And what a report this will be. All of our special kayakfishin world was well aware of the Humminbird Extreme Paddlefishin Tournament Series. Altho there certainly have been other local fishing events, this was truly the first truly national event, with major sponsors and with attendees scheduled from all over the US. It was great for our sport and and great for Florida. And still affordable for the average guy or gal (yes there was one gal there, our very own Carol from Miami).
Some of the celebrities scheduled were the "grandfather of yakfishin" (and the guy who personally helped me get on the water) - Dennis Spike. Jon and Joey of Kayakfishingstuff. Ken Doubert, author of "Kayakfishing Revolution", truly our one and only bible of yakfishin. Some of the best guides in Florida and Texas. And our good buddy Kevin Fenn.
As far as club representation, these included TexasKayakFisherman, Paddlezone.net, Eangler and others. Most were decked out in club t-shirts and hats, very impressive. Some of these were sponsored. Last but not least was the FLYC, represented by Chef Mike, Carol and me. Not to mention Luis, more later. I was very moved to learn that the FLYC is both known and respected, as was the unequaled variety of our S. Florida waters and fish.
We left early Friday (bout 6am), arrived at 9am to be met by Luis. Luis, a former resident of Miami, but now living in Punta Gorda, is a serious yakfisher, fishes with Ben Turpin (local guide), and had been watchin the waters so we'd be up to the minute in choosing our hotspot.
His recommendation: Placida. We considered the drive (45 min) and decided to maximize our water time by fishin around Alligator Creek, another great area also producing well. We prefished the area most of the day, but really didn't catch much. Chalked it up to the fishin gods and prayed for the best. But we did find a very fishy spot: shallow oyster lagoon adjoining a beautful deep stream outlet, surrounded by some small mangrove islands and oyster flats. Perfect! We checked in at the Best Western (special yak rate of $52 for two, plus a roll away for Carol).
The Captain's meeting at 6:30 was super and we finally met the roughly 50 contestants, the great staff of Laishley Marine, the Exude and Humminbird reps and more. The rules were explained and we all got a goodie bag filled with t-shirst, stickers, a bunch of Exudes, Mirrolure, lip balm, sunscreen and a waterproof baggie with a disposable cam, measuring tape, fish towel, pen and record sheet. The rules were simple:
Launch whereever you like, take a pic of your rigged yak at "safe light" and go fishin. Take pics of your fish with tape and record, catch and release. Artificial lures only. Targeted fish: Snook, Redfish, Trout and Other. Each category had a first, second and third place (except other). There was a big prize for the biggest Slam (combined length of all three species...you must catch all three to qualify), and a Team prize for the largest slam. Cameras to be turned in not one second later than 4 pm.
We then enjoyed a picnic type buffet served by the Hooter's girls. The Hooters girls' buffet was enjoyable. The buffet was served by the Hooter's girls. The Hooter's girls also served draft beer. Each table got a large, free Hooter's girls calendar. Featuring the Hooter's girls. Which is now hangin on my wall.
What a Hooter, er hoot. Great fun. By 10 or so we were bushed and off to bed. But not until we made a late night visit to the parkin lot to make final lure selections. Then back to the room exhausted but I still needed to respool with fresh line for the contest. After 3 failed tries to tie a simple spider's hitch I became, uh, a little frustrated. Let's just leave it at the Best Western now has a small but unnoticeable dent in their wallboard. Nah, we weren't wired. Chef Mike insisted that we set the alarm for 4:45 and we put in for a wake up. Slept like a log. Chef Mike awoke early couldn't sleep, fortunate cause the wake up call never happened. To say that Mike was also lit would be an understatement.
Now please know that the Chefster is from the Nu Yawk/Jersee area and is already type AA. Throw in our first tourney, lack of club t-shirts, presence of top guides and teams and... he was an absolute madman. Never you mind that we were 5 minutes from the launch. Never you mind we had over an hour and a half. Or that ya just gotta have a really good breakfast for a non-stop, no nonsense day of fishin.
Nope, Mad Mike was havin none of this. We were gonna stop at Dorkin Dewnuts and get a friggin bagel to go. So we could be first in line at the launch, and as ready as Olympic swimmers poised at the pool's edge. I suggested IHOP, which, as a great leader, I had researched as being open at that hour. But nooooooooooo....Mike roared right past, and finally we found the DD.
Closed. Only in Punta Gorda.
So back to IHOP with Mike swearin, kickin and screamin. Naturally it was open (refer to wise leader reference), and we were the first and only customers (ibid). Got good service, and the cook was super. Mike reluctantly admitted the wisdom and superior nourishment of our choice, and we got to the launch in plenty of time.
