This year’s event was held in Flamingo, FL. The tournament was scheduled to run from 7:00am until 5:00pm making this a nine-hour day with an estimated twenty-plus miles of paddling or pedaling. The longest combined entry of snook, reds, and/or trout would win. Our team finished in second place, and this is our story through my eyes.
I met up meet up with Rusty Driver in Port Charlotte, FL, about ninety minutes from my house. I loaded my equipment into his jeep, put the kayak on his trailer, and left my car at an old friend’s house. It took us a little longer to get there than the anticipated five-hour drive. When we finally arrived and paid the entrance fee to the Everglades National Park, we were told there was another thirty eight-mile drive through the untouched Everglades - not a building in sight - to get to the Flamingo campground.
We got there and immediately set off to go pre-fishing, figuring we could set up the tents later. I looked for my partner - Elliot Stevens from Louisiana, part of the Fin Crazy team who sponsored me and whom I had not yet met - but he was already out fishing. Rusty and I decided to go into the back country ourselves.
We paddled through some beautiful and rugged mangrove tunnels, and made it to Coot Bay. The wind was howling once we opened up to the bay, so we monitored our distance from where we launched and managed to land some snook on the 42 Tackle gold-flake-over-bone “Flats Hammer” jig.
That night, we set up camp and met many of the Fin Crazy group from Louisiana that we were camping with; however, my elusive team mate Elliot was nowhere to be found. They had some crazy good grills, called Orion cookers, and were putting a rub on the meat and hanging racks of ribs around a chicken set in the middle.
As darkness fell, we wondered about the missing people. They finally arrived around 8:30pm from an extra-long day of pre-fishing. We socialized and ate way too much food; the chicken and ribs were cooked to perfection by master griller TK Shmeekay with help from Jason Austin and team. Mike McDonald and Billy Alstrom, winners of last year’s AFWC, joined us, along with more and more people following the trail of good food smells that were floating in the air and pointing our way.
The next morning, I met with Fin Crazy crew members Casey Brunning, Elliot, and Russ Pylant, and we made our way to the marina to get coffee and discuss our last day pre-fishing plans. I was still getting over the flu, and had basically been on the couch the week prior. After reviewing their plan for a very aggressive paddling and fishing day, covering many more miles than I thought would be smart for me to do, I decided to fish with another group who had the same idea as me and a more casual approach to the day.
Rodney Nelsen came over with his truck. We piled my Native “Ultimate 14.5” on top of Sean Rice’s Hobie “Pro Angler” and went to fish the famous Snake Bight area of Flamingo. Chuck Statham and Josh Maitland met us at the launch, and off we went.
We paddled for a while, but when we turned the corner out in the bay to go to Snake Bight the howling wind caught us off guard. We decided to fish where we were. I found a nice flat, and while standing up poling came across a beautiful 4’ sawfish and watched it swim next to the kayak. We fished until early afternoon, and went back to the camp.
As night approached, the Fin Crazy guys (with TK in the lead) were cooking up more food than we could eat. We wondered and waited as the group of three - Casey, Elliot, and Russ - still had not returned. Around 8:00pm we went to the ranger station to get a phone number, wondering if we needed to call search and rescue. The three missing guys arrived around 8:30pm, , muddy, tired, and beaten.
They were intact, but their kayaks were lost six miles back, deep into the dark everglades. They ate some food, borrowed kayak wheels, and Michael Ethridge joined to help with the rescue. Off into the total darkness of the wild Everglades they went with a million bright shining stars waiting to guide them; ready to walk the many miles to retrieve their kayaks at all costs, and not get eaten by the many crocodiles, snakes, spiders (oh so many spiders), sharks, and other creatures of the night that waited quietly, ready to pounce and feed on unsuspecting prey.
At 4:00am, I was awakened by the endless zipper sounds of the tent next to mine being quickly opened and closed, to ensure the millions of mosquitoes would not get in the safety zone. “Rusty Driver is on a mission: how many times can he unzip and zip back up the tent?” I thought. I finally gave up, dressed, and went out in the darkness of the campground to prepare for the second ever, most grueling kayak fishing tournament ever.
