The format had a little twist as well; instead of total length of fish caught, the anglers were allowed to enter two redfish, for five points each, then an additional point for each spot. A tiebreaker would be a third redfish’s length.
I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t really excited about entering this tournament. I wasn’t a big fan of bucktail jigs. I’ve used them in the past and caught fish on them, but I haven’t been in the “tournament” spirit lately. I thought about it some more and said, “Wait a 2minute; they are no different than what I have been using all winter. Why not enter?” I made a few calls to my good friend Norman Hall to see if he was fishing in the tournament. He said that he was, and talked me into going. At first I wasn’t aware of the format, but when he told me it was a redfish tourney my ears perked up.
A few more calls to discuss strategy and launch options, and we came to a game plan. We would launch from the check in point, which was the boat ramp on the Courtney Campbell Causeway located in Upper Tampa Bay. From there we would paddle the roughly one mile over to the flats, which we hoped held some redfish. My thought was this area had mixed and broken grass, the tide was coming out that morning and with several creeks along this shore, the reds should be sitting out in front of those creeks waiting for a meal.
We got checked in, received our tokens and score sheets and unloaded the kayaks. Since the launch time was 7:45 a.m., we had several anxious minutes to kill. I had no great aspirations for this tournament. With a couple of side bets placed, I was really just hoping for third place redfish and the coveted “Juggie”. I was the first to win Juggie some time ago. It started out as a gag, but has since grown to be the most valued award in the Paddle-Fishing.com event series.
As 7:45 approached, we eased the kayaks into the water and wished each other good luck. I had my Malibu Kayaks “X-13”, as I knew I would be covering a lot of water that morning and wanted to do it quickly. As we launched, it was apparent we weren’t the only ones with the same strategy as at least a dozen other competitors launched from the same area. After a nonstop paddle, I arrived on the flats around 8 a.m. and could tell my game plan might have been a good one; I could see schools of mullet jumping up and down the shoreline. I made a quick stop to work a few schools, but had no luck.
Feeling like the water was a bit too deep, I moved in closer to the shore and spooked a couple of really big fish. Now every time I spook something and it leaves a big boil in the water, I like to believe it was one of the fish I was after and not just a really big mullet. Anyone that has fished with me for any length of time will tell you I love to wade. In my opinion it’s one of the best ways to fish. I slow down and work an area more thoroughly. Tethering the kayak to my belt, I waded in until the water was knee deep, then paralleled the shore line making casts out towards the deeper water and the schools of mullet cruising by. Around 8:30 I got my first strike - it came as I was reeling the jig back in rather quickly in order to make another cast. “Fish on,” I thought, “Off to a good start.”
I got the fish on the measuring board, snapped a quick photo with the token, and it was back in the water to be caught another day. Now I had three other anglers close by, and one in particular had me worried. You see, once he saw me catch that first red, he got between me and a few other guys on the outside of me. I kept a close eye out and decided early on that if he got closer or out in front of me, I would have to say something. The last thing I want on the water is any confrontation, but I’m never above speaking my mind.
Wading further, I had two follows but no more strikes. It must have been around 9:00 when the next strike came. I could tell this one was a good fish, so I didn’t try to overpower it to the kayak. It made a couple of attempts to go between my legs in order to scrape the jig out of its mouth. I had learned a hard lesson a few years ago (I had a friend’s redfish with a topwater lure bury itself into my left calf muscle), and I put my legs together preventing this fish from repeating that awful morning.
It wasn’t until I had this red in my hands that I noticed the spots. Six spots on both sides - man, I couldn’t believe my luck. Right then I thought, “I have a good chance of winning this thing.” Trying to keep low key, I quickly got a picture on the measuring board and got the red back in the water. That’s when I noticed the shakes. It’s been a long time since I had the shakes on the water. Tell you the truth, I have missed it. This past summer I thought I might never fish again, and here I was out on the flats right in the middle of winning another tournament. It felt pretty good.
At this point, I had a major decision to make: do I return to the point where I started wading, or continue down the flat? A quick check behind me made up my mind, as one of the anglers that had been close by had eased in where I had just come from, and was following me from about 200 yards. That’s when a calming voice said to me, “Just keep doing what you are doing.” Not sure where that came from, but I like to think it was my dad watching over me. Continuing down the flats I noticed that the mullet activity had ceased. This was not a great sign, and I figured it was due to the slack tide. “All I need is one more, one more redfish…” I wanted one for the tie breaker, but felt pretty confident that my six-spotter would be hard to beat. But you never know.
Around 10 a.m. I got another strike and hooked into a good redfish, only to pull the hook a mere 25 yards away. To say I was bummed was an understatement - but wait, there’s more. Two casts later I get another hit, only to miss connecting with this one. Now I’m really bummed. “Is this how it’s going to end up?” I thought. Spotting a nice sand hole, I made a really long cast to the far side of it. Two twitches, and I felt that familiar thump on the end of the line. “Another red, baby!” I made sure this one wasn’t going to get off, and brought it in for a quick picture.
Three reds on the board - I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Almost at the end of the flats, I looked over to see that my buddy Norm had finally caught up with me. I had left him behind at the start and he had gone and fished a different location. He was working the outside of the same flat I was, so I got back in the kayak and eased out around him. We discussed the morning’s bite, and I left him to go off in search of his own redfish. I met up with another angler, my good friend, John Lee. We talked a bit, and he, too, took off to search for another red. I drifted around for a bit, looking for more activity but seeing none. Norm came out to where I was, and as the wind had started to pick up we decided to head back to the launch.
We arrived at the location for our version of a weigh-in, which we call a “Pic-N-Sip”, at the BarFly in Safety Harbor. Norm and I both ordered some lunch and waited for the final results to be tabulated. Talk among the other anglers was of a hard bite all morning.
With all the anglers checked in, it was time to determine the winners. My two-redfish total of 17 points was good enough for 1st Place. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. And to think, I almost didn’t show up that morning.
Bill Howard takes first place
Second Place goes to Todd Llewellyn
Third Place finisher Chuck Statham
Taking home prizes donated by Polar Bear Coolers, Metalfab and the coveted “Juggie” were: 1st Place red with a 26.75” fish, John Lee; 2nd Place with a 26” red, Steve Manning; and Rich Piatt in 3rd with a 22” red. Rich took home the “Juggie”, Paddle-Fishing.com’s “Stanley Cup”.
It felt pretty good to be back in the winner’s circle. Considering what I have gone through in the past year with my health, I would say it felt damned good. Now I’ll be the first one to admit that I might have gotten lucky. It’s not often that you catch a multi-spot redfish, much less catch one in a tournament where it actually counts for something. But like my dad always said to me while playing golf, “I’d rather be lucky than good any day.”
Until next time…