Thursday, October 13, 2016

Tournament success has little to do with luck

Redfish are our toughest fish on fly, but I got this one early.
Had to pick my wife up at the Orlando airport last night and got home late.

So, I didn't fish today. Instead, I've been tying an assortment of flies in preparation for the 12th annual MCFF/CCA Fall Fly Fishing Challenge, an event that Rick Grassett and I founded.

Now in its 12th year.
It's a pretty decent little tournament. Though the stakes aren't all that large (grand champion in each division receives an Orvis fly rod and reel), there certainly is some good competition. If you win the overall prize or a division, you've accomplished something against many of the best fly anglers in southwest Florida.

Although I'm not a tournament angler per se, I do enjoy competing. First, it's a day on the water doing what I like to do. Second, I like formulating a game plan and implementing it. I like the focus and concentration it takes to succeed.

I've done decently over the years. In the event's history, I've won a division nine times. I've won the Snook Division five times and Spotted Seatrout Division four times.

I fish in the Open Division. If you're a guide or license charter captain, you have to fish in the Open Division. If you think you're pretty good, you can opt to fish in the division. It's open to anyone. In the Open Division, eligible species include snook, spotted seatrout and redfish.

The tournament's other division is the Angler Division. No guides or charter captains are allowed.

This pits weekend anglers against other weekend anglers. Nearly all inshore saltwater species are eligible.

We usually hold the tournament on the last Saturday of October. So, I spend portions of the last two weeks of that month preparing for the event. I try to formulate a game plan that gives me the best shot.
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First, I want to win the event. I want to be grand champion. To do that, you must catch, photo and document a Slam (snook, trout, red). I've done that three times in the tournament. Twice, my slam simply wasn't large enough. The third time, I forgot to place the required tournament chip in the photo of my first snook. I landed the fish, placed it on the measuring board, snapped a quick photo and then released the snook.

As soon as I let go of the fish, I realized my blunder.

And, as luck would have it, my next fish was a 25-inch redfish. I caught more than 100 inches of trout that day to easily win the Trout Division. However, that mistake on my first fish cost me the overall title.

Mistakes happens. So do errors in tournament strategy. Two years ago, I caught a lot of trout and three snook. I decided that since the snook were small and shouldn't be a factor I would enter 10 photos of trout. Even though I had nearly 150 inches of trout, I was a distant second to a friend of mine.

Had I entered my three snook (49 inches total), I would have won that division.

Oh, well.

Though I place a premium on pre-fishing and coming up with a game plan, things rarely go as you might you envision.

Five years ago, I found some pretty good action in southern Tampa Bay between Bishop Harbor and Port Manatee. As I was paddling out the Bishop Harbor channel into Tampa Bay a couple of days before the tournament, I noticed a couple of things: 1. The nearby flats were void of water on the negative low tide; 2. There were loads of trout in the channel. The trout had nowhere else to go on the low tide. The was no water on the flat, so they had to fall into the channel.

I beached my kayak, got out and began casting Clouser Deep Minnows into the channel. The trout were more than cooperative. In 20 minutes, I must have caught and released 15 trout to 18 inches. In addition, I coaxed a small snook into hitting. Now, all I had to do was find a redfish.

If you've ever fly fished along southwest Florida, then you understand redfish are our toughest fish on fly. If you go out and catch a red, you've had a good day. If you catch two or more on fly, you'd better buy a lottery ticket on your way home.

There are sand bars that run for great lengths between Bishop Harbor and Port Manatee. Redfish and other species will swim onto the sand bars as the tide rises to feed. I was able to catch and release a couple of decent reds.

So, I had a pretty decent slam. With an 18-inch trout, a 22-inch snook and 28-inch red, I had accumulated 68 inches. I'll take my chances with a 68-inch slam any time!

The next day, I paddled to the channel just to make sure the trout were still there. They were. At this point, I paddled back into Bishop Harbor to a hole in the mangroves where a creek led to a decent-sized saltwater lake (Mose's Hole). I have caught some nice snook and reds there, so I wanted to find out if it might be a tournament spot.

