March 2, Everglades City, FL

The Adventure Fishing World Championship (AFWC) was born out of a desire to create a new format of catch-photo-release (CPR) kayak fishing tournament that by design would level the playing field as much as possible, eliminating “home filed advantage”. Teams consisting of two people would be tested and challenged on navigation skills, strategy and endurance to reach and catch fish at a minimum of three out of five qualifying checkpoint destinations that were only revealed the morning before launch.

The producers of the AFWC issued a warning to those who were considering entering this unique tournament, “PLEASE DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE DIFFICULTY OF THIS EVENT”.  It’s unknown if this statement caused anyone to fall off the fence and back on the couch, or was just the challenge, like it was for my teammate Nathan Raycroft and I to form “Team Get:Outdoors” and say, heck yeah we’re in! Other alluring factors that drove my decision to enter included, one, the format of the competition, two, the location (Everglades National Park) and three, a chance to catch a Snook, a species I’ve never laid hands on.

I mainly fish freshwater and my saltwater experience almost exclusively comes from my home-waters of coastal North Carolina. Despite having not fished the salt during 2012 I felt I had plenty of experience with two of the three eligible species, Speckled Trout and Red Drum. The great unknown was the environment and tides of the extremely vast and unpopulated maze of mangroves within the 10,000 Island area of Southwest Florida. The only thing separating us from the adventure was 830 miles. Thankfully, both our families support our fishing addiction and were happy to see us go. My family even created a good luck poster!

Arriving in Everglades City by 7pm Wednesday, a light rain and chillier temps than normal for this time of year greeted us as we stepped out of the truck. Sunny, warm Florida we thought? OK, it was night so we didn’t expect the sunny part but 50 degrees? We booked a cabin at Millers World Glades Haven cabins.  Millers World is a one-stop destination for your Everglades adventure. They manage the rental cabins and homes, rent boats, operate the marina and famous Oyster House restaurant. Owner, Bobby Miller, was absolutely the best host you could ask for and proved instrumental, along with fellow Native Watercraft guide, Rich Jones, by helping pull off the logistics of the tourney checkpoints. The facilities of Millers World proved to be the perfect venue for the AFWC.

Thursday morning, myself, Nathan, Dee Kaminski and Brian Kuehne of Reel Kayak Fishing had the pleasure of loading up Bobby’s skiff with six kayaks and two of the AFWC video production crew on a mission to capture some promotional pre-tourney fishing action. Heading out of the marina and towards the bridge inlet I think Bobby forgot to tell us he would pull up on throttle just before the sharp turn, as we were about to shoot under the bridge leading to Chokoloskee Bay. Pucker factor, approximately 7. I think everyone nervously shifted around looking at others on the skiff as if to say “he really ain’t gonna do this is he?”  Landing on a small island on the outskirts of the mangroves we unloaded, tackled-up and began the search. It didn’t take long and we were soon catching Specks, Crevalle Jacks and Ladyfish. Within about two hours I landed over 15 Specks, 5 Jacks and 6 Ladyfish. My cerebral cortex was fully immersed in the amazing scenery, fish, manatee, dolphin and birds surrounding us. The highlight was during a film session a Loggerhead turtle with a carapace of approximately 4 ‘ breeched the surface about 12’ from my bow, right before hooking into a nice Ladyfish.  The following day Nathan and I made a team travel to fish the outskirts of Sandfly Pass, where I caught my first Snook, albeit a small one. We also got a good preview of the impressive tidal change, which not too unlike our coastal waters, just a whole lot more of an encompassing tide, kind of like someone pulled the plug and all the water is going out. In NC, our marshes generally drain along the main creek channels and though there are areas that have swift current you can usually find large eddies or slower moving water to fish without anchoring.

The following Friday afternoon Millers World began filling up with teams of anglers from all across the state of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey. Talk of strategy permeated the air around the marina prior to the captains meeting but the one factor missing was where we needed to go. The map listing the locations of the checkpoints wouldn’t be revealed until teams were handed their map envelopes at launch time Saturday morning. Knowing we were likely to be paddling our butts off the next day we called it a night early around 9pm.

Rising early at 5am we were somewhat surprised to see a few teams already jockeying for position at the launch. It wasn’t for lack of excitement but I guess the older you get the less you seem to get into a rush…. patience grasshopper. At 6:30am we were handed our team envelope with instructions not to open them until 7am. That was a long half hour but was good for last minute rigging. 7am and envelopes open. Some took right off, others and us old folks quickly scanned the map checkpoints, plugged them into GPS units and plotted a float plan. Team Get:Outdoors was one of the last teams to get on the water but man were we prepared! Our strategy had us going to checkpoint Red first, two miles from launch, on a falling tide. Once there it took us almost 45 minutes before we found our first fish. Nathan landed a 16 ¾” Speck. It was a relief to have the first checkpoint behind us.

