After a longer than intended wait, here’s a full report of our fishing in the Gold Cup. I hope to upload the reports from a day with Ian permit fishing and the Poor Boys, which ended yesterday, tomorrow. The Del Brown starts on Sunday, so I’ll have that report up when I can at the end of next week.
John and I had three days of fishing on the books before the tournament started, and we tried our best to get into tournament shape. That’s of course something we’ve been working on all year, though the final days leading up to a tournament retain an insinuated importance that I’ve not yet been able to abandon. As such we rigged using tournament tippet and did our best to fish during tournament hours.
The first day, Thursday, was spent wandering around in search of some tarpon that we hadn’t yet found. We looked and looked for something we might exploit the following week, and found very little. Friday we found some value but left it mostly intact, catching a few releases and breaking off a weight fish. At the end of the day we hooked a nice fish that gave me the proverbial business, and after an hour John grabbed it. We “strapped” the fish at 68 pounds, and it was a decision I’m glad we didn’t have to make in the tournament.
After taking Saturday off, we headed out on Sunday to fish tournament hours for a last time before the starting pistol fired. We had good fishing, catching three fish that would have been a weight and two releases in the tournament, then hightailed it to Islamorada and the kick off dinner. Our feeling going in to the tournament was more excitement than anything.
As good as the weather was the day prior, we were faced on the first day of competition with a wicked breeze of near 30 and cloud cover that afforded us only the briefest sunny intervals. We headed to where we’d had our luck the day before to find another skiff already in it, and with that John made the (painful) call to run about 60 miles to a place we knew there would be fish closer to Key West. We took a full two awful hours to get all the way to where we needed to be, and were happy when we arrived to see that our spot was open. John got us into position and we threw an anchor: in the fast boat we’d borrowed from Bobby Paulson for this tournament the running at high speeds was possible but poling less than ideal. So we threw the hook where we had run to and dug in our heels for a breezy day.
From the outset, it became apparent that John had made a strong call. The fish were passing by in small groups numbering from 1 to 6, and as soon as we got into position a fish came by, leaning toward the fly but shying off from the boat. The fish started slowly but soon came consistently, and we had more shots than we could have hoped for. The issue, despite the initial great reaction we’d had when we first arrived, was that the fish were simply disinterested in what we were doing. When the current shifted the fish came stronger, and we continued to cycle through different flies and strips to see if we couldn’t force a reaction. Even with many fish as we were seeing we were unable to get any to open up, and by the early afternoon we were out of ideas to try. We returned to the fly that had given us the hard look to start, and just kept it in play as best we could until lines out. We had a few more strong follows and a missed bite from a release, but on the first day of fishing we were unable to make it onto the scoreboard.
Of the tournament days, this was surely the worst. After we ran from the approaching storm in the morning it caught up to us at our first stop, and John and I waited for hours while the lighting tried to erase us from the world of the living. We had a few shots close to the boat, keeping our eyes glued to the bottom in what was in retrospect a pretty pointless effort. We stuck with the plan for longer than we should have, but to be fair there weren’t any other options that were any kind of effective (or fun) to consider. After four hours of fishing John called a move for a final stand elsewhere. We had good fishing at our last stop, finally, when the clouds cleared and we could see what we were doing. I had a shot at a large group of fish that gave up a bite after a few tries, and despite a solid hook set the fish dropped the fly after its first jump. We fished out the clock there, coming very close on a few shots but not getting another bite.
The third day of the Gold Cup was one that I was happy for, if only because it marked a serious turn for the better in the weather. With a small number of weight fish caught so far from the field, now was the time for things to get interesting. John and I made a beeline for where we had found some fish the first two days, and after missing another bite we had a pair of large fish cruise toward us from behind the boat. I tossed the fly and everything worked the way it was supposed to, and after we set the hook we were tight to a fish that was clearly a large weight. We fought the fish for 20 minutes, and even though the fish made a start for a nearby deep channel we were able to get it floated before things grew hair. John put the lip gaff in the fish, and as I went to drop the rod for the strap he informed me that the gaff was still in the fish but that he no longer had it in his hand. I fought the fish (gingerly) back to the boat for a second time before John grabbed it for the last time and we got a strap on the fish and a length measurement at 11:10. The fish was 78 inches long, longer than our 142 in the Goldenfly, with a large girth that made me feel like this fish might be north of 120. We stowed the strap and went back to the spot, eager for another. In the next hour we had another handful of bites, and of these the only one that stayed connected was a small release that we hoped to catch quick to add to our score. This fish fell off in the endgame, and after another hour the fishing became sporadic so we headed to our second spot to finish out the afternoon. Given that this was our first day of running to our fishing that didn’t include giant wave-teeth on the way, we were unsure of the time precise we had to leave in order to make it back. Given that we already had a strap, and a nice one at that, we elected to play it safe and head for Islamorada at 2:45. We jumped a fish or two as the clock ticked by, though none stayed on long enough for us to give chase. At 2:33, a single fish swam by and gave up the bite. This fish was clearly another weight, and while we theoretically had time to catch it we were unsure of exactly how long that would be. I’ve fought weight fish anywhere from 8 minutes to well over an hour, and with an unknown deadline looming made a decision to pull as best I could in order to make the cut. After 15 minutes the fish was nearly done, though it took another 10 for things to look like they would surely work in our favor. John leaned over with the lip gaff as the fish backed up, and just as its head swung in his direction the shock wore through and the points were gone. We hurried to get the gear stowed and headed for the gas dock, filling up in a hurry and making a sprint for the check in. There, we found that we had gone from last place to fifth with our weight fish, one that ended up at 109 pounds. With only a few other weight fish caught ours was the biggest of the tournament so far, and with the momentum we gained from our favorable reshuffle on the scoreboard we were ready for a strong fourth day.
