If you can catch a fish, you can fish a tournament
One day, my oldest and I were out fishing just for the love of fishing, and he asked if we could consider fishing tournaments.
We both are competitive and love the feeling of performing under pressure. So of course, I thought that was a great idea and started researching it. Google searches yielded ECRC, with a schedule up that fished the Panhandle and a contact for questions. I read through the website, called Mr. Burke, and next thing you knew, we were fishing the March 11, 2017 ECRC East Bay tournament. The Thursday before the tournament, my son came down with some flu bug and I called my dad to fill in and fish with me.
I knew in my heart of hearts I was okay, rarely got skunked fishing for trout and reds, and thought we could do okay. The Friday before the tournament, there was a front coming through that would move the fish, so my dad and I headed out to pre-fish.
We went to spots that had been hot for us leading up to that weekend. From 7 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., we fished flats, docks, drop-offs, mudflats, bridges. We threw paddle tails, swimbaits, top waters, artificial shrimp, stick baits, wedgetails and spoons. After spending all day fishing all over, throwing everything in the tackle box, we managed to catch one 19-inch red — pretty concerning, knowing the tournament was the next day and we could only find one lower slot red.
At 4:45 a.m., we pulled up to the Callaway landing and saw Blazer Bays, Skeeters, Sterlings, Rangers, Mavericks, and Action Craft boats. I noticed some boats were wrapped, and almost everyone but four teams a had sponsor jersey. There I was, with a Key West 177 SKV in a Salt Strong long sleeve. That moment, I started second-guessing our decision of tournament fishing.
Like I said before, I was confident that I was okay, but not professional good.
The horn sounded and everyone was off to the races but us. We held back until the other 20 boats took off. This was all new and I wasn’t about to get in the middle of that chaos. We decided since it was windy, cold and choppy, we wanted to be protected, so we headed to four docks and a mud flat I knew on the other side of the bay, which I had forgotten about the day before.
We fished the first dock, skipping soft baits under and around it. We spent about 30 minutes there, but didn’t see or catch the first fish. We fished the second dock, with the same tactics and results. Then we fished a mud flat, throwing soft baits and paddle tails, and hooked up a 22-inch trout. After that trout, we didn’t catch or see another fish.
The frustration was building, but we kept at it. We got to the third dock, using the same tactics and not catching anything. I continued casting and hooked the dock, but used the trolling motor to get near and unhook the piling. I looked under the dock and there must have been 50 reds just lying on the bottom. We moved 50 feet from the dock and set the pole.
I continued to skip the dock, knowing the fish were there, and eventually hooked up a small slot; threw him back, cast again, small slot, threw him back. It was a no-cull tournament, so once it hit the live well, that was it, we couldn’t upgrade. Every cast I hooked up, catching so fast dad put his rod down and just started netting. We ended up catching 30 reds from under that dock and putting a 6.5-pounder in the live well. Then the bite stopped. It was 11 a.m., and we needed one more good fish before the 3 p.m. weigh-in.
We stopped at the last dock I knew of that might produce. We poled down and started skipping the dock. It was the same as the last dock: a red every cast, lower slot. This dock was only holding about 20 reds; we ended up keeping a 4-pound red. Good thing too, because the bite stopped after that 4-pounder. We were going into the weigh-in with roughly 10 pounds and hoping we made top 10.
The weigh-in started. I saw bags and reds all over, and in the bags of water, all the reds looked huge. We were the third team to weigh-in and we just watched. I wasn’t sure really what was going on, or what the weights were, until the bunk master leaned over to me and said, “You all are in first with one team left to weigh.”
I didn’t believe what I just heard. I watched the other team weigh in with 12 pounds they caught in Choctaw Bay. The first redfish tournament we ever fished, we weighed in second out of 20-plus teams.
I showed up that morning questioning decisions and with doubt. I left that tournament full of confidence and even decided to fish the Florida Pro Series with a little reassurance from Mr. Burke.
Tournament circuits and series are kicking off at the end of February and ending in November. Regardless of names, sponsors and boats, I encourage everyone who enjoys fishing to try at least one. Some series now offer amateur divisions for those who are new. Go to TheRedfishClub.com for the Emerald Coast Redfish Circuit or FloridaProRedfishSeries.com/emerald-coast-schedule for the Florida Pro Emerald Coast Division.