Last month I wrapped up fishing the Gold Cup, once again with Ian Slater. We fished hard the weeks leading up to the event, as usual, and when the tournament began we had a few things we felt were worth exploiting during the five days. Our only concern was that the concentrations of fish we’d come across might not hang around during the tournament, and as real as this worry was there was little we could do about it: June marks the winding-down of tarpon season, and it seems no matter how consistent a population of fish seems leading up to the Gold Cup there is always a chance they can evaporate just when they are needed most. Additionally, any tournament team can tell you of the strange effect that seems to chase them: a simple change in things that always appears when the lights are lit, attempting to extinguish their success.
There was nothing we could have done differently to make the fishing better, and despite this we had what we felt was necessary to win. Whether it would hold up or not was not something we could control, and we headed up to Islamorada on Sunday after fishing to go to the captain’s meeting and get settled in. The next morning we checked in and headed on our way to one of the places we knew to hold larger fish, and after a short time we pulled up and found the fish we were after. For a few hours we threw at them, hoping that one might play ball. None did, despite a number of shots that might have worked, and Ian soon wisely decided to move us along to the next play he had planned. Here we had fish that were fewer in number but better in attitude. I missed a pair of bites before connecting to a decent fish that stayed hooked, and this fish made a play in some deeper water before finally coming boatside to get strapped. It’s always nice to get the first weight of a tournament on the board on the first day, something Ian and I have had some luck with. We returned to where we started the day to see if we could find the fish in a different place or better attitude, though after an hour it was clear that they had vacated. We kept our efforts up until lines out, heading back to Islamorada after a quick break. At check in, we found that our single weight had put us in the middle of those that had posted the same on the first day, and while it wasn’t a breakaway it was a good start that we were happy with.
The second day of fishing Ian changed up our zip code, and while we had more shots the fish were being much less enthusiastic about cracking open. We had five bites throughout the day, and sadly none of the larger fish stayed connected. We were able to stay attached to two of them, both releases, and while we weren’t overjoyed at the prospect of returning without a strap we were also aware that these two releases gave us 600 points and still added to our score. We checked in and found that we were now in third place–again not a smashing success but a “base hit”, as one of my close friends calls it, that so often wins out over the occasional home run.
Our third day of fishing was windy, which presented us with a decent edge: as long as we were able to get the fly where it needed to be we were in front of fish that were less tuned in to the fact they were being pursued. I missed a bite on a large fish in the late morning, and feared at that time a repeat of the day before, when the larger fish were simply not the ones I could keep attached to. The next bite was from another large fish, and this one we were able to connect with. When it first jumped we put it at 100 pounds, though at the end of the fight it was apparent it was smaller than that. We strapped the fish, sure that it was a weight but still wondering how it could have grown smaller throughout the 15 minutes it took to bring it to hand. Soon we had another bite, and stayed connected to this one as well. Shortly we had landed another release, and were back in the fish with as little time wasted as possible. The afternoon proved tough, though just before lines out we were able to get a fourth bite and enjoy a pressure-free fight with the fish after 3:00. This one was also a release, and we photographed it before buttoning up the gear and heading toward check in. There we found that our base-hitting had brought us from third to a close second, and for the first time felt a bit of a thrill that our work may pay off. With a consistent hand we should be able to keep biting at this thing through Friday, and if things went our way even slightly we were confident we could do this year what we hadn’t been able to the year prior. The issue facing us was one that we didn’t really want to admit: the forecast for the next two days was slick calm, something that would hurt our chances of feeding fish where we were finding them. Despite this we made the decision to stick with it, hoping that we might be able to coax enough bites for another pair of base hits to finish out the week. Of additional concern was the fact that while calm can be a hardship where we were fishing it might help others in the tournament that were fishing in different locations. While concerning there was little we could do to affect the outcome beyond running our plays as best we could and continuing to hang on to everything we could.
The fourth day was calm, as predicted, and our fears of the fish responding negatively to these conditions were sadly realized. In the day of fishing we were able to connect to a small fish, though this fish was a few inches shy of the 48″ minimum for a release and we let it go without a photograph. We returned to the dock to find that we were knocked into third place, losing ground for the first time in the week. Two other teams, Luis Cortes and Dave Preston and Eric Herstedt and Mike Criscola, had posted big days and left us in an increasingly tenuous position if we wanted to pull of a win.
The last day was, sadly, as impossible as the last. We did all we could to maintain focus and positivity, and even though we did this well we were only able to post a single release and a missed bite for our efforts. We knew, once the lines out alarm sounded, that we had not done what we set out to do, and likely not even made the top three. In order to secure a podium finish we would have to rely on the bad luck of 22 other teams working in our favor–something that given the weather working against us so effectively felt unlikely at best.
At check in we found that Luis and Dave had caught another two weights and a release, putting them over 6000 points, and Eric and Mike had posted another release, securing them runner-up honors in the highest scoring Gold Cup since Steven Tejera and Roger Fernandez’s epic 7000+ point win in 2018. As far as third, Ian and I were happy to learn we had done enough damage on the first three days to remain in third place, getting us on the podium. Most releases was also secured by Luis and Dave, and largest fish was awarded to Craig Brewer and Ned Johnson for a monstrous 139-pound fish.
After last year, when we ended up in third after strapping a short that would have put us into first place, this third feels both better and worse. Last year we were in it to win until the last day, and while we could well have made it happen we were painfully short. This year, our efforts were hampered by things out of our control, and while more was stacked against us we were able to still pull off a podium. Again, both good and bad in the end.
One thing that I think has contributed to the former, and something that I am grateful for, is the insane amount of work that Ian has been putting in to tarpon fishing. Preparing for this event is hard when lines in starts nearly 100 miles from home, and his 3:00 alarm got more than a few reps this year in the months leading up to the tournament. Without this insane effort, I’m convinced that we wouldn’t have been able to pull of a podium finish with the last two days and the conditions they brought with them. As it was, despite the disadvantage that was conferred by the calm, we could keep our heads (somewhat) high and look forward to better conditions next year.
Congratulations are of course in order for Luis and Dave, who pulled off the first back-to-back win since Scott Collins and Dave Dalu did the same in 2008 and 2009. Pulling this off deserves nothing but respect from the rest of the tarpon fishing world, and let me be the first to say how incredible I think it is as well as how good they are at wearing it.
More to come,