Tarpon season ended, as it usually does, with the Gold Cup in Islamorada. As the largest and most competitive of the tournaments, its placement in the third week in June means that the bulk of tarpon season is coiled in its long shadow. When it finally happens tarpon season isn’t finished, but what’s left of it becomes preparatory for the following year. The week before the tournament I’d made an effort to relax and have some fun, and that included a pair of days with John as well as one with Nick Labadie. We caught tarpon each day but also spent some time permit fishing, a feint we’ve learned over the years is a nice way to prevent fixation with tarpon fishing before we contract too tightly down on the Gold Cup:
The results of the tournament were as follows:
Grand Champions: Captain Brian Helms and Rand Holstead
Runner-up: Captain Dustin Huff and Thane Morgan
Second Runner-up: Captain Rob Fodyce and Carlos Duncan
Most Releases: Captain Randy Stallings and Dave Dalu
Largest Fish: Captain John O’Hearn and myself
I fished the tournament again with John O’Hearn, and our plan was simple: go to where we’d been finding fish lately and do what we could to catch every one we possibly could for five days. The runs from and back to Islamorada each day twisted our spines into strange and painful new shapes, giving me a new appreciation for the pets of balloon artists.
Typically I put these reports into daily sections, which I’ve learned is an easy way not to leave anything out. The timing of an event in a tournament adds and subtracts to its value, and chronology is a useful tool to illustrate this important effect.
In the case of this tournament, for a few reasons the chronological approach has eluded me. Keeping tabs on a 5-day tournament requires notes during the evening, and after hours of back-snapping each way (not to mention the staring/casting/fighting that sat between those two impactful bookends) I was in no mood to describe the days to myself in shorthand for later review.
The weather began as disorganized, cloud-covering our effort and making things harder than they might have been. We were plagued by both wind and clouds, a painful start to the days that we’d looked forward to since last year’s Gold Cup ended, and had only a pair of bites to show for our efforts. The first of these was from a smaller release that came unbuttoned moments before we had our hands on it, and the second never stayed connected. Losing this fish didn’t feel like a portend at the time, though throughout the week it would prove to be.
We caught fish, to be sure: a small weight on day 2, in addition to a few releases, and had the typical number of fish never stay connected. Sadly, throughout the five days of great fishing that John had put together for us, we had a lot of things go wrong that cost us dearly.
On our second day of fishing, John and I caught a smaller weight fish that stayed on, giving us a chance to get on the board. The fish caused a ruckus when we landed it, as I recall, and in the chop we took a wave over the stern and in to the hatches which required an hour of our time to bail out. We used our coffee cups from the Lorelei for this task, which made things feel decidedly Gold Cuppy. We lost a few more fish that afternoon, and at 1:30 we hooked a giant fish that took us in to a nearby channel. We have fought a number of fish in this way and saw no issue with the direction things were going, at least at first. The fish was atypically large, which meant we might be on it for a while, but at no point did I think this fish would give us what it did. Over the course of the next hour we were at a loss: the fish stayed in the deep cut, never venturing toward the flats where we could get an angle on it. After the first hour I had no choice but to get risky with my drag settings, adding 10 pounds of drag to the reel and hoping that the constant pressure would cause a change to our favor. This seemed to have no effect on the fish, and after another 30 minutes of this we seemed no closer to closing the deal than we had when we began. I kept up with what I could, pulling as much as I dared when the fish was not running and letting it pull the drag from the reel when it ran. Near 2:45 the fish finally went towards a flat, which gave us the chance to pull down its back instead of trying to divine where it was facing on the channel floor. The fish responded in the way we expected it would, sliding backwards and losing its balance, the rounded ridge of its belly rising nearly even with its back before it regained its equilibrium an took an anemic burst forward. We were tired, the three of us, and all tied up in a situation that we all had hopes of ending soon. The fish floated once on its side, easing in to a sideways orientation before it picked its head out of the water for a mouth-open shake that caught the class with the top of its jaw. As soon as this happened things had concluded: the tippet, under tension and stressed from the last hour and a half, parted easily and the fish righted and kicked slowly away. John and I were mad, I especially, and despite the strap in the hatch I felt dejected for losing what would have been the second and most important part of a great day. Instead, we handed in our 83 pounder and got some sleep that night, hoping that things would turn around for us.
