After the three days of being beaten down by the January permit, I had an opportunity to fish with Captains Brandon Cyr and Nick Labadie in the Sugarloaf Showdown, the now-annual tournament to benefit the Guides Trust Foundation that the Lower Keys Guides Association puts on. The tournament had been moved to January after a tropical storm closed in on the original November dates, which made it feel like the beginning of tournament season as opposed to the end, and the turnout was higher than anticipated. Of additional note was the fact that there was a change to the scoring, with the creation of divisions in both spin and fly. Still, the number of species counting more than total score and the limit of 3 fish per species a team could submit remained intact, allowing for some strategy to be pursued. After we were unable to compete last year due to existing plans for Brandon and me to travel to Cuba, the three of us looked forward to a pair of fun competitive days on the water as a team.
A cold front had arrived two days before the event was supposed to start, of course, which added an element of familiar frustration to the tournament. Our goal on the first day was to max out our scores on bonefish and barracuda, catching 3 of each on fly before thinking about looking for a permit. We had little trouble finding enough barracuda to throw at, though after catching two we started to think that a bonefish might be harder to find in the cooler water and applied our efforts to what we thought would be the hardest thing to find other than a permit. We found three shots worth and caught two, which was a gift, and spent another hour on our third before we returned to barracuda fishing to attempt our third and final of the easier two species in the fly division (the limit per species in this event is designed to keep the teams from exploiting one too much in a given day and to maintain a dynamic approach for the field, and this rule is what prevented us from going full send on the barracuda after a single bonefish). We maxed out with our third barracuda in the middle of the afternoon, and while we had the tube rod ready for a shot at another one we tried our luck at permit fishing to see if we could get all three on fly. We had three shots, none of which worked out, before our lines out alarm went off and we had to head back to check-in. There, we found that we were the only team with two species on fly, setting us up for a day 2 score that could, if high enough, force someone to catch a permit on fly in order to take the division win from us. The three barracuda we’d caught on spin weren’t enough to do much with, though we thought that the following day we might have a plan to take both divisions. If we were to catch a mix of bonefish and barracuda on fly, once we reached four total we could catch a bonefish and a permit on a spinning rod and theoretically take both divisions. Cocky stuff, but fun to think about in any event.
The second day the water had cooled further but the air was warmer, which gave us some confidence that we might be able to attempt a run in the direction of our master plan. The first barracuda came easily, though the second was a challenge: in pursuit of it, we spent more hours than we wanted without coming tight. Finally, once the place we’d found the bonefish on day one got right, we returned and Brandon summarily dispatched two on two shots to get us a total of three fish on the board. For the fourth we went nearby and caught another barracuda, thus making the only avenue for another team to win the fly division paved by catching a permit on fly–something we thought might not happen given the conditions. I had the pleasure of catching my first bonefish on a jig, which was about as thrilling as I could possible imagine, giving us the second species on spin and leaving us one more for our plan to be possible.
As soon as we could, we left to try to find a permit that would eat our crab. I must admit I’ve never seen a permit eat a thrown crab, much less caught one on a spinning rod myself. Brandon took the bow of the boat over, Nick pointed the bow into the wind, and we began our last hour of looking for a permit that would play crab.
We saw nothing for the duration, and with a few minutes to go began talking about how it was always worth fishing until the alarm goes off, for the principle if nothing else. I glanced at the GPS in the final minute, watching the seconds count down, when I felt Brandon shift his weight and heard the crab touch down in the water. I watched the seconds tick by while Nick and Brandon talked back and forth, and Brandon reeled in the crab for another shot at this fish that had presented itself half a minute shy of safety. I heard the crab touch down again, and this time watched. The fish raced over and went down on the crab and Brandon set the hook, and all hell broke loose. We were, understandably, pretty fired up to hook a fish with (as best I can recall) only 18 seconds left to fish that might win us the spin division. The fish took off against the drag, though tragedy struck within a few seconds as it jettisoned the hook. We didn’t know what else to do but laugh it off, still a bit shocked from the high and subsequent low, and tightened up the rods and headed home.
At the check-in, we found that no one had caught a permit on fly, though we were smart to catch four: Lenny Leonard and Mike Widdes had caught three of each, and were it not for our fourth they would have passed us. In third was Nicholas Calabro and Rob Kaufman, who had caught three barracuda each day. The spin division was won by Pat Bracher and his daughter Charlie Bracher (who also, unsurprisingly, took first in the kids division), second was Doug Kilpatrick and David Leider, and the podium was rounded out by Tim Carlisle and Pat Bennett in third.
I’d like to thank Nick and Brandon for offering me a ride on a winning horse, and I look forward to more in the future.
The cleanup the following day was also a smashing success, and the LKGA is going great places. If you haven’t considered joining or donating, please give it some thought.
After the tournament I fished for a pair of days with Nick Labadie, and the cold weather forced our hand to try to make the best of some tough conditions. We caught many giant barracuda, which was awesome, and lost one that was close to the 50″ mark near the boat. We also caught a murder of redfish, which wasn’t as thrilling as the large barracuda but fun nonetheless.
Tomorrow I’m fishing with John O’Hearn, in search of the 4lb permit record. I look forward to getting back into the record game after the six concluded nearly a year ago, and this record has been deserving of attention for a while. After that I’m fishing Wednesday and Thursday with Ian Slater, and even though we are in the March Merkin next month our attention is already on the Gold Cup in June. I got a new boat last week, which I look forward to abusing, and I can’t wait to get back out there.
More to come,