To find only one yakker, good old Dirty Dave with his truly tricked out Tarpon and a master fisherman. Nice guy. Helped us unload and prepare for safe light, which he graciously confirmed with us before paddlin off with his 6 rod rig and cruisin light. Took our pics and joined him.
Just as we were about to leave a few more yakkers showed up, actually a bit late (they must have waited for Mike's Dunkin Donuts to open), and we blasted down the channel so we could get to our secret spot undetected. About 5 min out the Chef noticed he'd forgotten his soft cooler with drinks but refused to go back, said we'd get it later. Since I had extra water and no known communicable diseases I agreed and kicked myself for not getting Mike's a complete medical history. Hehe. This turned out to be a big error.
So here we were, just a few yakkers. Dirty Dave had gone south, and we had our specified hot spot to ourselves. And no one had seen us. Except for Dave, who later said "boy, you guys sure went a long ways..". I guess he carries binoculars too.
Our hotspot was a small lagoon adjoining a deep stream, had a number of sweet mangrove mounds and was surrounded by serious oysterbeds. Perfect for reds, our main target fish. And with a strong current and channel great for snook as well. We knew we were in prime red country, a magnificent strong fish and one of Florida's great fish. Which you hunt like bonefish, cruising slowly and seeking tailing reds in shallow waters. This is true Florida yakfishing. You are the hunter and sightcast.
Well we saw nothing. It was low tide, too low we thought, so change of plans. Headed back out to the surrounding flats and started hunting. Chef Mike, who knows reds, was sure the water was way too shallow, just 6 inches to maybe a foot, lots of hangups and many new scratches on our yaks. But we persisted, chasing wakes and scarin a lot of big mullet. Finally I thought I spotted a fin, looked a lot like a feedin stingray.
We cautiously approached to discover maybe 4 or 5 fins, a cruisin, feedin school of reds! Made some casts using the old standby for reds - a gold spoon. Mike's with a rubber trailer, mine with feathers. No hits. But we realized there were a number of schools and it was possible to determine their direction and get ahead of them. We spooked a few (btw, unlike bonefish they will stay in the area, so it's possible to hang out and find em again).
Finally we hit another tailing school. I laid a perfect cast maybe 3 or feet to the side and beyond, and reeled past. Bang. Solid hit, solid fish. My weedless spoon had connected. Mike was super supportive. We'd traded cameras and agreed to stay close, stop fishin if the other guy connected and standby for support and pics. Kept my tip up (oyster beds will cut you off in a second), kept a bend. Reds fight in a bullish nature, twisting and grinding, short but strong runs, no jumps. Finally got him close and lip gripped. Mike was ready, I applied the tape, lifted him and we took two pics for backup.
Bout ten pounds, 26 inches Mike said. We were both shakin, excited. A major fish, likely prize winner we thought. And it was a beauty. The reddish waters made this one especially red and bronze, glistening, beautiful spot on the tail. A stunning beautiful creature. Quickly revived and off he went. And back to huntin.
Mike scored next, and I stood by. Another solid hookup and Mike soon had a 24 inch beauty. And the reds were still happening. The day had just started and we had two possible winners and were well on our way to a Slam and the big money. If we were true competitors we'd have shifted to target snook as it was still prime time, first light. But we knew this was a rare opportunity to hunt reds and decided to stay. After all we had all day. Ha.
When the reds became harder to find, we reluctantly headed south, following Dirty Dave to known snook waters (I'd caught what would have been the #1 snook, 32 or 33 inches, on a prefish). This area is also magnificent with a series of hundreds of interlocking mangrove islands separated by meandering channels which open up into small shallow lagoons. This is a great place for a GPS. We used the method of turn right at every fork on the way in, left on the way out (or vice versa). Still you could easily get lost. Desperate? Keep track of the sun head west to get out.
Tide was comin up and we could see big schools of baitfish scurrying in. We both had on red spoons, Mike had a rubber on, but we were mostly casting our standby topwaters in the recommended mullet color (black back, silver sides). On the east coast we'd be using red/white, a proven winner. Soon Mike had a nice hit, exciting as this was the second leg of a slam. The fish immediately headed for the mangrove roots, but Mike was able to one-hand paddle (technique by Ken Doubert) and keep him out, and landed him.
A red. Great, about 22 inches, nice fish. But not a snook. By now Mike's forgotten fluids and snacks led to a growing migraine, a bad one. But the Chef was a trouper and we were a team. So we kept meandering. Over the next couple hours we hit four nice snook but lost all. All solid fish, in the low 20's, but lost em. In one case, I'd loosened my drag to pull out some line but forgot to tighten it. On a solid hit and run, I was unable to reel down for a good set. By the time I cupped my reel...gone. A possible winner lost!
