Cody Chivas lives to fish. "I didn't have any homework tonight, so I figured I would go out and check for tarpon," said the 19-year-old from Belleair Bluffs who is studying business at UCF. "I try to get out whenever I can." Cody normally doesn't answer his cell phone when fishing, but his dad said a reporter might be calling. You see, Cody and his Salt Rock Grill/Pro Marine crew won team of the year honors on the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series. "It's pretty cool," he said. "We have been at it for five years, and we take it pretty seriously." Cody, brother Kyle, 18, and Grant Johnston of Indian Rocks Beach, and Dan Munyan of Belleair, both 23, opened the 2008 season with a win. Karson, the youngest Chivas son at 13, helps when he can. "We caught a 168-pounder the first tournament," Cody said. "That put us out ahead from the start."
The "Chivas boys," as they are sometimes called by the old-timers (those over 30) on the tour, have been fishing on their own since they were old enough to ride two-wheelers.
"With all the electronics they have today — EPIRBs, GPS and VHF radios — I figured it was safer for them to be out fishing on the Gulf of Mexico than it was for them to be skateboarding down Gulf Boulevard," said their father, Frank Chivas, owner of several of the bay area's leading seafood restaurants, including Indian Shores' Salt Rock Grill. "They grew up on the water, so I have always felt pretty confident about them going it alone."
Cody, leader of the team, drives the 22-foot Century during tournaments while Kyle, a recent graduate of Palm Harbor University bound for FSU, and the others focus on fishing.
"Hooking a tarpon is the easy part," he said. "It's landing them that's the problem."
When a fish gets close enough, Cody hands over the wheel to whomever is free, then he grabs the gaff. This teamwork has served them well. In the first event of the five-tournament series, the anglers hooked and released three tarpon. Then in the third tournament, they weighed in a 179-pounder, good for second place.
"You know in most tournaments that would be enough to win," Cody said. "But that week somebody caught a 210-pound fish."
After a poor showing in the fourth tournament, the Salt Rock Grill team bounced back with a release in the final tournament that provided enough points to push them to the team of the year title.
"Our total winnings so far this year amounts to $88,000," Cody said.
That kind of coin will buy a lot of beer for the boys back on campus, if he was only old enough to buy beer.
"They hand all the checks right over to me," Frank said. "It costs a lot of money to fish these tournaments. You have the entry fees, the gas, new rods and reels … it all adds up.
"We run this just like a business. At the end of the year, when all the bills are paid, they split up what is left."
Veterans on the trail
Cody and Kyle are no strangers to tournament fishing. The dynamic duo took second in their first Forrest L. Wood redfish series event in 2007 and eventually won team of the year honors in the Eastern division of that circuit.
"It got to be too much for them," Frank confessed. "Those redfish tournaments are usually during the week, and they were interfering with their school. The boys were smart enough to realize that their grades were starting to suffer. They made the decision on their own."
Cody said he doesn't miss the redfish circuit.
"Nobody liked us," he said. "That whole thing is kind of clique-ish."
But tarpon season is different because the boys have a lighter summer school schedule. Frank said his boys can fish all day and all night if they want to, just as long as they keep up their schoolwork.
A night off
Cody takes his schoolwork seriously, trying to get a few extra credits this summer with a class on the Internet.
"I'm up to date with everything, so that is why I figured I'd come out to see if I could find some tarpon," he said.
Yes, the tarpon.
Cody put the phone down for a moment and yelled to his friends that he had spotted a fish.
An 80-pounder had gulped down a MirrOlure plug, then tried to wrap the line around a crab trap.
"Can you hold on?" he asked. "We are fighting a fish."
In the background a reel screamed as the fish took some line. The boys hollered as the fish jumped and went for another run.
Finally, Cody picked up the phone.
"I got to go," he said apologetically. "I don't want to lose this fish."
Times Outdoors Editor Terry Tomalin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8808.