Gold Cup Results + Our Fishing

Gold Cup Results + Our Fishing

At the end of last month I finished fishing in the 2024 Gold Cup, as usual with Ian Slater.

It’s been a tough spring. It felt as if nearly all of the days we had booked together were infected by bad weather or upset fish, and while we’ve been working hard there has been the sensation that there’s been as much working against us at times. We fished the Golden Fly in May, dealing with a last minute engine failure two days prior, and our results were less than thrilling: in three days, we managed only three bites and watched most of the field catch much more than the single weight we were able to summon from the difficulty. We entered the Gold Cup humble, if nothing else, and with a weather report that called for only one day with winds below 25 there was nothing left to do but put our heads down and work hard. One thing we had on our side was that we have been working as hard as we can to improve, and no matter what was going to happen over the next week we had put in enough time to feel good about whatever the outcome was. We’d also solved our motor issue a few days before the tournament started thanks to Frankie Marion and Shane Casey, who got us back up and running with only a few days to spare and a few extra horsepower to show for it. As proof of the recent change, when the tournament started we had put a whopping 7 hours on the motor.

Day One:

We were first flight on the first day, which gave us some options, though we did lack a recent history of options to pick from. We had one first-flight move, and Ian made a call to spend it in a certain somewhere and there we were. Within a few minutes I was throwing at a few rolling fish, and not long after that was tight to a huge fish that came flying out of the water. We didn’t need to discuss how big the fish was, or how much it stung when the fish came off on a second surge from the waves. But it stung nonetheless, and the idea that we’d burned the other fish nearby with the one we’d lost was less than thrilling. We stuck with it for another 20 minutes when another fish rolled nearby, and this one luckily stayed connected. We fired up the new motor and gave chase, aware of the stakes involved with getting on the board with a weight early in the game.

The fight was painful in the wind and current, and with a fish that seemed energized by our intense desire to catch it things lasted longer than they should have. We finally floated the fish off the bow, and when Ian made contact with the jaw I felt some relief from the contamination of fear that had taken hold. We discussed the fish for longer than we needed to, still feeling the distant pain of three years ago when we strapped a short that would have changed things for us, though after strapping the fish it was clear that we had been easily on the right side of the choice by more than 20 pounds–information that indicated our estimates were running low. We kept on in the wind, hoping to have some more luck.

Our fishing in the afternoon was hard, to say the least. I missed a bite from a smaller fish that didn’t give us much to work with, and by the time we had two hours left we were struggling to get the few fish we saw to even acknowledge the fly. A pack that snuck up behind us gave up a hard bite, from a fish that stuck its head out of the water to grab the fly. The line jumped up into the console, and I had to hold the rod up high to keep it from wrapping around the wheel, throttle, or both. The fish hit the reel and immediately headed offshore, making clear its intentions to make us miserable. After 20 minutes it felt like things should be over, but they extended in a way that only deep water and wind can do: painful, ineffectual and nervous. Eventually we were able to get hands on the fish, and this time were presented with an honest dilemma as to whether or not to strap it. We knew that the first fish had not been close, which was good because it gave us a calibration that mattered: if we thought that fish was close and it was well large enough, then this one that we felt might be small had a decent chance of making the cut. The longer we contemplated it, however, we didn’t feel that sinking feeling or elation. Instead, we sat awkwardly in the neutral buoyancy of indecision. This one was going to be honestly close, and we did not want to return with a short strap on day one. We talked about the strategy, which in a low-scoring week of bad weather would favor taking a risk, but the outcome of that risk not paying off was something we could probably not easily decide to live with. In the end we opted to take a chance in the waves and wind, hoping for the best. When we removed the strap and taped it off, we were hopeful that it would be large enough and ran back to the spot we’d left to finish out the day.

What we returned to had deteriorated, and the final hour and half of fishing felt like waiting for the clock to run out. We did what we could to stay attentive and not waiver. At 3:00 it was time to get going back to check-in, and we took our time to save some energy for the next four days. At the dock we found that our second fish had indeed made the cut at a little over 73 pounds, justifying the risk we’d taken and adding a fair number of points to the other fish that came in at 95 pounds. Nicer still was that with those fish we were in the lead, and now had something to build off–though of course, this also meant we had something to fall from if we faltered. We got some rest and made plans for the following day: try our best, keep focused and run the plays.