The realities of our situation was becoming apparent. Should we stay or go, try for a trout (the easiest to catch), or keep goin on snook. Mike is usually the cruiser, I like to fish an area, but in this case the stresses of competition prevailed with some paddleslapping disagreement. Truth was we were simply runnin out of time, but made a team decision to stay in an area where we'd both hit two nice snook each, instead of paddling back to the original hot spot which was now at prime high tide.
Didn't happen. No snook, so we detoured again and headed out into the nice grass flats that run out to an offshore sandbar that runs down the coast. Prime trout territory. And then Mike hit a monster trout, which would prove later to more than likely be a $500 fish. He cranked down hard, and... yup, the hook ripped loose. Ouch! It's so easy to forget that you have just changed species - unlike snook and reds the trout's mouth is much more delicate. You can even lose small ones, turn your drags WAY down and simply be patient.
Mike soon caught another, to keep the Slam alive, but I failed. So with dwindling time to the close we headed back toward two mangrove islands (where I'd prefished a first place sized 33 in. snook) in hope for a Slam for Mike anyway. On the way I trolled a curlytail and darn if I didn't pick up a tiny trout! Slam alive for the both of us.
We got to the islands and Mike's forgotten fluids were really kickin in with a migraine of head splittin proportions. But the Chef was the trouper and we fished the islands. Nothing. So worked our way down the mangroves noting some other contestants catching a number of snook. Why not us? Simply, the wrong technique. Mike and I simply LOVE to work topwaters, and the both of us have become quite the skipcasters (after several thousand snagged mangroves).
And we are good at this, believe me. But Dirty Dave and some of the others are fabulous. They de-yak and wade, towing and cast Texas rigged weighted rubbers WAY up under the mangroves. They work the 'groves meticulously and slowly on the theory that the snook are there if you are patient. They are quite right and we saw at least 4 snook caught. If only we could score a couple we'd be in the Slam running for a $1500 and Prowler!
I'll tell ya right now we didn't change techniques. Why? Comfort and experience for one. Sheer exhaustion, and in the Chef's case, a massive headache. Shore was lookin might good and we had our solid reds. So we stuck with our topwaters which allowed us to keep movin. No hits.
So back down Alligator Creek early (bout 3 pm, hour to go), with me doin trolling a hot black/silver Yozuri silver minnow. Trolling the creek was a good/bad idea. Good cause another desperate angler trolled up a HUGE snook (probably 15 pounds), a sure winner. Bad, because boat traffic caused my first ever onwater tragedy.
Now I've trolled a lot, and have used my customized cooler with angled rocketlaunchers for over a year, hundreds of hours in all kinds of conditions. The holders are secure and well attached. So when an idiot roared by in this no-wake zone I was perturbed but not worrisome, and even surfed the ensuing wake for a bit of fun. But when I turned around to make a cast my trolling rod - beautiful Redbone/Shimano combination, with my favorite reel - gone!
Apparently the wake rocked me hard side to side, and it literally launched the rod from my rocket launchers! So cleanly that I didn't hear a thing. Amazing and sad. I madly paddled back, looking for my floating Yozuri. Nothin. Another look headin back and still nothing. Would have done it again, but the clock was tickin.
The stress of competition. What to do? Well head back in of course. We were here to compete, and compete we would. And it occurred to me that if indeed I had a winner I could at least replace my rod. The Chef and I made it back with 45 minutes to spare and checked in. As the recorder wrote down our catches, I thought I saw only two fish slightly larger than mine. But Mike said he heard someone say there was a tie for third.
Sure enough Rick Roberts came by and said indeed another angler had reported a red just one half inch longer than my 26 incher. Due to variable measuring conditions the judges considered this too close to call so it was gonna go to a photo finish. Although we had intended to leave due to Mike's exhaustion and headache we decided to stay to the finish and boy were we glad we did.
So we had some coffee, wandered around Laishley Marine, and found ourselves at a table with the local boys, Kevin Fenn, and Alberto the Ocean Kayak rep. A guide from the Texas group dropped by and shared his experience. Found out that Kevin too was in a tie for the BIG prize ($1500 plus a Prowler) and was on pins and needles. Kept lookin over at the judges and it was obvious it was close. The photos kept gettin passed back and forth with much discussion so it was obvious it was close for both Kevin and I.
I joked that I should get an extra half inch for losin my rod...hehe. Actually I was serious. Not. Finally our meal was served and it sure tasted good after such a day. And finally - finally - the announcements were made with the usual thanks to the organizers, etc., but they had the good sense to get down to business and start the awards.
