Time has been called a flowing river, but for captain Dave Zalewski, 75, it’s more of an ebbing sea. Guiding tours across generations — sometimes literally — aboard his 37-foot Bertram yacht the Lucky Too III for nearly 40 years, few understand the mysteries of the Gulf of Mexico like he does.
“Every day is like a kaleidoscope out there,” Zalewski says. “We see sea turtles, sharks, occasionally a whale shark, dolphins, sea birds, and the fish are always there. I’m amazed at the color of saltwater fish.”
From mid-October to past Christmas, kingfish, gag grouper and Spanish mackerel return from spawning and feeding in the northern gulf to ride out the winter in the warm waters south of Florida, completing the endless cycle that Zalewski calls “the ballet of nature.”
This season, as Red Tide grips Florida’s western shores, there’s never been a better time to hit the open water and fish for some of Florida’s tastiest catches: the slender, blue-bodied kingfish. The biggest difference between deep-sea fishing from near-shore fishing, however, is where the fish are going to be.
“The Gulf is like a big desert out there,” Zalewski says. “There’s oases scattered all over the place that are either shipwrecks, artificial reefs or [the area] by the chains where the buoys are. That’s a place where bait fish can seek refuge and, in turn, where the predators are seeking the bait fish.”
The kingfish will be where the bait is, Zalewski says. Good starting points are the artificial reefs five miles offshore, or the shipping channel extending 15 miles out, while Spanish mackerel sometimes are just a hundred yards from shore. Guests choose what they want to fish for and, more often than not, Zalewski finds ways to deliver.
One thing he won’t compromise on, however, is over-harvesting fish. Like seawater on rock, time and experience have shaped Zalewski’s views on the industry, particularly regarding conservation. His motto is not “catch your limit,” but “limit your catch.”
“I’m sort of a rebel in the industry [because] I don’t have the ego where I have to put a large amount of fish up on the dock to show I had a successful trip,” says Zalewski, who has taught classes at the Madeira Beach City Marina since the 1990s that cover everything from properly cleaning a fish to sustainable fishing practices. “In fact, my most successful trips are a combination of keeping enough to eat and releasing a whole lot. That’s the only way we’re going to have a future.”
DAVE ZALEWSKI has been fishing in the Tampa Bay area since 1962, operating Lucky Too Charters or almost as long. He also teaches fishing classes and is an instructor with Ladies Let’s Go Fishing.