ISLAMORADA, Fla. Twenty-seven miles from Islamorada sits the marina at Flamingo on the southern tip of Everglades National Park, where a small convenience store, marina, boat ramp and the offices for ENP employees are the last remnants of what used to be a hotel, restaurant and marina facility catering to guests at the park, many of which were fishermen.
In late October of 2005, Hurricane Wilma, a category 3 storm, sent high winds and an 8-foot storm surge into the area, damaging the hotel and restaurant beyond repair, yet this last bastion for angler access to the wide expanses of Florida Bay and the waters of Everglades National Park remains open for business.
By mid-morning, many of the guides and their anglers who opted to chase redfish and snook around the waters of Everglades National Park were nestled in the Flamingo Marina concession store, seeking shelter from lightning that was popping off randomly and causing the graphite push poles the guides use to propel their skiffs silently in the shallows to buzz from the surrounding static electricity.
Amid low-lying clouds and occasional lightning, 23 boats left the marina at World Wide Sportsman in Islamorada today to fish the second day of the Florida Keys Outfitters IGFA Inshore World Championship. For the anglers needing a redfish or snook to help complete a slam, the backcounty of Florida Bay was the destination.
"We ran over a few fish on that flat on the west side of Snake Bight, but we never did see what they were," said Brower Moffit, who was leading the Fly Division in the event with 400 points after the first day. "We ran back Oceanside to try to catch a bonefish and at about 10 minutes from lines out I had a fish eat 10 feet from the boat in the middle of a strip, and I had nothing to stick it with, so it came off. It was a tough, wet day."
To the east, the guides and anglers fishing the gin clear waters of the Upper Keys were having trouble spotting and tracking fish moving across the flats in the low light glare. Constant rain and lightning pelted the anglers and guides and they fished in full rain gear and hoped for a window of sunlight that would let them spot fish.
"We didn't have much sun at all until the last five minutes of fishing," sad Jake Turek, who went into the day leading the Light Tackle Division with 600 points. "We needed a bonefish and a permit for the slam so we were concentrating on bonefish. We caught one, and were sitting there in the pouring rain with a shrimp on when Dave (Denkert, Turek's guide) stood up and said, 'Hey, there's a couple of bonefish right here.'"
Turek caught two more bonefish in the next five minutes giving him three bonefish for the day and four of the five species needed for a slam. With 900 overall points and four species, Turek leads the Light Tackle event but still needs a permit to complete the slam.
"After we caught the bones it stopped raining and we ran to a spot to get a permit but it was tough with all the glare," Denkert said. "You couldn't follow the fish. They'd spike up real quick and then go down and you'd have no idea where they went, so it was really tough."
Denkert said his plan for the final day of fishing was to target permit all day in hopes of catching multiple fish. Turek has three bonefish, three snook, three redfish and a tarpon, so catching a single permit would give him a slam plus three multiple species.
In this event, the most species caught trumps overall points, and a slam trumps most species, then after a slam is caught it's most slams or most slams with multiple species. Overall points only figure into the equation when anglers are tied with most species or most slams.
Three anglers have caught four of the five species (tarpon, permit, bonefish, snook and redfish) for a slam, including Barry Shevlin who needs a redfish to complete the slam and Roger Fernandez. Fernandez was fishing with Capt. Rob Fordyce and needs a bonefish to complete his slam.
"Our intention today was to run to Flamingo to try to catch a snook and a redfish, and we got about halfway and the weather was pretty ominous, so we stopped and started looking around and got into a nest of tarpon," Fordyce said. "We had a couple of good shots with the fly and had a fish eat and miss the fly, and then a storm came up and the wind started blowing. So we ran way into the backcountry and by 8:30 we had a snook and a redfish on artificial."
Fernandez had eight or 10 more shots at snook and redfish but they wouldn't eat, then they found more tarpon. Fernandez hooked a fish on artificial and lost it on the third jump when the fish threw the hook.
"We switched back over to the fly rod and had a tarpon about 100 pounds eat and missed him," Fordyce said. "Then we caught one about 120 pounds. We were in real skinny water and had about eight or 10 shots at big ones."
Fordyce believes it's going to take more than a slam to win the Light Tackle Division.
"I'm thinking it'll be a slam plus two fish," Fordyce said. "My plan is to catch two bonefish, so that would give us a slam and two fish. If we do that, then maybe we'll go after a tarpon to try to catch that third fish."
Not everyone had success on this day. For Charles Duncan of Houston, the day started with a squall blowing a tree down in front of his car which temporarily prevented him from leaving the hotel room.
Then he broke the tip off an eight weight fly rod while stepping into the boat at the dock, and on the way to Flamingo had a cormorant fly into his boat. As he sat in the convenience store in the marina at Flamingo while hiding from lightning, Duncan thought about going back to bed before the day could get any worse.
Joe Viar, fishing with Capt. Rusty Albury, hooked into a nice tarpon right after arriving at a fishing spot, and while fighting the fish simply walked off the front of the boat. Neck deep on the flats with the fish still on, Viar couldn't hand the rod to his guide while he climbed back into the boat because IGFA rules prevent anyone except the angler from touching the rod at any time.
"Rusty has rod holders on his poling platform, but they're real high, so it was tough but I got the rod into the holder and then climbed back into the boat," Viar said. "It wasn't until after Rusty touched the leader and the fish was caught that I started thinking about all the stuff that was in my pockets. I lost my room key, my rental car key and cell phone."
Going into the final day of fishing, three anglers in the Light Tackle Division have four of the five fish required for a slam, and several others sit just behind them with three species in multiples. In the Fly Division, only two anglers have more than one species, so it's still anyone's tournament to win.
"This is why we hold this event in Islamorada, there are no gimme's, you earn every fish you catch," said Mike Myatt, COO of the International Game Fish Association. "If you get a gimme, you better appreciate it, because there's not another one coming for a long time.
"It takes a lot of skill to do well, and we have the best anglers from the best tournaments fishing for the best fish, so in the end it really plays out to who sees fish and makes perfect casts."
By late afternoon, many of the anglers reviewed the leaderboard and planned their strategies for the last day of fishing.
Nearby, Viar stood in the parking lot at World Wide Sportsman, the host marina of the event, talking into a borrowed cell phone to his rental car company and hoping to get a replacement key for his vehicle. A replacement hotel room key was next on his list.
All five species must meet minimum length requirements to count as a catch. Bonefish must be at least 18 inches; tarpon 36 inches; permit 18 inches; snook 24 inches and redfish 18 inches.
In the Fly Division, anglers score 200 points for every bonefish release; 200 points for a tarpon; 300 points for a permit; 150 points for every snook and 125 points per redfish. In the Light Tackle Division, anglers can use bait, artificial or fly, with different point values awarded based on the difficulty of the catch. A bonefish on bait scores 100 points, on artificial 150 points and on fly 200 points. Tarpon score 100 points for bait, 150 for artificial and 200 for fly, while permit score 150 points on bait, 250 on artificial and 300 on fly. Snook count as 50 points on bait, 100 on artificial and 150 on fly, while redfish score 50 points on bait, 100 on artificial and 125 points on fly.