Day Two

We’d now dropped back to last flight, which would keep getting earlier all week, and this meant that we had no early arrival advantage. Ian had a few places in mind he wanted to start, and eventually on that list there was one that was available. We staked off in hopes to see a few fish roll, and in short order they did. It took 20 minutes of positioning in the wind to get the angle right, but when we did and a fish rolled we were rewarded with a hard bite and a fish screaming down current. Things, as it turned out, seemed to be coming together. We fought the fish hard after it took a long run, and this combination brought it to hand without much fuss. The issue, once again, was whether or not to strap it. It looked larger than the smaller of our two the day before, but now the pressure was even greater: we already had weight points, and plenty of them, so burning 300 points on a short strap would be doubly (not to mention literally) pointless. We chose to strap it, confident in its comparison to the fish from day one, and moved on looking for more.

It took until the afternoon for us to get into some good fishing, but when we did it was better than we could have hoped for. Within minutes we had missed a bite from a release, and then hooked a large weight that took toward the same chop and deep water that had nearly cost us the smaller weight from day one. No matter; our averages were leaning towards our favor and this was shaping up to be painful but our fourth weight fish in half as many days. Also, this fish was clearly a weight, unlike the last two we had at the side of the boat that caused some discussion. What could possibly go wrong?

Hah. After that weight scissored through the shock, another four bites came unglued. We talked about it. Was this a coin being flipped the same way four times in a row, or something more subversive?  With minutes to go before lines out, we hooked another fish, this one staying on and seeming to offer us a shot at redemption. At first things were working out as planned–a normal bite and hookset that cleared to the reel, jumping twice once the spool started spinning and we unclipped from the anchor buoy. But then the fly came out, for the sixth time that day, uncomfortably capping a rough afternoon with doubt. Rarely, with a strap in the hatch, have I felt as crestfallen as I did on the way back to check in.

Despite the looming change in our fortune, we had lots of reasons to be optimistic: our fish from the morning weighed in at 80 pounds, and we retained our lead over the field. Looking back, however, the start of a truly difficult three days to come had already begun. As it turned out we were going to find out exactly what, precisely, could go wrong.

Day Three

Did I mention that the weather was horrible? That the only thing worse than the wind was the clouds? The conditions caught up with us, fully, on day three. When it was most important for us to not let up, to widen our lead as best we could and let our momentum carry us, we got wrapped up and held in place by the wind, rain and clouds. Each contributed to our lack of success in its own particular way, but the end result was that we had a single bite on the third day. This one looked like it was going to be normal, just a release, something for us to add some points to our total with. Instead the running line had been coiled into a knot by the wind, and we watched it against the backdrop of the waves as it came tight to the second stripping guide, opening up the hook and leaving us unattached in the wind. We tried all that we could, worked until the alarm chimed, and couldn’t do a single thing more than that.

Back at the dock we found out we were still in the lead, but our lead was now only a fraction of what it had been. Greg Dini and Evan Carruthers had found yet another weight to add to their pair from day two, and they sat within striking distance of us. Others too had made a move, and we could feel the pressure of the rest of the field pushing against our three weights.

Day Four

If day three was a wet blanket, day four was straightjacket. We fished as hard as we could and made what we could, which was nothing more than a struggle. I wish I had a more vivid timeline of the day, or something to refer to. But all I remember was two things–the first one being how long the day lasted. From lines in to 3:00, it felt like days had passed. And the other was how sickening the run back to the dock felt, knowing that we’d let our lead slip through our fingers. Indeed we had, as Greg and Evan returned with two releases to add to their three weights and pushed us out of first into second place.

Of all the feelings in the tournament fishing, perhaps the worst must be the one we had going in to day five: no momentum to build on, nothing to do with all of our discomfort except to sit idly and watch things slip. One thing I know for sure is that all the “great work, you got this!” text messages ceased quickly after day four. It can be a lonely spot, letting a lead slip away. We had dinner with Ryan and Kelsey for a second time, seeking normal before the final day when everything felt more important.

