About a week after I came back from fishing with Steve and Chad I fished in the Cuda Bowl, now in its tenth year. What started as a casual tournament in 2010 to generate some interest in fishing for barracuda has become one of the largest and most competitive tournaments in the Keys, and this year was a continuation of that steady march toward seriousness.
Last year I fished with my good friend Michael Hetzel, and if you keep up with these reports you may recall that we were soundly trounced by the fish (as well as every other boat in the event). In three days of fishing, two of which were tournament days, we caught a total of zero fish. Many of my guide friends were very happy that my first attempt at the back of the boat ended in such stupendous failure, and I was reminded of how different (and important) things are on the back of the skiff when I was unable to produce even a single bite for us in three complete days of fishing. I’d committed the sin of staying around fish that were unwilling to bite, and it cost us.
This year we made up our minds to not only have fun but also to move often, promising ourselves we wouldn’t get stuck in the company of mouths that didn’t want to open. We also signed our friend Lenny Leonard up to join us as another angler–while we never discussed our plan openly, it was unspoken that Lenny was just along for the ride and the company. As one of my oldest and closest friends, Lenny was a great addition to the dynamic on the boat, especially in his capacity of translator from me to Mike.
Our day of prefishing was fun, and fruitful: we looked in four times as many places as we found fish in, and from the few that held fish were able to catch three that would be scoreable in the event. This was important, since in this tournament there is a minimum size of 24 inches as well as a 3-fish per day card that needs to be filled if there’s to be a prayer of placing. With these three fish we had improved infinitely from the year before, and had a distant hope that we might be able to catch a few when the lights were lit. I also now had a handful of places we did not want to visit in addition to a pair that I did, and that was again a quantum leap forward for the year. No matter what, our focus was on finding our own places to fish, not going anywhere that a guide had brought either of us to before.
On our first tournament day of fishing we lost some fish to start, including a monster that took a long run and was well under control before the fly fell out lamely, though after a few hours and some sticking to it we were able to score two. We had a single gap in our score card, which we filled in the early afternoon with a fish barely over the 24″ minimum. When we had to leave we had a low scoring but complete card to hand in, and while we knew that this wasn’t winning material for us it felt great to be on the board.
The second day of fishing brought with it some horrible weather, which was maybe the best thing that could have happened for us. We worked hard at the first spot, finding a decent fish for our card after losing a few others before the weather turned against us. We moved on after the fishing slowed, to the other place we’d had numbers of fish, and as the weather turned Lenny and I watched Mike turn into a water-covering machine. In the rain he threw, without a rain jacket, whipping himself and the small fish we had around us in to a frenzy. In three or four hours of fishing Mike landed no fewer than 8 small cudas, and every one of these was near but not at the currently magical 24 inch mark. When he finally came tight to a fish that we felt would make it the sensation was similar to landing a permit in the March Merkin, and on the board we confirmed that this fish indeed made the minimum size. With that we had one more fish to catch, and as the weather worked its way faster into our plans we ran to where we’d started.
Unfortunately, despite having a super fast Chittum boat with a huge number of horsepower I forgot to look to the side, and I looked up to see another boat slowing down to fish at the only other place I knew might have some fish. Sad stuff, and a lesson that burned to learn. We bumped around for a while, trying to find another fish but knowing that things were over as the wind came up and the rain increased. I ran back to the dock, giving up only after using up our final hour of fishing on a nearby shoreline, still trying to get a last fish to fill us up.
It wasn’t to be, and while we knew that we were nowhere near the lead we at least had something to hand in at the end of a tough day. At the dock we discovered that other people in the fly division had experienced a tough day as well, and despite our lack of three fish we were in a miraculous third place in the fly division behind Captain Mike O’Dell and Travis Katski, who had worked their way in front of the pack with the only 3-fish-per-day score in the division. Runners-up were Captain John Benvenuto and Scott Christian, last year’s champions, and in third place was us. For whatever it’s worth (and I know it’s not much), we were incredibly happy with getting anything at all. I’d like to thank Mike and Lenny for putting up with my ‘guiding’, which was by far the weakest link in the team, and Loren for putting on such a great tournament.
The spin division was won by my great friend Chad Huff and his brother Dustin, and Scott Collins and Russell Campbell were in second followed by Don Gable and his son Shawn Gable.
As always it was a pleasure to fish this event, and watching it over the years has been lots of fun.
I’m out the next two days with Ian, and tomorrow we have celebrity guest Josef Borski along for what we hope will be a chance to catch his first permit on fly. Reports to follow.

Nathaniel