Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Fight with tarpon beats winning fishing tournament

TAMPA — There are two types of tournament anglers: those who like to win, and those who like to fish.

Sometimes, the two can be mutually exclusive.

"I think we'll do well," I told my teammates. "But we need a plan."

The USF Bulls Fishing Tournament listed seven target species: redfish, trout, snook, cobia, mackerel, grouper and shark. The team that caught, photographed and released the highest total combined inches of the previously mentioned fish would win.

"And we'll also need a team name," I continued. "Do you guys have any suggestions?"

Jeri Smith thought for a moment and then offered, "How about Team Estrogen?"

Cindi Cureton, her friend and frequent fishing partner, seconded the motion. "I like it," she said.

I looked to our guide, Adam Mullin, for support, but he turned away and started tinkering with a reel. Outvoted, I bowed my head and prayed that I could slip away before the weigh-in began.

"Team Estrogen it is," I said.

Cureton and Smith, both big USF supporters, spend a lot of time on the water. Both are experienced anglers, well-versed in the finer points of fighting big fish. But the true battle would be agreeing what species to pursue first.

Snook, I proclaimed, would be the hardest to catch, so we should target that species first. Then we could hit the flats for redfish, trout and perhaps even pick up a Spanish mackerel.

"On the way back we could troll along the shipping channel for grouper," I said. "Then we will hit some buoys for cobia and then dump all the bait and try to get a shark."

My scheme, if successful, could propel Team Estrogen to victory. But as my colleagues pointed out, all that running around chasing seven species didn't sound like all that much fun.

"Why don't we try to just put some fish in the boat?" Mullin said after my first snook spot proved to be a bust. "We could sit here for hours and try to catch one snook or go and fish where I know where there are some redfish."

My teammates, who admitted they didn't really care if they won or not, sided with the captain. So off we went to Mullin's spot, where we immediately caught a half-dozen fish, including trout, redfish and snook.

"I hate to leave a spot when the fish are biting," Mullin said. "But if we want to win this thing we should probably move."

Cureton and Smith, their arms tired from hauling in so many redfish that were over the 27-inch slot limit, reluctantly agreed. Mullin stopped to pick up some Spanish mackerel and then headed to a spot near one of the area bridges to catch a shark.

"We have about two hours before we have to be back at the weigh-in," he said. "This shouldn't take long. … I bet we get a bite in a couple of minutes. If not, we'll move on."

Mullin tossed a couple of dead baits off the stern and we waited. It took about two minutes before a rod tip dipped toward the water.

"Fish on!" Mullin yelled. Smith picked up the rod just as a 120-pound tarpon leaped 6 feet in the air.

The species was not on our list. But Smith, a superfit marathon runner, told me not to worry. She assured me that she had fought bigger tarpon before and we would subdue the beast and still have time to make it back to the dock for the awards ceremony.

"You're dreaming," I said. "That is a big fish. You are in for a long fight."

After 30 minutes, the fish showed no signs of weakening.

"You are at the 10K mark," I told her. "You have got another 20 miles to go."

Quit now and we'd make it back to the weigh-in, I explained, but keep fighting and she might land the fish but lose the tournament.

"I am going to beat this fish," Smith said with determination.

At the 60-minute mark, neither fish nor angler looked any worse for wear. Every time the tarpon made a run, Smith fought to get the line back, foot by foot.

At the 90-minute mark, the angler was still going strong, and the fish, buoyed by a gulp of air, seemed just as determined to win.

I glanced at my watch, did the math in my head and announced, "Looks like Team Estrogen is going to be a no-show at weigh-in."

Smith just smiled and kept fighting. Then, 1 hour, 37 minutes after the fish was first hooked, the line broke.

But Smith didn't seem disappointed.

"Was it worth it?" I asked.

"Absolutely," she said, proving that when it comes to fishing tournaments, having fun is more important than winning.


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