now.”

For the second year in a row, the Channel 4 Fishing Team (me and Matt Kingston) fished with Dennis and his mate Danny Shore during their media day aboard the “Debreef” looking for kings off our coast. An early morning start provided us with clear weather and glassy seas, but no baitfish. Kingfish feed on menhaden or “pogies” that school near shore but none were to be found. So we went to plan ‘B’ using ribbonfish brought along just in case.

Fishing for King Mackerel isn’t what you would call an “active” event but rather a lot of preparation and a lot of sitting around, slow trolling in spots where the fish usually swim. Problem is, or maybe the fun of it is, you never know what you’re going to bring up out of the waters offshore.

During our hours of fishing, we hit two different spots known to local anglers. “Middle Grounds” and “MR,” well-fished and marked spots on just about everybody’s GPS system. Other boats were having a spot of luck at MR so we headed there and put lines in the water.

With music playing and the conversation breezing by, it didn’t seem like long before one reel went off with the familiar “zzzzzzzz” indicating something was tugging at the other end. I was first up so I took the rod and started the process of getting whatever was hooked near the boat and to the surface so we could take a look at it, hoping it was a kingfish.

“It doesn’t feel like a king,” I said aloud echoing my first thoughts about what was going on. “Too much on the surface, too much change of direction,” I noted. Having fished for a while, but certainly no expert, my experience with kings was that they went on strong runs a couple of times after being hooked before you could bring them to the boat. This fish just swam around as we chased him down, giving no indication of a fight.

“He’s shaking his head, probably a shark,” I said, recalling the annoying habit we had of catching shark on this day in previous years. “Maybe he doesn’t know he’s hooked,” Dennis said, which, as silly as it might seem, is a real possibility.

And it turns out Dennis was exactly right. Once we got on the fish and put some pressure on him, he started his runs, pretty strong, pretty deep and away from the boat. I still wasn’t convinced. “If it’s a king, can’t be very big, he’s too quick,” again calling on my limited experience.

This went on for about 15 minutes before we finally saw the fish for the first time. “Wow, that’s a BIG king,” Danny said making sure I knew, as the angler, that we needed to get this fish to the boat.

“Don’t horse him,” Dennis said, using the fishing vernacular for trying to land a fish too quickly.

So slowly and methodically we kept the boat aligned with the fish, put pressure on him when necessary and eventually, after three extended runs, brought him in the boat.

“That is a big fish!” Channel 4 photographer Matt Kingston said as we laid him out on the deck. We estimated he might be about 30 pounds since he was long but not particularly fat. In fact, once we got him to the dock, the fish officially weighed 27.80 pounds, good enough to win the Media Day tournament.

Dennis and Danny have fished together for a while and knew what they were doing. They went into the day with a plan and executed it to perfection, with a little fishing luck going our way. It’s always fun to fish with guys who enjoy the day, the camaraderie, and just being out on the water. I’d fish with them anytime.

“There’s no such thing as a bad day fishing,” Dennis said with a laugh.

The GJKT runs July 14-18 with the Junior Angler, the Captains Meeting, the two day tournament and the Saturday awards all at Jim King Park at Sisters Creek off Hecksher Drive.

For more information go to

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Nearly Perfect Day Fishing

Any chance I have a chance to go fishing, I usually jump at it.

After about a five-year hiatus, the Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament resurrected the “media” fishing day leaving from Sister’s Creek Marina just off the St. Johns River. Luckily I drew my friend Randy Nader as the boat captain so with Matt Kingston from Channel 4 and my son Cole along, we hit the water at 7:30.

“This is great,” I hollered to Cole over the roar of the twin 250’s pounding us over the small swells. “Shame it has to happen at 7 in the morning,” I mused. It is something that you never know when the fish are going to hit, but it’s important to get out there at “first light.”

We were lucky to draw Randy as our captain. I’ve fished with Randy before and not only does he always have the top equipment, but he’s an expert and can find the fish. And if they’re not around, he’ll call somebody and find some. And besides that, he’s about the nicest and best guy you’ve ever met.

As soon as we cleared the jetties, we shot right to the beach looking for bait. From 100 yards away I could see the “pogies” popping on the water so over the side the net went. I’ve looked for bait in the past for half the day and sometimes find a few, just enough to fish with. (BTW, a “pogie” is actually a menhaden fish. Small, swims in big schools and lives near the shore. It’s the right size to use for bait on bigger fish in deeper water.)

When the two mates, Malcolm and Kevin started to pull the net up, it was so heavy they couldn’t get it over the side. At first I thought it was stuck on something but when I went to help, I could tell it was just overflowing. I mean there were pogies everywhere. Never have I seen any one throw of the net grab so many baitfish. Over 1000. Honest.

So with bait onboard we went about 20 miles off shore to start. It was glassy so we were there in a flash. With lines in the water, two sharks were our first catch. Small, and just enough to make everybody on the boat want to head elsewhere. So we did! And fast! Randy punched in the coordinates and off we went. With the stereo blasting, easily the best on-board sound and DVD system I’ve ever seen, we were in a new spot with lines in the water almost immediately.

Right away, a king mackerel hit one of the lines. You could tell the difference in how it took out line. After about a 7 minute fight, our first 15-pounder was in the boat. Then it dried up again. No surprise, but we did boat a small king, cutting it off at the boat looking for, as the saying goes, “bigger fish to fry!” Off to another spot and with lines in the water, you could feel something about to happen.

One by one, the two outriggers and the flat line behind the boat took off, three strikes at once! We hooked all three up and fought them for about 10 minutes. What was interesting was as we were fighting those three, about four other kings where jumping (skyrocketing) around the boat. It was your typical “hair on fire moment” trying to maneuver the boat, catch the fish and stay on board!

We brought all three to the boat, cut two off because they were small and threw the third in the fish box. That’s when we got two more strikes on either side of the boat. I was fighting one fish while Matt had a pretty big one on the other side. As we were brining them in, the biggest barracuda I’ve ever seen started cruising around the boat. I got my fish close enough to see he was small and cut him off while Matt was fighting a big kind pretty hard.

That’s when the barracuda cruised around in a circle and “boom” hit the back of the kind and sheered its tail off. Another circle and “boom” the body of the fish was taken away. I know it sounds like a fish story, but that barracuda was more than 4 feet long! It looked like Wild Kingdom out there!

We fished for a while, and caught a few trash fish but the kings had turned off and there’s nothing you can do about it when they’re night biting. That’s why they call it fishing and not catching.

Lets see: on the water, with my son and good friends, having fun, fishing, listening to good music and funny videos, actually catching fish?

Nearly a perfect day!