Our plan was to again run to where we had found the good fishing the day before, but on the way we found a small channel with some tarpon in it for a small diversion. We hooked a larger release fish of near 60 pounds, and after 20 minutes in the channel grabbed the fish for an easy 300 release points. Our momentum now strong, we headed down to our fishing. In the morning we had two bites that didn’t work out, but at 11:00 had a great bite from a single cruising fish that took nearly 100 yards of line before running back at the boat and nearly ending the fight early by jumping into the cockpit. This fish stayed on, and while we were unsure at first if it was a weight or not we were hopeful that it was. The fish gave us a hard time, and each time it jumped we got closer and closer to being sure it was a weight. As the fight was nearing the end, a hammerhead showed up (of course) to make things even more tense. I put the reel into freespool, and John drove circles around the tarpon to scare the hammerhead off. The brown death blob surfaced once more, and again John took a dizzying rip around to scare it off anew. The tarpon by this time had already made a beeline for the hell out of there, and once we got near it it was apparent that the fish was ready to be caught. Neither John nor I said anything, but it was clear that this fish was big enough when we looked down its back and could see its length nearer to the boat. I backed the fish toward John, and as he reached out with the gaff the shock broke once again. After so many months of shock tippet testing (a few of my recent reports discuss this in detail), it was beyond frustrating to lose two weight fish in this tournament to a broken shock, but we had nothing to say about it except [redacted to keep things PG on this blog]. As we cleared our minds John made a run to a place we had not yet fished, and this turned out to be a great call. We had plenty of shots at fish, many of which were clearly weight fish. The first fish I hooked was a tough call, though it came off on the second jump. I re-rigged a fly, and within 20 minutes had hooked another fish: this one was nearly 100 pounds, and we started the motor to give chase. The fish lolled on the surface within 10 minutes, and we were both excited at the prospect of picking a fight with a less than ready opponent. We were able to back the fish up toward the boat before it jumped a fifth time, ejecting the hook in the process and leaving us both in quiet shock. We finished out the day with as good an attitude as we could muster, and tried to keep our heads up when we checked in with only a single release on our card. At the dock we found out that our momentum had been slowed in other, far more inexorable ways: Dustin Huff and Thane Morgan had caught an amazing two weight fish and three releases, but even their edges were dulled by Joe Rodriguez and Julian Robertson, who returned with three weight fish and two releases, giving them well over 5,000 points and a strong lead over Dustin and Thane.
On the last day of fishing, we did everything we could to keep our spirits up. We had two bites dredging in the morning, though neither resulted in a solid connection. We made our way to where we’d been finding fish, only to discover that the numbers had shrunk. Our fishing (and our focus) started to dry up in the afternoon, though we were both happy with the close calls we’d had and the bites we had been able to get in five days. That said, it was somewhat dark. The only source of light we could find was our friend Joe in first place, and we both spoke of our hope that he’d do it, especially when it was clear in the early afternoon that we were mathematically eliminated. We caught a release in the afternoon, bringing our score to a little over 1600 points for the five days. At the dock we found that Joe and Julian had caught another large weight as well as a release, putting them ahead of most of the field by a huge margin. Dustin and Thane were in second place, and in third was Craig Brewer and Baker Bishop. The biggest fish was secured by last year’s grand champions Jared Raskob and Mark Richens.
All in all, it was a great tournament. I can’t wait to give it another shot next year, and I’ll be with John once again. One of these years, we’re going to win this thing.
More to come,