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Sailfish in St. Augustine, snook in the southwest offshore optimism and inshore insights bode well for winter catches.

Florida sailfish fever is rising as the mercury levels drop, and if early tournament results are an indication, the optimism is justified.

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In St. Augustine, the El Pescado Billfish Tournament (Oct. 21-22) raised a lot of money for a great cause, as well as a lot of sailfish. "I've fished a lot of tournaments in my day, and this one was probably the most exciting ever," said tournament master of ceremonies and Florida Sportsman contributor Rick Ryals.

Raising over $120,000 for the Monique Burr Foundation (which advocates for abused and abandoned children) is reason enough to feel good, but the incredible fishing can't be overlooked. Over a two day period, 18 boats released 194 sailfish--a staggering average of more than 10 per boat! "Years back, I wouldn't have guessed the sailfishing up here could be so hot," stated Ryals. "We paid out over $100,000 in prizes, so the rewards matched the incredible fishing."

Capt. Eddie Wheeler of Lighthouse Point fished the winning boat Ohana to 24 releases. But that was just the tip of their fishing iceberg for his veteran crew. "Over a 10-day period of fishing out of St. Augustine, we released over 100 sails," Wheeler says. "People think we catch 'em because we have fancy equipment. But in reality, naked ballyhoo did all the work, behind a couple basic dredges." He said the best action was about 55 miles east of the inlet, in waters ranging from 180 to 250 feet. "We think these results are an indication of how the winter season will be down south, and we can't wait. All I can say to folks up here is, get out there, have some fun, and you will catch 'em up." Wheeler's fishing resolution for 2011: "Don't change a working formula. We'll be following these fish down the coast all winter long and are hoping for similar success."

If this kind of success might tempt you into cashing in on this season's sailfish run, January is a good month for it, especially down in the Keys. There is literally at least one sailfish tournament somewhere in the Keys every weekend during January. Some are not quite traditional sail tourney formats, such as Sandy Moret's Islamorada Sailfly Championship (Jan 12-14), where it shouldn't shock you that it's a flyfishing gig.

If variety is the spice of your life, the first annual Sailbone Offshore & Backcountry (Jan 7-10, Islamorada) might be just your ticket. Created by Capt. Billy Ellenwood, this promises to become a standard in the Keys tournament circuit. Director Sharon Mahoney-Ellenwood explains why anglers have been excited about this one for months. "The best anglers are drawn to the biggest challenges, and this one certainly fits that bill," she said. It is slated to be a true team tournament, where two anglers must be together for a catch to count. "In other words, you can't have a bone-fish expert head inside while a sail-fish pro racks up points offshore. The team must be together." Beyond that, she says, "Jungle rules apply," meaning there aren't bait restrictions. Team anglers are allowed to use multiple boats, captains, and mates--as long as they are together. "It will require an understanding of how the tides and weather affect each fishery, then planning the day accordingly. It might mean sailfishing until 9 a.m., then jumping from the bow of a sportfisher to the deck of a skiff, then back again after lunch." Extra points will be awarded if each team member catches both target species. For more info, call Sharon at 305-664-2012.

Heard that there are no snook in the Everglades? Don't tell Capt. Ron Hueston. He recently captained the winning team of the Redsnook Charity Tournament (Oct 1-3, SW Florida) by putting Marc Lockhart and John Chonody on enough snook and reds to amass 3,735 points--plenty enough to take the spin/plug division. The tournament brought in over $75,000 for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which spends its money wisely on protecting critical habitat, monitoring water quality and studies on juvenile gamefish.

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Hueston is a real secret weapon when it comes to snook in the Everglades, with more knowledge and experience than just about any living soul in the area. "I knew snook would be the key to victory," he said, "and we had the winning fish in the boat by 9:30 in the morning." Although he acknowledges that many snook perished last winter, his belief is that the situation is not as dire as some people think. "I believe the cold weather changed a lot of the locations and movement patterns of our snook. Inside, there are still plenty of big fish if you are willing to put the time in." Known to still catch 20 to 40 snook a day on artificial baits, Hueston can back up his statements. In the case of this tournament, his team started the day with three good snook on the first three casts. No question, reason for optimism! Hueston, by the way, has the same New Year's resolution as just about every angler interviewed: "More time on the water in 2011." Here's to hoping that happens for all of us--whether it's chasing billfish or picking up a few specks in a freshwater pond.
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Title Annotation:Tournament Insider
Author:Fitzgerald, Brett
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Words:879
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