Last week the Gold Cup happened, and it was a dynamic five days of tough fishing. Captain Dustin Huff and Thane Morgan bested the competition with three weight fish, and second place was closely secured by last year’s champions Joe Rodriguez and Julian Robertson. Third was taken by Captain Doug Kilpatrick and Steve Ward, and in fourth was Captain Randy Stallings and Dave Dalu. John and I were first of the got-nothings, though our fifth place finish represented a good effort and we were close to getting what we needed done. I’ll get in to the specifics of our effort in the following report, and I’ll circle back to this idea, but I do want to mention from the outset that while we were of course disappointed not to win I was extremely happy for the people that finished in front of us. At least one member of each of those four teams is a good friend of mine, and it was a nice thing to have my friends represented so well in the top of the scoreboard.

I’ll glide across some of the prefish days just to keep things moving along, since this will be a long report and I want to get it done before the Del Brown next week. Also photos won’t be happening, since I’m still trying to figure out the new gallery, plus who really wants to see a picture of a zip tie on a fish?

Days One and Two (prefish days)

John and I started on Thursday, and we started with a bang. Our first stop led to a single shot, which worked out for us. A large fish made its way onto the hook, and in 20 minutes we had the hundred pound fish in hand. Perfect stuff, that maintained our one-a-day weight fish pace for the year. We released the fish and continued on, not wanting to give too much attention to the place that had given us only one shot. We moved around, shuffling through the deck, and found only a bit until the afternoon where we put in some work on some other tarpon but were unable to secure another capture.

The second day of fishing led us to some different places, and in one of these we figured out just what the fish wanted. In an hour, I had 8 bites from large tarpon, all of which came off. It’s hard to describe the horror that’s knocking on the door when you go 0 for 8 two days before the Gold Cup, and all I could do was not let it in. Our process has worked and continues to, and the only thing I could do was laugh at the ridiculous repetition of “I got hi–nevermind” and “There he i–just kidding”. Honestly, I couldn’t figure out what was happening. The fish would bite the fly and we’d be tight to them, and the flies would just fall out. On one occasion we had a fish bite the fly, shake it out, then continue on jumping down the edge as if hooked. More than ever, maintaining a positive mental attitude was important.

We left these fish and headed elsewhere, redeeming ourselves with a final shot elsewhere at the end of the day. I caught a large release, which we threw a tape on just to verify that it was indeed light and we headed in. We took the following day off, tying leaders and changing lines, and we met on Sunday for a half day before the tournament kick-off that evening. Of this day I don’t have a ton of recollection other than getting ready for the tournament, and I’m forced to admit that the looming competition must have taken up space in my memory stick.

Day Three (last prefish day)

Of this day I don’t have a lot of recollection, though I do remember getting a few bites and feeling like I couldn’t wait for the tournament to start. We fished close to Islamorada in order to minimize the driving, and got pushed off the water in the early afternoon by a storm. We had a small weight fish chew through the shock close to the boat, and had another few bites but never fell into the rhythm before we called it a day and left for the Captain’s meeting.

Day Four (first tournament day)

The weather had deteriorated, and by the first morning of the tournament things were far from nice. Clouds and wind prevailed, bringing with them no small amount of sadness. John and I made a long run to places we felt confident in and found plenty of fish. We had a bite early, and after clearing the line the fly fell out. We re-loaded in the same spot for another pass, and hooked up once again on a large weight. This fish threw the fly before we could get the point buried, and we kept at it. The wind made things harder than they needed to be for John, and the clouds made things harder than seemed fair for us both. We kept up with our efforts and had another bite from another large fish, and this one ran off on to the reel before taking a hard sequence of jumps. This fish made things seem a little more normal by not coming unbuttoned right away, though after a decent run the fish dropped the fly again and we were left scratching our heads once again. We finished with another bite, this time not getting tight to the fish in any way before the fly came out. We returned to Islamorada with a fair amount of sadness but with a growing hope: with the fishing we were having, we might be able to make things work the next few days. At check-in we found that a few people had posted weights, notably Dustin and Thane with two 80 pound fish. Nothing was out of reach, and we got some rest and set out to turn our luck around after a tough day 1.

Day Five (second tournament day)

On the second day of the tournament, things got worse in the weather department. The wind remained near 30, and the clouds didn’t give us the inches they had the day before. Again we made the run, and again we had fish to throw at. I missed a few bites, though we never had the opportunities in the day prior’s supply. This was our slowest day of fishing, and was the only day that I felt we were not close to catching one. Any of the bites could have worked out, though things felt off–not great, but representative of the field that only posted a single weight for 25 teams. We were still in fish and able to overcome the gap, and we had every intention of just that.

Day Six (third tournament day)

The third day of tournament fishing brought more wind and clouds. We worked through our long run down to the lower Keys, and when we got there we went to work. We fished the same body of fish that we’d been on for the last two, and as soon as we got there were getting good reactions. I had a bite early on from a fish that cleared the line before dropping the hook, and a fish sheared off the fly on a bite. In the early afternoon we hooked in to a decent weight fish, likely 90 pounds, and this fish amazingly stayed connected. We fought the fish for about 20 minutes before it floated up the first time, and while the fish was close to being done it got its equilibrium back and started pulling again when we closed the gap. We continued the fight onto a nearby flat, where we both expected things to finish up. I pulled and the fish backed up, and as the tail stopped kicking the shock wore through. The fish kept on, leaving us with nothing to do but re-rig and keep running the plays. We had another bite before the day was done, though this one never remained attached and when the time was up we left for Islamorada. At check in we found that again things were not over; Dustin and Thane had not posted another fish to their total, and no one had surpassed them, leaving the field still open to a strong showing from someone. John and I had the fish to make something work, and after so many odd losses we felt that our money was safe on the evening hope of the the last two days.