As I collected my thoughts and the endless zipping sounds subsided, I realized the four that set out last night still had not returned. Elliot was my partner, so if he didn’t show up I was not going to be fishing: this was a team event, and this was strictly enforced because of the many dangers of the Everglades.
Shortly after, the missing crew finally arrived, muddy kayaks, broken rods, and paddles in tow. At this point, they had been up and on the go for almost twenty four hours. That took a toll, and both my partner Elliot and Michael’s partner Russ dropped out of the tournament to get some much-needed rest. With both of us losing a partner, we headed to tournament leader Woody Callaway, explained what happened, completed our safety checks, and became the newly-formed “Fin Crazy 3” team. Michael had been up all night, was ready to fish. It would be our first time fishing together - we had barely met the night before - and in one of the largest and toughest tournaments for kayakers ever devised. We couldn’t think of a place we would rather be!
The envelopes with our topo maps were given out, as a quadcopter flew overhead with cameras attached, videoing the event. We were given the green light, so we quickly opened the envelope and analyzed the check points, agreed on the route, and off everyone went in different directions. Almost one hundred kayaks (and one canoe with a team from Nova Scotia) were all racing to complete the nine-hour event.
After a VERY long paddle, we arrived at our first check point. We pushed and paddled to get into the muddy canal to get our token, and finally after weeks of preparation, two days of pre-fishing, and a partner change the morning of the tournament, we were ready to catch our first tournament fish. I kept a steady stream of food in Michael, doing my best to keep his energy up. We were a team, we could not be separated, and we both worked with the strengths and weaknesses of the other with one goal in mind.
It took us longer then we wanted. We scoured the flats, poling very shallow looking for fish, with birds wading next to us near the famous Snake Bight. Then I heard a yell, and my teammate broke the ice with a nice redfish. We took the pictures while ensuring the token was in place. We released the fish, and furiously paddled to turn in our token, record our first fish, and take the even longer paddle to our next check point.
As we closed in on our next check point, I stood and poled to see what fish I could find. I was spooking reds, but also saw huge muds too big to be from reds, with large wakes right next to my kayak. We soon realized there were sharks mixed in with the reds - lots of sharks - and our kayaks were spooking these huge creatures. We got our second token after a slippery hike to the shore, and immediately paddled back to where the reds were. I stood up, poling quietly, and saw a very large shark swimming gracefully to my side. As I watched, admiring the large creature, to my surprise he turned and shot towards my kayak. He made a quick turn, and gave my kayak a side body slam that knocked me down - but thankfully not into the water.
As Michael and I pointed out one shark after another, we had our sights set on catching fish and soon I hooked up with a nice redfish. After a struggle, I managed to get the red to the kayak and now it circled and pulled underneath. My thoughts were only of the sharks, and whether I could manage to get the red out in one piece. I don’t use a net; I prefer an arm scoop (like a cradle underwater) and never once had this ever seemed like a careless move. Today however, sticking my arm in the shark-infested waters as the redfish circled and gave off distress signals under my kayak in the very shallow water was not something I wanted to do. When I thought the fish was ready, I did the quickest arm scoop ever - that red didn’t know what happened! But safe in my kayak it was, token out, picture taken, and we were off to check point three.
We checked our watches; we were good on time. The tide was lower, and I paddled fifty yards ahead of Michael, who was in a Native “Slayer Propel 13”. The idea was to help point him to deeper water, so he could utilize the faster and easier pedal drive and save what was left of his energy. We finally saw our last check point, and I paddled up as far as I could and got out to get the token. As soon as I hit the slippery slope, it felt like I was on ice and it was quite the spectacle. I was slipping and sliding, trying to get to the checkpoint and get the token while a cameraman was recording all my fancy moves.
