PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — When 55 two-man teams take to Florida's Gulf Coast this weekend for the 2009 Redfish Cup opener out of Punta Gorda, they will be gunning for the top prize of 40,000 dollars and valuable points toward becoming the Academy Sports + Outdoors Team of the Year presented by Crocs.
In the estimation of Cape Coral, Fla., captain Bo Johnson, a local angler and former top-five contender at Punta Gorda, this year's tournament is shaping up to break records.
"I think we've had a few slow years, but it's cycling back around," Johnson said. "Last week we didn't see hardly anything and then the last three days after this moon, there are fish from 50 miles south of the launch to 200 miles north. The whole coast is full of fish and I think you are going to see upper 25 to 26 pounds over two days to make the cut and maybe more than that. Somebody is going to bring some studs in and hopefully it's going to be me."
According to Johnson, the sheer amount of water available to fish will spread anglers out, with some running as far North as St. Petersburg and as far south as Estero.
"You always got your guys like me that run to reach unpressured fish," Johnson said. "Making the run depends on the weather. If it's good, I'm gone. If not, I'm going to stay here. There are no secret spots. Good fishermen are going to find fish."
More important than finding the fish will be actually getting them to bite. Anglers frequently reported finding big schools of redfish, but couldn't catch fish out of them. Part of the issue is the amount of pressure that the area receives on a regular basis.
Johnson described sitting on a school of 2,000 to 2,500 fish in practice and struggled to catch anything but oversized fish. Redfish brought in to the weigh-in at Laishley Park in Charlotte Harbor must not touch the 27-inch mark. Johnson could see slot-sized fish following in the bigger fish, but could not get them to bite.
"There are a few other local tournaments going out this weekend and you got group trips with up to 20 boats in a group," Johnson said. "That puts a lot of guys out on the water. This time of year a lot of people are fishing for tarpon, but since the wind has not quit blowing that makes some of the guys turn to the flats for a better option. That could change over the weekend if the wind dies down."
Pressure is part of the reason defending Punta Gorda champion Andrew Bostick was more reserved in his predictions for the event.
"Seems like it is going to be a tough year for a lot of people," Bostick said. "There are less fish than past years, but there are still some quality fish around. We have a number of little groups, not that one big bunch like last year. No matter how tough it is, some people are going to be catching them."
Bostick agreed with Johnson on the cut weight, expecting the weight needed to be one of the final five teams fishing on Sunday to be around 25 pounds. The wildcard every team has to deal with will be catching a consistent stringer on each day of competition.
"It's a mess, there is too much pressure on these schools," Bostick said. "First thing in the morning, guys will catch them and then the fish freak out. The second day especially, they really struggle. There will be weekend pressure and pressure from the first day. The best way to avoid that is to keep away from people, have a lot of spots and avoid beating the fish up."
As far as productive baits go, Johnson cited fishing soft plastics slowly as an important strategy that he plans to rely on come tournament time. Bostick disagreed, pointing out that hardbaits had been playing a role in his practice strategy.
"Spoons, Sebiles and Z-Man jerkbaits," Bostick said. "A 4-inch Z-Man shrimp has little legs and it swims, so you don't have to move it much. The water is so clear around here so it really makes a difference when you use something like that. I'm not going to tell you what color, but it definitely can be pretty important."
The 2009 Redfish Cup season begins Friday, April 30th with the Day One weigh-in at 3:00 p.m. ET at Laishley Park in Charlotte Harbor, Fla. The full field of 55 teams will fish for two days with the top five moving on to Sunday's final round where a champion will be crowned. Visit RedfishCup.com for full coverage, standings and photographs from the event all weekend long.