Day Five

Ian and I found ourselves at a place we could be hopeful about at the beginning of day five. A few fish rolled around, and as soon as we were able to get the fly in front of a rolling fish with a reasonable amount of speed we had a bite, which felt like a shock after such a hard last three days. The fish nearly cleared to the reel before coming back at us, and we had to get lucky as well as play it smart to stay tight and keep the fish on. Once on the reel the fish took toward a nearby shoreline that was populated with some power lines (yay!) and spent the next 15 minutes making a play every time it got close to what surely would have ended things. We had to be aggressive, which helped hurry the fight along, and soon we had a grip on the jaw of another fish that we thought would be close. No matter, however–we knew that our estimates had thus far paid off, and we also knew that we had every need to do whatever we could to gain some traction. The fish got a strap, which after we released it we measured using the tape. It was clear that the fish made the 70-pound mark, and with that we had the momentum we needed to catch another–a fish we felt we absolutely needed, despite this fish bringing us into theoretical first.

Around 11:00, after getting boxed out of places we knew better and had more experience in, we hooked a fish out of a small group. The fish was another weight, and while it was shaping up to be another offshore battle we were both in the fight we couldn’t pick the last two days, and happy for it in ways I can’t describe. Being tight to a fish you know might actually win a tournament is a feeling I find hard to describe but keep chasing, and the focus it brings with it is the likely reason: there’s space for nothing else.

The fight continued–and got worse. We ended up a half mile outside of a marina, which led to large boats passing us and sending wakes our way, on top of the wind and waves we were already contending with. Things were tense, the discomfort increasing the more the fish dug deep and kept us from controlling it. Twice we had it near enough that Ian reached for its jaw, once he made contact but never had a proper opportunity to get the fish in hand. As we neared the end it felt as if we would win this one–and it was hard not to feel like there was a bit of luck involved. After a hard third and fourth day, on day five we were soon to grab our second weight fish and–actually, no. The fish came up to the surface, I lifted, and the fly came out.

My arms felt wrapped against me, useless, and I nearly threw up.

Even though we had more day left, and we fished hard, the only damage we did was done already. We had a few shots, particularly in the last hour, that felt as though they would absolutely work but they simply didn’t. We timed out after a particularly nice one that we both remarked should have given up a bite but didn’t, sat down and took stock. What we’d done likely wasn’t enough, and I asked Ian to go check in with our strap to save me the trouble of watching yet another Gold Cup slip away. We arrived at the dock and chatted with Dustin Huff, who had caught two weights on the last day to add to their total. And here is where this story for me gets strange: Ian and I both thought, for whatever reason, that those two had two releases in addition to their 130 from day 3. This meant that, regardless of the size of their weights, they would pass us. I got back to the room sure we’d lost, and wondering only whether or not we had a chance for P2. Dustin called me before 5 and we spoke briefly, and while he told me he didn’t think they had passed us, I didn’t really register that we were still in the lead and didn’t pursue the conversation further.

So how did I find out we’d won the Gold Cup? Sitting on a hotel bed, watching Terminator, at 4:45 on Friday wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt. And in the interest of being completely honest about things, I also broke down and cried. Alone. Watching Terminator. In gym shorts. Classic.

The blurriness starts there, and is probably just as well. Kat and Chelsea arrived, my phone about burst into flames from the texts and calls, and we got dressed up for the awards. I do remember, and always will, touching the Gold Cup perpetual trophy for the first time in my life–until now, I’ve felt a hard superstition that touching the trophy without winning it is luck of the worst kind–and giving what I can only hope was a very short speech in front of a room full of people I look up to. I don’t quite know how to put any of this, but I’ll include in this report a copy of the text I wrote to Kaylee Fordyce for the press release. Whether it’s appropriate or not I don’t know, but it’s what I wrote when I was asked to and as such is about as honest as I can get:

The relationships I’ve had with guides in this pursuit have allowed so much to become possible for me that wouldn’t be otherwise.
The Gold Cup is something that Ian and I have been working on as a team for the past four years. Unsurprisingly, that alliance has led to a close friendship on and off the water. One of the best parts of winning is sharing in the completion of a common goal with a close friend and teammate.
Thane Morgan once told me “it’s worth what you put in”. I believe the time Ian and I have spent together trying to improve is what makes it worthwhile. Being on a team is not always easy, but when it pays off it makes me feel so lucky to have the relationships that I do.
I’m deeply humbled that things came together during the week when the lights were lit. After letting our lead slip, day 5 brought with it an uncomfortable amount of pressure. I’m not sure I can articulate how winning felt, but I can say this: it felt strange to be handed a microphone in a room so full of so many people I respect so much. Honestly, I’m more interested in what they have to say than what I do.

More to come. Kat’s getting ready for the Del Brown and I continue to feel as lucky and as grateful as a man can.

nat

 

nathaniel

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Nathaniel Linville

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