It was 1986, Reagan was in the Whitehouse, the King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and America mourned the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger crew. In North Carolina, a handful of rogue off-shorer’s were tinkering with innovative live-baiting techniques for the lowly king mackerel (known to most as the “kingfish”). These fishing pioneers never realized how they’d change the trajectory of sportfishing and the course of the marine industry forever.
Fast forward to 1990. Florida residents Jack and Deona Holmes were managing a boating publication and marine marketing group in St. Augustine. A friend who knew of their passion for all things fishing invited the couple to a weekender kingfish tournament in Jacksonville. At the conclusion, he asked the Holmes for their advice on how to grow the local tournament into a regional event.
The Holmes offered wise counsel, and the Trail was launched. As it grew, the Holmes were asked to produce a small Trail magazine and help with sponsor recruitment. However, the Trail stumbled financially and was subsequently unable to pay the money owed the Holmes for their efforts.
Recognizing an opportunity and needing to recoup significant losses, the Holmes decided to salvage the Trail, and the Southern Kingfish Association, or SKA, was born in 1991 with 11 annual tournaments. Today, SKA’s Trail has grown into a 50-event tour.
Today, the Trail travels from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, south through Florida, up Florida’s west coast and around the Gulf States to Louisiana. The Mercury Tournament Trail is where most of the 7,000-plus fishing teams compete, being broken down into nine geographic divisions with three to five events in each division.
More than 40,000 anglers pursue prizes and a chance to compete in the annual championship with more than $3 million in prize money available along the way.
Additionally, SKA plays hosts to the SKA Professional Kingfish Tour (www.fishska.com/tour/). That tour caters to the seasoned professional fishermen and culminates with the a championship in November with a top prize of $40,000.
The success of the trail has been predicated on the resiliency of the king mackerel itself. The kingfish is a formidable opponent, appealing to hardcore fishermen from the eastern and southern seaboards. Kingfish challenges all who chase it and, in itself, is a fierce competitor – one that challenge both fishermen as well as equipment.
The kingfish is also the perfect tournament species, as it is plentiful and hardy; one void of any ecological baggage or negative press. However, this wasn’t always the case. During the early 1980s, the kingfish fishery was devastated by the commercial roller rigs (1,200-foot long, 45- to 100-foot deep power-assisted gill nets) to such an extent the fish was near extinction. Today, the kingfish has rebounded through sound management of habitat and bag limits. Populations now exceed those of the pre-roller rig fishing enterprise days.
Schooling king mackerel have three distinct migration routes: from the mouth of the Mississippi River west, through Texas, and down into Mexico; from south of the Dry Tortugas up the Florida west coast; and west to the Mississippi River. In the summer months, the Mississippi Delta hosts the best king mackerel fishing in the world with the eastern stock traveling from the Florida Keys up into Virginia waters.
In the 23 years since its inception, SKA has become a dominant force, exerting a wide span of influence across the marine, tournament angling and conservation arenas. And Jack Holmes has become an industry mover-and-shaker. Holmes is quick to point out, “Deona has been right beside me every step along the way; she’s a major player in the industry – and quite capable of angling with the top professionals out there.”
Few outside the industry realize the impact SKA and the Holmes have had on the marine and fishing industries. As the association and their tournaments blossomed, pressure grew from anglers demanding new and improved boats and equipment capable of making long 40- to 100-mile hauls to distant fish and fertile fishing grounds.
Marine equipment of the day, specifically boats and outboards, were woefully inadequate. Most were large and dreadfully slow. “Boats back in the day weren’t designed for our new breed of fishermen,” Holmes says. “Luckily, we were able to talk directly with manufacturers, helping shape future hulls, while offering the performance our fishermen demanded to remain competitive. It was a perfect marriage.”
According to Holmes, early boating pioneers like Fountain Powerboats, Donzi and Pro-Line all listened to SKA fishermen, and re-invented center consoles with scarab-styling began to emerge. As hulls evolved, so did demand for better power plants. “Outboards were typically no bigger than 150 horsepower – woefully underpowered to motivate these new large, sleek fishing machines,” Holmes says. “We needed something better.”
Seizing the moment, he turned to SKA’s partners in the marine industry. “We knew we needed better, larger and more dependable outboards to power these boats. So once again we huddled with the manufacturers and outlined what we needed: aggressive, highly-dependable machines,” Holmes continues. “And just like the boat guys, the outboard folks responded.”
Seemingly overnight, larger and greatly improved outboards were on the back of every kingfish boat. “Once boats eclipsed the 30-foot mark, double and triple set-ups began appearing on the back of boats, another SKA driven innovation,” Holmes adds.
Conservation and Charity
Today, the visionary Holmes continues his relentless pursuit of conservation, a commitment he began along with the SKA. Holmes personally lobbies congressmen and senators in matters important to all fishermen. “The single biggest threat to our sport is the zealous over-reaching by the federal government regarding our marine resources and their management,” he contends. “It’s a case of the government governing something better left to fishermen.”
Holmes is also concerned with unrealistic bag limits which negatively impact the sport fishing industry. “Fishermen are those who are most concerned with the health of the sport fish they pursue; unrealistic bag limits set without rhyme or reason do little to promote the health of a species.”
The SKA tour aggressively promotes charities, annually raising in excess of $1 million for local charities and marine enhancement programs. SKA also supports marine research, helping fund the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Sciences and their research on endangered species or marine enhancement and restoration projects.
At 71 years young, Holmes shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, a man half his age would be hard-pressed to keep his demanding schedule. When asked if he has any retirement plans in the near future Holmes quips, “I get asked that on occasion; I’d love to slow down and spend a bit more quality time with Deona away from our time together managing the SKA. But, there’s so much left to do and accomplish, and I feel I’m been called to see this to the end.”