Token in hand, we back tracked to a fishy area we found on our way in. Michael fished one side of the channel to the outer sandbar, and I fished across from him toward the inside of a pocket, hoping for more reds. Time was ticking away, it was 4:15pm, we still had no fish, and check in was 5:00pm sharp. One minute late and we would be disqualified. Cast after cast, not a bite, so I paddled around while standing and moved closer to a set of islands.
I found a nice eddy where different currents met, and knew the fish would be there. I changed rods and grabbed my Bull Bay Rods 6lb-15lb mini-Senzi kayak-specific rod which was already rigged with a 42 Tackle gold over bone “Flats Hammer” tail on a Mission Fishin 1/8oz jig head. I cast and got nothing. Again and again, and after my fourth cast – BAM! I hooked a nice trout, and in the boat he goes. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I sat back in my seat, knowing we just qualified!
I checked my watch; we still had time but, it was getting really close. I placed the fish on the measuring board with the token and took a picture. I always take a couple in the event one is blurry, so I started to take one more. As I started to snap the picture, the fish jumped and the token was gone. Michael paddled over, and I was frantic. If we didn’t turn the token in we would be disqualified. I started to tear my kayak apart right in the middle of the channel. I took the seat out and placed it on the front on top of my Native fish cooler bag. I turned around, quickly going through every inch, and then out of the corner of my eye I saw something floating. It was my seat, with the camera and all our pictures, slowly sinking and being swept away with the tide. The camera was in a case strapped to the top of my back rest, 2” from going under water. I quickly grabbed my paddle for the hardest strokes I have ever made. I lunged for the seat and grabbed it just in time - but still no token.
Michael and I agreed that I should paddle to shore get out and take everything out of my already wrecked kayak, but with fifteen minutes left we didn’t know if there would be enough time. I paddled as hard as I could while Michael circled the water, still hoping if the token had gone overboard it had floated and he could find it. I looked down, and the unmistakable red token lay right in the middle of my egg yolk-colored kayak, as if calling me, wanting to win. I yelled to Michael, and we bee-lined to the check point using every last bit of energy. We beached our kayaks to the side, turned in the elusive token, and ran through the field rather then paddle to the launch area.. We passed the finish line at official time 4:56pm - we had made it!
We turned in our pictures, and completed the paperwork. We verified with the line judge that everything was good. We slowly walked back and sat on our kayaks, totally exhausted. The nine hours of tournament thoughts swirled in our head. We looked at each other, too tired to speak, with smiles on our faces! The twenty-plus miles of paddling, fishing, and adventure behind us, we couldn’t move!
After our break, I pulled my kayak from the water to the road and waited for Rusty Driver to pick me up with the kayak trailer. It was now 6:15pm, and as we loaded, Rusty said we were driving back home tonight instead of our scheduled Sunday. Well, we had been up since 4:00am, completed the most grueling fishing tournament ever created, and still had the awards ceremony at 7:00pm. An additional five-plus hour drive home would make this a close to a twenty four-hour day. This did not sound like fun to me, but I agreed.
We hurried back to the campsite to break down my tent and supplies. We moved as fast as we could, and got to the awards ceremony just a little late. The food was out, and John Grace had the microphone in hand going over the days events. He then announced there were only three teams that completed the requirements - so now we knew we were in the top three.
Casey Brunning and Steve Gibson took the well-deserved win, and my partner and I took second-place honors. Speeches were made, tales were told, and off we went for the all-night drive home. At 2:00am we arrived in Port Charlotte, unloaded all my equipment from Rusty’s Jeep and trailer, and loaded my vehicle. I finally arrived home at 3:30am after a really foggy, sleepy drive. The twenty-three-and-a-half-hour day was finally complete, and with memories that will last a life time.
Thanks to all involved, from the sponsors to all the great people who showed up to compete. A special thanks to Woody Callaway, John Grace, and the entire Native Watercraft team for putting on such a monumental event!
Get outdoors and have some fun!
(Shallow Fly Walt)