We had another weight fish floated the following day, appearing to be a turnaround for us. The hook fell out on this fish near the end of the fight, and we went back in to the spot we were fishing to attempt another. This day we had the pleasure of losing a few more fish than that, which added to our pain.
At the end of the day we had but a few minutes to fish, and even with the 2-hour run time allowed between lines out and check-in we had to hustle. I had reeled in and we were getting ready to leave–it was 2:55. Our thinking was that we had no time to fight a fish so we might as well leave, though a large single sliding slowly towards us made us strip out and try a cast to see what would happen. Of course the fish ate, and we set off to fight it. There was no move for us other than to pull on this thing as hard as we could, flirt with breaking it off in an attempt to off-balance it enough to get lucky with a fast grab. The fish responded incredibly well to our risky strategy, and within four minutes was angled in a way that made John and me feel like something relatively impossible was not totally out of reach. Another few minutes passed, and we passed the point of thinking that we might get this fish in hand to tentatively believing that it was going to happen. The fish was paused and nearly on its side when the shock, under tension and pulled across its mouth, found the crook of its jaw on our side and severed as the fish closed its scissors. We reeled up and hurried on our way–after the emotional down-up-down, there was still the final literal ass kicking to go.
It’s important that I mention a few things at this point, especially since this report is starting to sound like a hard luck story. First, we weren’t the only team that had some bad luck with our fishing. Like most people in the tournament, including my good friend Brian Helms and his angler Rand Holstead (that won the tournament on the last day in dramatic fashion), we were up against the typical Gold Cup weirdness: fish falling off, never getting connected, and other ways of sadness prevailing that are too many to mention here. We did have luck with the fish that we caught, and there was a slightly bright end to our story on the final day.
On the final day, after catching a pair of releases, John and I were still without a weight by 2:30 PM. With a 3:00 lines out, we were basically timed out–it would have taken at least 3 large weights for us to move in to even hypothetical first place, and at this point we were not going to make that happen. At 2:45 we changed our fly, looking for a slightly different reaction, and within a few minutes a group of three large fish angled towards us over the grass. I put the fly as best I could in front of the largest fish, reflexively still trying to make the most out of our effort, and the giant fish softly opened its mouth around the fly and we came tight.
This fish took to the same channel that the one earlier had, and while we had no choice but to apply the brute force technique to catch it we were both privately thinking that this was the worst possible way to kick things off. The fish got deep and stayed there, swaying in the current as we retrieved the line and applied 12 pounds of drag as soon as we were on the fly line. The fish flipped over within a minute, and after a few tense moments John grabbed its lower jaw and we had the lip gaff in place for the measuring. Since we’d hooked it to when we landed it, 6 minutes had elapsed. The fish was 78 inches long to the fork, and with its girth we felt like it was near 130. The largest fish so far in the tournament was a 131 from Brian and Rand, which they had caught on day 1, and we hoped that this one might make the cut for the big fish award.
The reality is that in these tournaments anything other than first is hard to stomach. I’ve been in the receiving seat for a number of losses in this way, and I’m not taking anything away from people that placed in the top three, but it’s just not the reason that anyone is there. That said, when we found out that our fish was the largest by only .8 lbs, John and I were happy for what it represented: giving our all, even when things were not going our way and I wasn’t able to catch enough fish to win. Staying focused and working until the very end so our handshakes to the winners meant they’d beaten our best efforts. And trying ever trick we could, despite the fact that we knew we weren’t going to win.
I’d like to thank John for giving me every opportunity to catch the fish that we needed to, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to. But when I tell you that my congratulations to Brian Helms and Rand Holstead are heartfelt, I mean it. Those guys did a great job and deserve all the credit they get. In a tournament populated by 60+ mph boats, Brian and Rand went out there in a 70-horsepower boat and bested everyone else and they can hold their heads high.
I’ll be back out there next year, with John, seeking our own moment in the sun. Until then, I’ll be working hard to get as good as I need to be to get it done.
The Del Brown starts on Sunday, and I’ll get a report of our prefishing (some great, some not so much) as well the results + our fishing up as soon as possible. Now that the shop has slowed down some, I look forward to getting back in to these pages with more regularity.