At the end of June the 2018 Gold Cup wrapped up. It’s the biggest of the tournaments of the year, and is certainly the crescendo, and for many not the proper end, of tarpon season. There is one major tournament left this year, the Del Brown Permit Tournament, which will take place in the middle of July–now in a little over a week, since it’s taken me a while to get this report up.
Like most tournaments, the Gold Cup is typically wracked/wrecked with poor weather. This year was an exception to this rule, with sun and light winds every day. A few summer storms approached the Keys, though nearly all of these blew themselves out before they were able to interfere to a serious degree. In all, the weather was calm and beautiful for each of the five days of competition.
Captain Steven Tejera and Roger Fernandez were the Grand Champions, leaving the gate with a strong showing on day one and never relinquishing their lead throughout the week. Runners-up were Captain Rob Fordyce and Ryan Seiders, and third was secured by Captain Jeremy Fisher and Sebastian Varney. The largest fish was caught on the first day by Captain Craig Brewer and Baker Bishop, who posted a 155 pound fish that no one came close to.
As for our fishing in the tournament, I wouldn’t classify it as dismal. Our results, on the other hand, were truly short of the effort we’ve been putting in and as such a special kind of bothersome. We had a lot of opportunities to get moving, none of which ever conspired with any others to provide traction. We suffered from a flood of poor luck that gave us only a little over 1600 points from two releases and a weight fish in five days of fishing.
Beginning with our three prefishing days, things seemed to not be on our side. At the end of the Sunday before the tournament I had seven bites, only managing to stay connected to one of these through to the face grab. Still, our heads and hearts were in the game: if we were going to enjoy the benefits of a statistical correction, the time for it was during the upcoming lit lights.
Our first day of tournament fishing started with a long run, in the calm weather a much easier ride than in the Golden Fly. We were able to arrive at our destination while it was still early, and had fish there from the beginning. We were able to coax five bites from these fish–each ended before we could get hands on the animal. The first two dropped the hook before we were ever really tight, and the next two gave us a better opportunity. One stayed on through a series of jumps, taking through the guides a small knot that we would have had to deal with later if we were going to get the fish boatside, though we never had a chance to so deal as the fish fell off on the fifth jump. The next fish gave up a great bite and turned hard away from us as it ate, giving us what we both thought was a rock solid connection. The fish jumped three or four times near the boat, and took off for deeper water. We started the motor and gave chase, sure now that we were at least going to get a release. We pulled on the fish once we got in range, and were nearing the end game when the shock broke.
I’ve discussed before the breaking of the shock leader in these reports, and am still as mystified as I’ve ever been as to why this occurs. The break occurs exclusively in the knot, and after last year’s loss of more than a few potential tournament winning fish from this phenomenon I’d changed the knot once again, not experiencing any losses in this way since making that change. It took until the first day of the biggest tournament of the year for it to happen, and once wasn’t enough. We lost this fish to the issue, and another soon thereafter. After this kick in the throat, we were just kept on: there wasn’t much we could do except run the plays and try our best to keep it 100.
In the afternoon we were pinned down by a storm, and John found us a great way to pass the time. He pegged us next to a channel that was well full of tarpon, and while a few of them were smaller than the four foot release size there were enough fish over this size limit (and a few weight fish also) to keep us interested. I dragged a black fly on an intermediate line through the rolling fish, hooking a few small ones to start before coming tight to a fish that was clearly big enough to constitute a release. This fish took toward the center of the channel and broke us off on something on the bottom, and another few casts got us tight to another. This fish jumped off before we could get a solid hook set, and we lost another without ever seeing it before we took a look at the radar and decided to make a run in the direction of check-in.
On the way home we stopped to refuel before finishing the day with a final pus somewhere nearby until lines out, at which point we reeled up and left for Islamorada without a single fish on our scorecard.
Roger Fernandez and Steven Tejera posted a huge first day, with three weights and a release, and there were a few more weight fish caught in the first day. The five day race of the Gold Cup is nothing if not long, however, and we still had plenty of time to get things together.
The second day of fishing was calm, and we found it difficult to purchase a bite from the tarpon that seemed to know exactly what was being attempted at their expense. We had a strong follow to start, though after this we were unable to make anything happen in what had given us five bites the day prior. We kept on, running the plays from the day before, and while we had a fair number of shots none worked out until we made a final stand on the ocean before lines out. With minutes to go we hooked a large release, and we resolved to adhere to the strategy of fighting the fish as hard as we could so as not to miss check-in.
We landed the fish in a few short minutes, feeling a bit of relief for a short fight when it mattered, and headed back to Islamorada. We made check in with time to spare, handing in our single release and obliquely viewing the rest of the field. A few more weights had been caught, and Steven Tejera and Roger Fernandez were able to put another weight fish on the board, giving them an incredibly strong four (of a maximum of five) straps before the tournament was even halfway finished.
The third day it was clear that we needed to make a move–without at least a weight fish on this day, we were going to have a hard time making a move on the final two days of the event. John smartly found us in the presence of a large number of fish in the morning, and we jumped off a large weight before the action slowed and we headed elsewhere. At our next stop we found a small pod of rolling fish in the calm current, and John deftly poled around them so that we might see them in the water. A pair of fish rolled a second time, and we could just make out the rest of a stationary group after they went down. We made one cast to cover the water our side of them, making sure there wasn’t a straggler that we would spook with a more direct cast. The second shot was meant to just brush the group, and as the fly started back towards us when the current caught the line we saw a hard flash and were tight without an issue. The fish took a hard run in to some nearby deep, and we spent the better part of 20 minutes pulling on it before it gave up and flipped on its side. About this fish’s size there was no question–it was clearly over 100 pounds–so we strapped and measured the fish boatside before releasing it. Our day was still young and we had momentum: a great combination, and always the beginning of good things in a tournament.