The first category announced was for reds! The Humminbird rep accounted as to how it was very close and how some of us had shorted ourselves. We were so excited in the moment of catchin our fine reds that we now realized we shoulda been a lot more attentive. The announcer then revealed there'd been much debate and review over two very close fish, but that after review of the photos the winner with a fish of 26-1/4 in. (in between my 26 and the other 26-1/2 incher) was....
The crowd went wild, and the cheering went on all the way up to the stand. I was moved and almost speechless. Couldn't believe it. I can tell you that the FLYC is well liked and appreciated, especially as we are all amateurs in it for simply the love of the sport. And because of the old Ft. Lauderdale mystique I think. I was so honored to receive this prize - $100 plus about another $150 in the form of a classy new professional lifejacket (replacing my $15 Walfart special) and, would you believe it, a detachable rocketlauncher and RODLEASHES!!!
Oh my! How bout dat! And to receive such supportive cheers and the well wishes of all, but especially Chef Mike, Carol, Alberto, Kevin and our new friends in the Tampa group. Money can't buy, and we were glad we stayed. The rest of the awards were made, and all did well. Our new friend Dirty Dave picked up one. The Tampa team got a fantastic huge wooden Redfish carving, stunning work. And our old friend Keven went ballistic when politics was not played and he did indeed win the whole enchilada, and yet another Prowler!
Congratulations to all, the winners of course, but especially to the 40 or so other good men and women whose camaraderie and participation made this event so special. And thanks to Rick Robert, all the reps, Humminbird, Exude, Ben Turpin and the folks at Laishley. Thank you. We enjoyed the heck out of being there, were so very honored and happy to make new friends. And I must point out that once again I am PROUD to be a yakfisher. These are very special people who absolutely love fishin, love yakkin, are environmentally conscious, practice meticulous catch 'n release and to me are just plain down-to-earth good people.
I mean that.
A final word bout this first of these wonderful tourneys. In my opinion, Humminbird and Rick Roberts have done a BIG service not only for yakfishin but also for Florida, and later other locales. At just $100 to enter (compare to the $3000 to $5000 for a typical sailfish tourney) they sure aren't in it for the money. But it sure is great for the sport. It's a great way to meet other yakkers, see yaks, talk to the reps, browse a really good store, and enjoy some remarkable fishin, esp. if you come a day or so early and/or stay an extra day.
Competition sure is different. Chef Mike and I do in fact spend many hours on the water, and it's no big deal to wander away and move back. But in a tourney we were truly tied together as we exchanged cams and decided to work strictly as a team. I'm not sure that many others did this. The advantages: we could better scope and fish an area. At the outset it was Mike who chose the area and specified the target, while it was I who spotted the distant tailing reds. And we planned our approach together, were able to plan strategy, coach, encourage and support. And stand by camera at the ready.
The negatives: there was one point where we really disagreed bout strategy and became just a wee bit testy. But in retrospect this was near the end of the day, we'd been disappointed by some winning but lost hookups, were runnin outa time, and poor Mike had a massive headache. So I'd have to say our strategy worked. We got some great reds and this alone really made the day. We'd hooked several really solid snook, landed needed trout and the Chef had on a prizewinner. I'd prefished a first place snook.
This was actually a very good day. It's fishin.
I do think that prefishin and research is necessary. Talking to locals, in our case our good friend Luis (who also lent us a map, batteries and a yak lock). Thank you Luis! BTW, do recall that his first recommendation was for Placida which turned out to be the winning hotspot in this tourney. We went for the 2nd choice - Alligator Creek - did well too. It's important to have at least one, maybe even two backup plans. We'd chosen our hotspot and knew we were goin for reds first and succeeded brilliantly.
We did stay too long, should have gone for the snook earlier. And when we lost a few we really had to punt as we lacked a real backup, not that we can't think on the water.
It's different and certainly an intense experience. You feel obligated to keep a lure in the water, will cast a lot more. You'll fancast and search. And still proceed with quiet, care and attentiveness - use all your fishin skills. I will say that these conditions both led to top performance for the both of us. Makin "guide casts" under the mangroves, great fishspotting, etc. Four eyes were definitely better than two.
At the end we were both exhausted physically and mentally. My last three casts went up - WAY UP - in the trees, and when I jerked one out it shot back straight at my face, impaling my hat brim and smashing into my flipdown sunglasses. Came within a hair of havin trebles in my face. It was time to call it. So we did. I trolled back, a good idea, as one guy almost landed a huge snook on the way.
Last we cannot recommend Punta Gorda enough. These are amazing fishing grounds and fishin for tailing reds is a hunting experience that cannot be duplicated short of the ultimate bonefish experience.
Thanks for your support and the nice emails, and tight lines.
(...the nite before, desperately reorganizing under the maddening eye of the Chef)