The charge to the finish was both figurative and literal as the second leg of the 2007 Redbone Trilogy — the Mercury Baybone Celebrity Tournament in Key Largo — neared completion.
Weather is ever the wild card in Redbone competition. And wild it was as tournament officials counted down the final minutes of Baybone on September 30, 2007, with key participants still unaccounted for. Captain Brian Helms of Homestead, Fla., was feeling the heat himself. He had the responsibility to get his team of John Timura and George Proenza back to the launch safely and under the wire to preserve the team's chance at a Baybone victory. Neither was anything near a lock as the trio made the long ride south to Key Largo, hoping to register permit/bonefish slams and claim victory.
But one big boom made the thought of victory momentarily meaningless.
The big bang Mercury Baybone
"We were almost struck by lightning," recalls Helms, who had wisely elected to wait out a fierce thunderstorm until he saw two solid days of tournament fishing about to disappear. "We were running behind Captain Rich Tudor and his anglers on Tavernier Creek when the lightning crashed literally right between us 100 feet from the boat. We barely made it under the wire."
"Barely made it" had special meaning indeed.
"Yeah. I remember the lightning," says Troy Pruitt, who was riding with Captain Rich Tudor at the time. The defending Rolex Grand Champion from the Redbone 2006 season recalls seeking cover during the storm and the long, wet, thunderous ride back.
When both teams finally pulled up to the dock, the fact that they were there at all seemed victory enough. But on their way to the scorer's table, the Baybone crown came back into focus and seemed well within reach to both ... and, hey, what's a bolt of lightning anyway for those who live between the sea and clouds?
Their scores registered and safety secured, both teams were in contention for a Baybone win.
Of course, the day before had been "gorgeous," Helms remembers. That evening, Redbone founder Gary Ellis had welcomed anglers and their guests and alerted them to developments in cystic fibrosis research and the need to catch the cure for CF.
Ken Watkins, guided by Captain Dave Borras, had taken the Baybone Superfly Grand Champion award over runner-up Chris Cullen and the rest of the field as a prelude.
But Baybone dawned with 25 mph winds that would remain rip-roaring for two days for the 22 boats entered.
Troy Pruitt proved he was ready to defend his Rolex Redbone Series Grand Champion title, posting a 30-inch permit and 28-inch bonefish during the event with help from his guide, the able Captain Rich Tudor. Both were good enough to land Pruitt awards for largest catch of each species. He fished live crab for the permit, welcoming the periods of sunlight that enabled him to sight-fish. Pruitt's six bonefish releases were also good enough to lead all anglers and earn him a Day Two Top Rod award.
But he, teammate Jeff Ball, and Captain Rich Tudor were edged out by the Islamorada residents, John Timura and George Proenza, the tournament Grand Champions. Captain Brian Helms had also led Proenza to two permit releases (one was a fish estimated at 25 pounds). They helped earn him First Runner-Up Angler award.
"We had a lot of good luck," says Helms, whose boat tallied five bonefish and four permit. "Everything we hooked stayed on, and all of our shots we made happen. We lost only one one fish — a permit — for the tournament.
Redbone veteran Mitch Howell of Plantation, Fla., and Hal Chittum of Titusville, Fla. slipped into the First Runner-Up Team Anglers position. They were guided by Captain Bob Branham.
Thunderbolts aside, it was a big victory for Timura who caught his last permit with only 10 minutes left. The catch put him in contention with Troy Pruitt and Mo Smith for the coveted Rolex Redbone Series title with one event remaining.