Day Seven (fourth tournament day)

This day brought with it some better weather, and while the wind was still up it wasn’t howling us off of the flats. We started off with our usual long run, and found a bite out of the gate. The first bite ended in a now familiar sadness, and our second started the same way. A fish peeled out of a group and climbed on to the fly, never getting stuck. We kept the fly in play, bumping it slowly until it came back for another pass. This time the hook found a more long-term arrangement, and we set out after the fish. This fish took a hard run and settled in to a deep channel, where after 15 minutes things happened perfectly. We knew the fish was a weight fish, if not a huge one, and after John secured the fish we got the plastic on and took the pictures we needed. Lenny Leonard was nearby when we hooked the fish, and took some great pictures of the fight and capture. I’ll get those in to the gallery when I have a chance, but this report is a catch up and I’m looking to get it done so I won’t bother with the photos.

This catch came at about 9:30, and we felt that the rest of the day could mean good things for us. We dropped yet another hard bite in the next hour, and then fished our way through some thinner patches. We left in the late morning after our next bite that also didn’t work out, and John found us some larger groups of smaller fish to throw at. I had a few more bites that didn’t even make it to a jump before connecting to a small release that stayed on the hook for a series of jumps near the boat. After surviving the first set of jumps we figured we might have a shot at some easy release points, though after the jumps the fish simply swam off and jettisoned the hook. We finished the day in a basin on the way home, and nearly ended on a high note. After missing a bite from a large fish that we may not have had time to catch we fed the smaller of a pair that slid down the bank, an 80-pounder that could have been an easy addition to our scorecard. The fish ate the fly and continued to swim, and as I came tight I felt a pop and then slack. The bite tippet had been scissored by the latest iteration of an insane deviation from our statistics, and we had nothing to do but saddle up for the ride home and hand in our strap.

At the dock we discovered that some damage had been done. Randy Stallings and Dave Dalu had handed in straps for an 80 and a 100 pound fish, putting them in a solid second place. Dustin and Thane remained in first with the addition of a large strap. Of note also was a giant fish of 134 pounds on the board by Jared Raskob and Mark Richens, as well as a smattering of weights and releases from the rest of the field.

Instead of feeling as thought things had gotten away from us, John and I were enthusiastic about the fact that the thing was still within our reach. Two weight fish could put us in to hypothetical first place, and that night I spent some time re-rigging and getting ready for a final assault on day 5.

Day Eight (last tournament day)

Again we made the run, and again we got into position. The fishing had slowed, however, and we spent a few hours looking for a bite that never came. We moved on, getting a sippy bite from a fish that I never felt, then moved again. We did what we could in the wind until John moved us again, and when we pulled in to our last spot of the day we knew we had to make things happen quickly to have a shot. John spotted a laid up fish off the bow, and when the boat was in position the fly got where it needed to be. The large fish elevated and made its way on to the fly, and (unbelievably) without further issue the fish took off and we started the motor to close the gap.

This fish gave a hard account of itself, reminding us both of the giant we’d hooked on the last day of the Golden Fly. This go around, however, the fish wasn’t able to get into the deep and we were able to keep the pressure on. It took a hard hour to get the fish to hand, and it’s hard to describe how difficult it was. It wasn’t physically  hard in the way fighting fish for 12 hours on six is, or as stressful as catching the far briefer but much more immediately valuable fish in the Merkin, but it was its own mix of tournament pressure and exertion that was held together in its own suspense. When we finally got hands on the big girl I was relieved, and we took our time with what felt like a scale-covered bag of meat to get the measurements. I put the fish at 120 in my mind before we stowed the strap–meaning that even a 71 pound weight would get us where we needed to be.

We still had time to get something done, 45 minutes by our calculation to have time enough to get back before 5. We made a few casts at fish, never getting a grab on our next pass before discussing a run or a repeat. When John looked at his watch we found that we were clocked out. The last 45 minutes had passed without notice, and we stowed our gear and headed back for the ride to Islamorada knowing we hadn’t pulled ahead enough to knock Thane and Dustin out of first place.

When the smoke cleared, a fair few fish were caught on the last day. Dave Dalu had caught a release and strapped a short that would have won it for him and Randy (they ended up in fourth), and Joe Rodriguez and Julian Robertson had a 130 that brought them in to second. Third was won by Doug Kilpatrick and Steve Ward, and John and I rounded out the top five. Let me also make something clear here: the “top five” isn’t a thing–the last place to matter is fourth, which gets some calcutta money, but fifth is basically one of many voices in the dirge of “sorry fellas, better luck next time”. That said, I am proud of our effort and our mental game. We didn’t fold under the pressure of bad luck, and kept it 100 until the last minute. Our strap on the last day represented a solid effort and one that we could have been without had we played a weaker head game for the first four days.

I’m especially proud of my friends that did well. At least one member of the top four teams is a close personal friend, and if you keep up with the reports you’re aware of the respect I have for these guys. Dave Dalu, especially, gave me reason to be proud of his performance in this tournament and his day four performance was the highest scoring day of the week.

As far as John and I are concerned, there’s not a lot I would have done differently. The weight we lost next to the boat would have done it for us, but with such a low scoring tournament there were stories like this from a number of boats. I’m happy that we kept our heads right and that we were able to end on a high note, and we are coming closer in these events. Sometimes it’s not about  me, and I’m pretty good with that.

The Del Brown starts on Sunday, and I fish with Ian tomorrow. I’ve had two days with him between the end of the Gold Cup and now, and neither has resulted in a capture. As such, I’m going to fold those days in with this and call it even: I’ll get to the Del Brown and the fishing that starts tomorrow when the tournament wraps up.

More to come,

 

nathaniel