After two weeks of bitter cold, the sun finally broke through the clouds and warmed the water enough that the fish would bite. "It seems like this happens every year," said Al Autenrieth, for whom the month of January holds special meaning. "Whenever the Johnny Kellar Tournament rolls around, you know it is going to be cold." In 1990, Autenrieth and fellow members of the Old Salt Fishing Club took a little boy fishing. The 9-year-old hemophiliac, who had tested positive for HIV after a receiving blood transfusion, was having a hard time fitting in. "He felt alone and isolated," his mother Margie Kellar recalled. "All he wanted to do was go catch some fish." Johnny got his wish. Autenrieth and Dave Zalewski, who contributes Captains Corner columns to the St. Petersburg Times, took a special interest in the young angler.
For more than a decade, until Johnny's death from AIDS in April 2003, these Old Salts took the Palm Harbor boy fishing every chance they got.
"It wasn't a one-time deal," Margie Kellar said. "They were his friends when nobody else wanted to be."
Freeze threatens event
Fishermen will look back on the Great Cold Wave of 2010 for years to come. Reports of fish kills started trickling in the morning after the thermometer first dipped below freezing. Snook appeared to be the hardest hit, but the plunging temperature also killed a dozen other species, from pinfish to Goliath grouper.
Stories of dead, bloated fish stacked so thick that they turned the water white were distributed by local media.
Such dire forecasts for the future of Florida fishing started to make anglers with the Old Salt Fishing Club a little nervous. On Jan. 31, they plan to hold the 20th annual Johnny Kellar Inshore Fishing Tournament. Over the years, this annual event has raised more than $75,000 for a special blood disease fund at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
But why go through all the trouble this year if nobody would turn out to fish?
"There are still plenty of fish out there," said Eric Bachnik, an Old Salt supporter whose family owns L & S Bait Company, better known as MirrOlure. "The snook took a beating, but the trout and redfish are still biting. We will catch fish."
Cold water, hot bite
Autenrieth, Bachnik and his friend Dean Pickel took advantage of the first day of warm weather last week to assess the damage.
"It is bad when you see dead baitfish," Bachnik said as he motored across Boca Ciega Bay. "But I know the trout are here. We just have to convince them to eat."
Fish are a lot like humans. When it gets too cold or too hot, they don't like to do much of anything. Fishing cold water requires patience and persistence. The fish move more slowly, so the anglers must do the same.
"We just need to work these drop-offs," Bachnik said, letting a lure fly through the crisp winter air. "We'll catch something."
It didn't take but a few casts before the anglers had hooked their first trout. Then it was one, two, three, four fish caught and released in just a few minutes.
The freeze may have damaged snook stocks, but when it comes to trout, the most popular species of the inshore slam, it was business as usual.
Where he fit in
Zalewski, one of Kellar's favorite fishing partners, was impressed with the youngster's luck. "I don't know if you believe in karma, but when it came to fishing, that kid had it," Zalewski said. "We would catch huge gags in shallow water in the middle of summer. You name it, he'd hook it, even when he wasn't supposed to."
Zalewski scattered Kellar's ashes in the Gulf of Mexico just shy of his young friend's 23rd birthday. Margie Kellar still chokes back tears when she talks about her son and the fishing club that made him feel like family.
"He once told me that he thought he was like a werewolf because people were so afraid of him," she said. "But not those Old Salts. … They don't make 'em like that anymore — folks who do it from the heart."