Anglers gather at saltwater mecca

KEY WEST, Fla. — Gary Ellis always has a smile on his face when surrounded by some of the best saltwater flats fly fishers in the world, as he was Thursday night on the patio of the Conch Republic Seafood Company.

Ellis turned 70 years old last month, and it's been 20 years since he and his wife, Susan, founded the Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series. But Ellis had an extra gleam in that ever-present smile during Thursday night's kickoff of the 2008 Redbone Series.

Even though the tournament series raised over $1.5 million for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation last year, Ellis believes it's on the verge of a breakthrough, especially considering that first tournament in 1988 raised a total of $16,000.

Ellis' optimism is based on a new partnership that has created the ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series. Saturday and Sunday's Key West Redbone SLAM represents the debut of that partnership.

"The SLAM every year is like a family reunion," Ellis said. "And there's just something about Key West. If you're a gambler, it's Las Vegas. Key West represents the greatest fishing in the world.

"And having ESPN here is a huge breakthrough. It's been the dream of the Redbone Series for a long time. This is a very special time."

Beginning with this week's event at Key West, ESPN Outdoors will produce television shows and Internet content for six Redbone events this season, including events in Montauk, N.Y.; Key Largo and Islamorada, Fla.; and Grand Bahama.

The tournament begins with a special Superfly one-day tournament Friday when two-man teams of guides and anglers will try to catch a saltwater flats "grand slam" of tarpon, permit and bonefish in one day on a single fly pattern.

A dozen anglers, each paired with a guide, will scour the waters of the lower Keys on Friday for what angler Mark Cooper, a former right guard for the Denver Broncos, called "a tune-up day" for the SLAM.

Consensus at the registration was that local knowledge for the eight or so guides experienced in the lower keys would be key to finding tarpon. Permit, too, were expected to be scarce. Even the optimistic anglers didn't expect more than one or two "slams" to be recorded Friday, if that many.

Angler Cal Collier Sr., in surveying the expert field, said, "If any of these guys gets on the fish, they're going to win."

The two-day Key West Redbone SLAM, which can include fly fishing and spinning tackle with both artificial and live bait, begins Saturday.

Florida flats fishing competition and camaraderie will be the main elements on display this week. But overshadowing that will be the continued fight for a CF cure. Gary and Susan Ellis' daughter, Nicole, was born with CF in 1984. At that time, cystic fibrosis sufferers rarely survived the lung disease long enough to attend high school.

With the help of over $10 million raised in the history of the Redbone events and, of course, hundreds of millions of dollars raised through other CF fundraisers, the median age of survival for a person with CF is now 37 years.

Thursday night on the shores of Key West, this new partnership with the Redbone Series and ESPN Outdoors had Gary Ellis feeling like anything was possible.