We kept on with our focus for the rest of the day, but were unable to make anything additional happen. By the time lines out happened it felt as if we’d been robbed of the rest of the day, and even the large strap in the hatch did little to soothe the feelings of anger at the way things were turning out. Still, it was nice to get on the board and we were in a position to make a move (which would be required, absolutely) with the release from the second day that we could now add to our weight points. Roger and Steven hadn’t caught another weight but added another release, and a number of other teams were sitting on multiple weight fish by the time check in was complete. Our window for victory was shrinking, and fast.
The fourth day of fishing was, in retrospect, when things came statistically unglued. John had brought us again to the morning fish we’d been on the day before, though on this day they were in greater supply. We were able to coax a large number of bites from these fish, the first of which resulted in a capture. We were able to get a hand on a release fish, again larger than we would have liked, and thereafter went in to the scaley fray again for a try at getting our score properly moving upwards.
In the next few hours we had at least a half-dozen bites from tarpon of varying size, and they all fell off. We had two close to the boat, one a potential candidate for the strap and the other a clear release, though both of these ended with the hook pulling out as we tried to get a hand on the fish. The rest of them lasted for between a few seconds and a series of jumps before ridding themselves of the hooks. We fished until the action slowed, and left the area in search of more.
At the next spot we fished we were quickly tight to another fish, this one turning hard as it ate and giving us a solid hook set. The fish ran hard and we gave chase, not knowing if it was a weight or a release until we got a little closer. The fish was under 70 pounds, though not by much, and after the first run we spent another 10 minutes pulling on it before John had the gloves on and we were nearing the end game. The hook pulled from this fish also, leaving me with a foul mouth and sour attitude that lasted through the afternoon. When the clock ran out we had managed another bite maybe (I can’t remember, honestly), and we headed back to Islamorada with only a single release to show for what could have been an epic day of catching. Roger and Steven had caught another weight on this day, using all of their straps, and had caught another release as well. We would have to fit a lot of meat through the small crack in our window if we were going to do anything meaningful on the final day.
I’ve had a few days that would have been enough to overcome what we needed to, though this was going to have to be a number of perfect plays laid out back to back in order for us to make a comeback. We started where we did the day before, and after a half hour of looking for the fish finally found them and started the party by hooking one. This fish was not huge but not small either, and we made our way in to the fight with the idea that it was a weight. In order to make the moves we needed we would of course strap anything that was close, and when the fish was boatside neither one of us thought much about it. We put the strap on and I pulled it off, feeling that things were smaller than I thought they would be. When we took the length measurement at 61 inches, however, it was clear that things were likely not going to work out to our mathematical favor. After we released the fish I ran the tape around the strap, verifying quickly that the fish was indeed small and that we’d burned the strap: in this tournament, a weight fish that isn’t the requisite 70 pound minimum means no points, as well as the removal of the strap from your total.
With that, our mathematical elimination from a comeback was complete, though we of course kept at it. John and I began to laugh at the absurdity of the unfortunate rash we’d been cursed by, and hooked another fish in short order. This one was clearly a release, though it fell off as soon as we got it near the boat. We laughed at the absurdity of it all, and we asked out loud how the next one we hooked would end. When it too fell off there was nothing to do but laugh some more, and we gagged some more at the next one that also came unbuttoned after a pair of jumps. We connected with a few more fish, all of which came off, before we stayed attached to another fish for long enough for John to get his gloves on. This fish also fell off next to the boat, and we continued to laugh our way through what seemed at this point either tragic or comical.
We missed another bite before we headed on, and John brought us to nearby where we’d caught our weight on day three. We found some fish there but they were being insubordinate, and we kept up our efforts despite being beaten soundly by both human and animal opponents before the bell had been rung. We had a hard follow from one fish from a pack, though the fly picked up some grass and caused the fish to shy off, and we were never able to coerce interest thereafter.
After that we fueled up and made a final stand on the ocean, hoping for a passing bit of interest to lift our spirits. We timed out still waiting for a bite, and headed back to Islamorada to hand in our strap that we knew wouldn’t make the cut.
So that’s what happened, and it wasn’t a whole lot of fun. Working hard at this game is grounded in the belief that hard work pays off, and that it didn’t to speak of certainly made me ask some relatively uncomfortable questions about my input and what parts of the game I’m able to control and if I’m sufficiently exercising my control over them. It’s part of the tournament game to have fish come off, and I know that we weren’t the only ones that lost many fish in the five days of this particular tournament. To imply that because we lost the ones we did somehow prevented us from any other outcome is unfair, and not my intention. The teams that ended up on the podium lost their share too, and what happened to us was really simple: we didn’t catch enough fish. We’ll keep working until we do, and we have our work cut out for us in a field as talented and practiced as is in the Gold Cup. I’ll leave it to Jay-Z to say it better than I ever could, from his autobiography Decoded: “Competition pushes you to become your best self, and in the end it tells you where you stand.”
That’s exactly what it is, Jay.
I’m fishing with John O’Hearn on Monday and Tuesday, and these reports are short a day with Ian in pursuit of permit, but that pretty much makes up most all of what I was short. More will be up shortly, including the Del Brown.