Tourney Time

By: Doug Sease

As the unofficial fishing capital, Florida boasts more than its fair share of competitive fishing tournaments. So what's it like to actually enter one of these events? Read on to find out.

Here’s the question: Is fishing a competitive sport or a contemplative pastime?

Answer: Depends on what you want it to be.

I know plenty of anglers who enjoy nothing more than messing around in their boats sort of trying to catch a fish or two. If they succeed, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s okay, too, because a day on the water is always better than a day in the office.

At the same time, I’m very aware that organized competitive fishing tournaments are very much on the increase. Here in Florida, it’s getting to the point that the various tournament organizers are having a hard time finding dates to schedule their tournaments that don’t overlap with some other group’s tournament. And the prize money that you can earn on the professional fishing circuit, not to mention through endorsements, is truly astounding.

I fall somewhere betwixt and between those ends of the competitive spectrum. I’m not good enough to actually compete for money—I would spend a lot more in entry fees than I would ever earn from catching prize fish—but I do like to out-fish my friends and usually come back from an outing with my ego intact (I try not to brag out loud, but I keep my fish on a separate stringer in case anyone asks who caught what). 

Still, I couldn’t resist when my friend Jeff Marinko invited me recently to join him, his father Bill and his father-in-law Kevin Lovely in St. Lucie County’s 16th Annual Fishin’ Frenzy tournament out of Fort Pierce Inlet.

The Frenzy isn’t one of the anything-goes, all-out-to-win tournaments that are sometimes featured on television sports channels. Few, if any, of the participants are backed by big-money sponsors, like the main boats that compete for the high stakes in tournaments such as the Southern Kingfish Association circuit.

Still, the top prize for bringing in the biggest dolphin is $10,000, enough to fund a year of fishing even at today’s high fuel prices. What’s more, many boats had their entry fees paid by local sponsors.

It’s an unwritten rule that all fishing tournaments must start at daybreak. I suppose that makes sense, especially for offshore tournaments in which the most aggressive competitors may run 100 miles or more to find fish.

True to form, the Frenzy started at 6:30 on Saturday morning, although the sponsor limited the fishing to within 50 miles of Fort Pierce Inlet. There were 101 boats entered in the Frenzy and the most amazing thing about it was the collection of craft that gathered at dawn in the inlet, ranging from sleek 30-foot plus machines powered by three 250-horsepower outboards to small craft that just didn’t appear up to the rigors of offshore fishing. But, of course, in the hands of a skilled skipper most boats can handle a lot more than appearances suggest.

I wouldn’t want to have been aboard the little sailboat that was heading to sea in the inlet when the “Go” signal was given at 6:30. Suddenly, 101 power boats were roaring toward the ocean, jockeying for position and throwing up huge wakes that surely made for a tense few moments aboard that sailboat.

In Jeff’s custom fishing boat, “Island Pressure,” we were among the first out of the inlet. Unlike most, we turned south. Jeff and his father know these waters well and the plan was to run south and a little east to find 200 feet of water, then ride the north-flowing current back up. It would take us longer to reach the point at which we would start fishing, but we would be able to cover more ground than if we went straight east and had to stem to current during at least part of the day. 

A southwest wind had been blowing overnight so the waves near shore weren’t significant. But the farther out we got, the rougher it became. The boat was built on a racing hull so the ride, while “interesting,” wasn’t bone crushing. Kevin, stuck on the windward side of the cockpit, took the brunt of the wind-driven spray that came aboard.

We were fishing by 7:30, trolling rigged ballyhoo in an “S” pattern from about 180 feet to 300 feet of water. The sun rose, the mist burned off and then the sleep we had missed because of the early start began to catch up with us.

Jeff’s boat is designed for fishing and diving, not sleeping, but Kevin still found a flat spot on the foredeck to try and catch a quick nap. Instead, he caught about ten gallons of salt water that came over the bow as we plowed into one of the larger, steeper seas that the wind had brewed up. Given that he was already soaked from the ride out, it took a few dousings like that to persuade him that a nap just wasn’t in the cards.

Trolling isn’t the most interesting way to spend time if the fish aren’t hitting. There’s little to do but stay on course, keep an eye out for signs of life, and eat snacks.

But the boredom evaporates instantly once a reel starts screaming. We had our first hit at 10:30 a.m. The fish took the bait, then dropped it, a common occurrence with dolphin. Bill immediately started feeding line out to stall the bait in the water and let it drop in the hopes the fish would come back for the kill.

Thirty seconds later, the fight was on again. A bull dolphin is one of the prettiest—and strongest—fish in the ocean and this one gave a spectacular leaping fight before we were able to gaff it and pull it aboard. Jeff’s scale indicated a 22-pound specimen, far from the Florida record of 78 pounds (also caught off Fort Pierce), but still a possible winner.

It took about an hour for the excitement to wane and for everyone to settle back into the routine of snacking and watching. Lunchtime came and went and the current by then had carried us back to a position due east of the inlet. There was some radio chatter that indicated other boats were occasionally scoring dolphin, but the action wasn’t fast or furious and we didn’t feel too bad to have just one fish in the boat.

Then, at 1:30 p.m., not just one, but two reels started singing. Were we in a school of dolphin with multiple hookups? No, we had just stumbled across a sailfish that was ripping through our baits with his bill, stunning them in preparation for his own lunch.

He chose my bait for the first course and away we went. He took line from me, then I retrieved it several times while Bill maneuvered the boat to keep the line from fouling the engines. It’s always a thrill to fight a big fish, but even as I was battling the sail I couldn’t help but think that I was taking up time that could be used to hunt that potential $10,000 dolphin. We released the exhausted sailfish after gently resuscitating him by moving forward slowly while Jeff gripped his bill to get water flowing over his gills.

Thirty minutes later, another strike! Action seemed to be picking up. Kevin landed a 10-pound dolphin, certainly not big enough to win any prizes, but just the right size for some delicious grilled filets.

At 3:30, Jeff and Bill called time. We had to head back to the inlet to make the 5 p.m. check-in and the 5:30 deadline for officially weighing our catch.

Did we have a chance of making the scoreboard? Not until we got close to the inlet did the radio chatter indicate that one boat apparently had a fish of more than 40 pounds and there were reportedly a few more fish in the 30-pound range.

At the last minute, we decided we didn’t really have a chance and headed for the ramp to pull the boat rather than to the marina to weigh our fish. But, even as Bill was backing the trailer down to the ramp, one of Jeff’s friends called on the radio. He knew we had a fish in the low 20-pound range and now he was telling us that fourth place at the moment belonged to an 18-pound fish. Fourth place was worth $1,000.

“We really ought to go weigh in,” he said.

Bill parked the truck and we flew over the three miles or so to the marina to wait as boats ahead of us weighed their fish. That’s when we heard over the loudspeaker that fourth place had just been taken by a 32-pound fish. Oh, well. We weighed in anyway at 22 pounds, then returned to the ramp to pull the boat and call it day.

My conclusion: Tournament fishing is like any other fishing. It takes patience, dedication and some amount of skill. The only real difference is that at the end of the day you have at least a chance of taking home not just a tasty dinner, but a fat paycheck as well. That is, if you’re good. And, more importantly, if you’re lucky.

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