In just 20 minutes, I caught and released three snook and two reds.

Game. Set. Match.

I was ready for the tournament.

As I wrote earlier, things rarely go as you plan. A front had moved through overnight and the wind was cranking when I launched the next morning.

Luckily, the trout were still jammed into the canal. I caught 10 trout in about 10 casts and documented each with photos. There was no water on the adjacent flats and it was too windy to fish Tampa Bay, so I headed for Mose's Hole.

I caught fish there, but no snook or reds. I caught several more trout, including an anchor fish that was 24 inches in length. My 10 trout totaled 178 inches. I won the division with room to spare.

The weather came into play another year. It was predicted to be bad, and it was.  With the wind supposed to blow 20-25 out of the north, my plan was to fish the Buttonwood Harbor area of Sarasota Bay. I would paddle to just north of the Buttonwood channel, anchor and fish the deep water slowly. With a super low tides, I expected snook , redfish and trout to be in the channel.

The wind was cranking when I arrived at the launch. But it wasn't  out of the north. It was straight out of the east -- not a good wind to fish Buttonwood. I sat in my truck for about 10 minutes and decided to drive to the east side of the bay and fish Stephens Point. There I would get a little relieve on the lee side.

It was still dark when I launched my kayak. I paddled out to a nearby lighted dock and saw several snook. I hooked up on my first cast and landed a chunky 24-incher after a strong fight. By the time I landed the fish, photographed it and released it, the sun was up and the light was off.

I made a few "just-in-case" casts, but didn't get a hit. So, I paddled out of the basin and into Sarasota Bay. There are several docks along the bayfront, so I set up to make a few prospect casts.

Long story short: I caught and released nine more snook from one of the docks. My 10 snook were all that large, but I had slightly more than 200 inches -- no doubt enough to win the division.

When the snook bite ended, I paddled out into the bay. The wind was now blowing hard out of the north. All I could do was anchor on grass patches and blind cast. I spent three or four hours doing this and caught 30 or more trout. My 10 best went  160 inches. Again, that should be plenty to win.

With two hours remaining in the tournament, I paddled to the shoreline, anchored the kayak, got out and began casting for redfish. I didn't get a red, but I was confident I had done well.

When I got back to tournament headquarters, I decided to enter 10 snook photos. I won the Snook Division quite easily. I also would have won the Trout Division easily. However, tournament rules restrict all competitors to winning just one division. That spreads the wealth, so to speak.

As you have probably surmised, I fish the tournament out of my kayak, the last three from either a NuCanoe Frontier or NuCanoe Pursuit. Realize, this isn't a kayak tournament. I'm one of the few competitors going against powerboaters out of a kayak.

I realize this could handicap me -- if I allowed it. However, I actually think I have the advantage. If the fish don't know you're there, you have a pretty good chance at getting them to hit.

And that's where tournament strategy comes into play. It certainly would be a different story if I didn't have the foggiest idea of what was going on when I launched on tournament day.

Here's an elementary tournament strategy. Since the tournament begins at 6 a.m., I suggest camping out at a lighted dock at which you know there are snook (you can see them). Arriving early stakes your claim and assures no one else will fish it. There's a great chance you'll catch at least one snook -- and maybe more. At daylight, your redfish quest can begin. You can spend several hours in pursuit of reds. Remember, redfish are usually the toughest of the trio on fly rod. I suggest getting out of the boat and wading. You can cover the water slowly and completely.

If you get that red, you're in business. Saving trout for last makes a lot of sense because the species is pretty easy to catch.

If you live in southwest Florida or will be in the area in late October, you might was to fish this fun event. For tournament information and registration form, visit http://fallflyfishingchallenge.com/.
You can also call me with any questions at 941-284-3406.

We'd love to have you. You'll not only get to spend a day on the water, but you'll have loads of fun, too.

We have a pre-tournament (captains' ) meeting scheduled Oct. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at The Meadows Community Center, 2004 Longmeadow,  in Sarasota.

The tournament begins at 6 a.m.. Oct. 29. The tournament ends at 3 p.m.


We'd love to see you there. You won't regret it!

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