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Mexico Beach's reef haven: kingfishing tournament benefits a structured fishery.

The 16th Annual Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association (MBARA) Tournament drew some 140 boats--not their best year ever but still a fantastic number considering they were smack in the center of the forecast cone for Tropical Storm Isaac the day the tournament kicked off on August 25.

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For the third year in a row, Russell Stewart's boat Gag Reflex took the biggest fish, and overall first place. For someone who is no stranger to success, Russell, of Panama City, is nonplussed about his fishing day. "It's no real secret. We pitch and troll live baits, and we look for the right combination of conditions and waters to soak 'em. There is a run of big kings up here about this time of year, and we just try to get one to bite then try to keep the hook in her."

This year Gag Reflex landed five fish that would have placed, but tournament rules allow for only one win per boat. "We weighed two fish, just because they were really close so we wanted to make sure we had the biggest one in."

Stewart says structure that holds bait--preferably snappers--is his go-to combination. "A ledge that holds fish is ideal. This fish was caught about 30 miles out, in 140 to 160 feet. Those ledges seem to always hold one or two big fish, even when it feels like they are the only fish there."

Pressed for details, it becomes clear that Russell does not rely on luck for his fishing success. "Of course we have a few tricks to the trade. You know, we try to fish as small (meaning tackle) as we can, and that depends on the water color and quality." As kings are notorious for slashing through all but the toughest of terminal tackle, the balance of strength and stealth might be the ultimate tournament secret.

Bob Cox, president of the MBARA, says most people come fish the tournament just to have some fun, but given the Association's commitment to developing the fishery, it's likely a lot of anglers show up just to support this important effort.

MBARA was established in 1997, and "we've dropped 160 reefs since then, and they range from 20-foot depths to about 140," Cox explained. "A group of local anglers and divers were getting tired of having to travel so far just to find something other than smooth sand on the bottom. So they got to work and started making things happen."

One hundred sixty artificial reefs for such a small town seems like a staggering number, especially when you consider all that is involved with dropping a single artificial reef. "Each reef is a lot of work--a lot of paperwork. Especially with the first ones, permitting is a challenge." Cox noted that just finding out who has to hold the permit can be tricky. Mexico Beach holds the permits for the reefs MBARA deploys.

Cox says artificial reefs have become an important part of the local economy, and he feels the rest of the state might benefit from learning from their successes. "We attend FWC's Artificial Reef summits, and we share our successes and failures with folks from all over Florida and beyond. We also learn a lot, and intend to continue to improve our program." Overall FWC has been a big help to MBARA, providing grant money that helps to keep things moving.

The tournament is the biggest fundraiser of the year for MBARA, and Cox says Tournament Director Ron Childs has been the catalyst of their success. "Ron's been around since day one, and he handles all of the details from gathering prizes, to nailing down sponsors and volunteers, to making sure the food is set up." No small task, indeed.

So did Stewart's team catch their fish over one of the many reefs that MBARA deployed? I anticipated his "tricks of the trade" response to earlier detail questions, so I didn't ask. But it doesn't really matter if that individual fish was plucked from an AR. It's clear that a solid reef program benefits the ecology, local economies, anglers and divers. Cheers to MBARA and all of the anglers who support the program via tournament fishing or volunteering.

Now Cox says there are other ways for anglers to get involved. "Our Memorial Reef Program is a really neat way to participate. Families or friends can immortalize someone by naming one of our unnamed reefs already deployed, or we can work with them to construct a brand new reef." For more info on their programs and past successes, visit www.MBARA.org.
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Title Annotation:Tournament Insider
Author:Fitzgerald, Brett
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Nov 1, 2012
Words:766
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