Kings, cats and the keys.
Capt. Steve Elliott (Jacksonville Beach) battled 5-foot seas and stormy conditions to guide the Home Team to a lunker of a kingfish, 47.55 pounds, the largest king in a field of 272 registered boats in the Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament in mid-July.
"I fish it every year, but to be honest I was going to take this year off. Then I got a free entry," Steve said. He converted it to a 19-foot Seachaser, plus some cash in the calcuttas. The big kingfish found Steve's ribbonfish pinned to a downrigger on the first day of the tournament. "A nasty storm was blowing in fast and hard from the west. We all grabbed our lifejackets and turned the boat away from the beach where we were fishing. As soon as we turned west, barn! It was a quick battle. We didn't want to wait around for that weather."
This is one of those tournaments that has been around for a long time--32 years--and has turned into a massive community event. Tournament Chair Rita Contos is somewhat of a newcomer to the event. She's been involved for a mere 20 years. "Many of the tournament founders are still involved, which is just amazing to me," she said.
Originally formulated with the intent to support marine science research, the event still contributes to Jacksonville University via scholarships and other ways. The students are directly involved with the tournament as well. Classes help with the weigh-in and help inspect fish to ensure none were previously frozen or tampered with in other ways.
The event also has a very large field of junior anglers. This year there were 239 juniors registered for the offshore portion of the tournament Looking to expand the outreach to a younger crowd, this year the event featured its first dock tourney for juniors at the Kim King Park and Boat Ramp. Fifty-nine kids competed in this inaugural branch, and Contos says it's here to stay. "We loved working with those kids, many of whom had never held a fishing rod before. At one point I looked down the dock and over half our staff was down helping the kids. It was very rewarding and we can't wait for next year."
Certainly, every kid who enters a fishing tournament thinks they are going to win. That leads to a lot of anticipatory excitement when the tournament first starts, and usually follows with an equal dose of disappointment when the final gun sounds. This is even more likely when the kids are competing against adults.
In Florida's Panhandle, 12-year-old Blake Schuler broke out of that mold at the Gaskin Park Flathead Catfish Tournament (June 29-30) when he crushed the competition--adults too--taking first, third, and fifth place, plus "most overall weight."
His whopper of a winning flathead weighed 35.03, and his aggregate weight was over 125 pounds for the 6 flatheads he entered.
The youngster's winnings totaled $1,850 with enough trophies to fill his bedroom. The tournament series does have a dedicated children's division which targets channel cats, but Blake is no stranger to flatheads. "We placed in every tournament we fished last year," said his dad Parley. So Blake ponies up the extra entry fees and competes with the big boys.
The Gaskin Park tournament is the 2nd leg of The Apalachicola Flathead Catfish Tournament Trail tournament series, which fishes the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers in the Panhandle. The invasive flatheads are quite a draw for anglers all throughout the southeast, averaging over 70 anglers for each stop and usually twice that for the final leg at the end of September.
At the southern extreme of our state, a different kind of cat is benefitting from a fishing tournament. Casting for Cats (Islamorada, Oct 19-20) is a women-only backcountry tournament in the Keys that has been carving out a reputation of high competition juxtaposed against a wonderfully easy atmosphere.
Originally formed to raise money to spay and neuter stray cats in the Keys, the tournament has blossomed into an event that now supports a variety of charities, including the Shriner's Children's Hospital and the Upper Keys United Way. "This year I'm looking at over 100 anglers, with another 150 guests at the banquet. We get so much local support," said director Sharon Mahoney-Ellenwood.
Her tournament format is interesting in that there are a variety of fish species that count for points. The usual suspects--permit, snook, tarpon and bonefish--are joined by ladyfish, jacks and sharks. Trout and redfish are part of the mix and of course the largest catfish gets a prize, too. For that lady that nabs at least one of each category, the stakes are pretty high. "Hell's Bay is again providing an 18-foot boat for the champion if they catch at least one of each species," Sharon gleefully mentioned. Last year, overall champion Cyd Nielsen was just a couple fish away from hooking that boat up to her rig, and that was during lessthan-favorable fishing conditions.
This is one of those tournaments that has been around for a long time--32 years--and has turned into a massive community event.