Leiza Fitzgerald swore me to secrecy. "You can't tell anybody where we released this fish," she said. "I mean nobody."
The red drum, easily identifiable because of the tag sticking out of its back, could be worth a lot of money. If caught in the opening days of the inaugural Coastal Conservation Association Florida Statewide Tournament and Anglers Rodeo, or STAR, some lucky angler could end up driving home a new pickup truck.
"That's just one of many prizes," said Fitzgerald, the tournament director. "And we have fish up and down the coast."
The tournament, with nearly $500,000 in prizes and college scholarships up for grabs, will last all summer long. It starts Saturday and runs through Labor Day weekend. The CCA, which has been fighting for Florida's anglers' rights for three decades, patterned it after a similar event in Texas.
Entry fee is $30 for CCA members and $60 for non-members, which includes a one-year CCA membership. Anglers ages 6 to 17 can sign up as CCA New Tide members for $10, fish the STAR for free and possibly win a share of up to $100,000 in college scholarships.
The CCA hopes the 108-day tournament will bring in new members. In recent weeks, CCA staff and volunteers have released 80 tagged redfish along the west coast of Florida, from Pensacola to the Everglades National Park.
The angler who catches the first tagged redfish will drive home a 2015 pickup truck. The next five winners will each get a new boat, motor and trailer package including a Contender 22 Sport, a Pathfinder 2200 TRS and a Hell's Bay Glades Skiff.
In addition to the tagged redfish division, STAR also has Catch & Photo prizes in the Open, Ladies, Fly and Kayak divisions for spotted seatrout, snook, cobia and sheepshead. All categories except the tagged redfish division are catch and photo, which allows STAR anglers to release fish to be caught again another day.
The tournament comes at an interesting time. Thirty years ago, when redfish stocks were at an all-time low, the organization had no problem recruiting members. But three decades later, many older anglers take the CCA for granted, and the young guns, well they just don't know their history.
Here's a quick primer:
The CCA started in 1977 in Texas after commercial overfishing seriously depleted the stocks of red drum and spotted sea trout.
By 1985, the "Save the Redfish" campaign had spread east where the Florida Conservation Association, or FCA, became the fifth state chapter of the CCA. The following year, CCA stopped the purse seining of spawning redfish in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1988, the FCA won its four-year battle to get gamefish status for redfish in Florida.
In 1989, the FCA helped establish the first recreational saltwater fishing license in Florida. The license revenues would help fund marine fisheries research and maritime law enforcement. In 1992 the Save our Sealife Committee began the drive to ban gillnets from inshore waters. The FCA collected a record 201,000 petitions in a single day. In 1994, Florida voters "ban the nets" by a 72 percent margin.
In the years that followed, the CCA has been at the forefront of the fight for many species, including grouper and red snapper. Today, the organization helps with oyster, seagrass and mangrove restoration projects.
To learn more, go to ccaflorida.org.