Checkpoint Silver lay five miles away with the enticement of double-length points. I didn’t check our speed but with a nice following flow on the outgoing tide we made it in about an hour. Mike Hooks of Native Watercraft was manning the checkpoint and upon arriving told us about a team that had lost their identifier token, automatically disqualifying them from continuing the competition. I wondered out loud to Nathan why a team appeared to be having a picnic at the checkpoint… tough break indeed. Token in hand we both paddled around the South side of island and on both our first casts each landed a Speck. Nathan’s was slight longer at 14” so we photographed it and quickly released it. Ladyfish dominated the next hour or so. I wasn’t keeping track of how many I hooked but worked as fast as possible to get them unhooked and the lure back in the water. The end of checkpoint Silver came when I hooked an approximate 30” Ladyfish. At first I had hope it was a good qualifying fish but as soon as it sped off I knew it was another fish that wouldn’t count. I horsed it to the boat quickly but it then shot off my bow running a full half circle, coming back around towards me then went airborne straight towards my head. Despite being older and probably a little slower I still manage to posses quick reflexes, as I was able to throw up my arm just before impact. Ladyfish have an amazing ability to shake so violently they just become a blur. I now have a 30” Ladyfish attached to my shirt courtesy of a Mirrorlure MR 17. One set of treble is mostly in the mouth of the fish and the other is mainly in my shirt. Between it feverishly trying to getaway, flopping against my arm and the boat, I wondered how long it would take before one of the trebles would end up in my skin. There was no way I could free the hooks while it was alive so the only tool available at hand to dispatch it was my boga grip. It wasn’t pretty but it was effective. With my apologies I eased what was left of her over the gunnel soon to be consumed by the vast amount of marine life in the area. Bobby had shared a story about an anglers encounter with a Bull shark last year. The angler was reaching down to grab a Red Drum when the shark launched out of nowhere, latching onto his arm instead of the fish. He was able to keep the arm, 90 stitches later, but not the fish. Guess he dropped it in all the excitement?

After turning in our score-able fish and token it was off to checkpoint Black, just over 2 ½ miles away. We had to paddle against the tail end of the falling tide but had to get going as a cold and heavy wind front was approaching fast. By the time we arrived the wind was already pushing 15 mph and soon was 20 plus. Combined with a swift rising tide of the same direction the current was insane. Even in the small eddies you couldn’t hide from the wind which would suck you into the mangroves. Anchoring proved futile. The bottom seemed to be hard, packed sand that our claw anchors would bite into. Occasionally they would hang on oysters or mangrove roots but that didn’t help much. We searched pretty hard in tough conditions but couldn’t find any fish at our last objective. We soon began to talk about safety as we had a one-mile open water crossing of Chokoloskee Bay. Despite the bay only being 2-4’ deep neither of us wanted to swamp our Ultimate’s so at 3pm we nodded to the Glades that it had won this one. Reaching the head of Sandfly Pass we stopped and buttoned everything up in our kayaks donned our rain gear and began the whitecap ride across the mile wide bay. Occasionally, we took on water over the gunnels but it ended up not being that bad. I’ve been in worse but it’s definitely a chore to battle against parallel winds and waves for that distance.

Back at the launch and just over 15 miles behind us we cruised into the marina with a feeling of accomplishment and a teaspoon of regret that we couldn’t come up with one more fish. Pelicans lined the dock pilings with a look in their eye as almost to say “what were you fools doing out on the water in these conditions?”

In summary this was the toughest, most challenging and yet most rewarding tournament I’ve ever fished. In many ways it was more of an adventure than a tournament and because of that I’d gladly fish it again. Everyone made it back to the launch site without anyone requiring assistance. Everyone was beat tired after it was all said and done but there sure were a lot of smiles at the awards ceremony. To all who fished it credit and applause is due.

Tournament statistics:

• Only one team (Fishing the Flats) scored fish at all five checkpoints.

• 16 of the 32 teams registered fish at the minimum three checkpoints.

• 1 team DQ’d for lost token.

• 3 teams DQ’d for overtime penalty.

• 12 teams DQ’d for failing to register at least one fish at three checkpoints.

• Six women and one 14 yr old competed, some placing in the top 5.

• Team Rolling Tide checked in with eight seconds remaining before disqualification at the five o’clock cutoff.

• Minimum distance traveled if three checkpoints reached – 12 miles.

Congratulations to Mike McDonald and Billy Alstrom of Team Fishing the Flats for their impressive accomplishment, both winning a Native Watercraft Slayer.

 

Final Results

Acknowledgements

Thanks to John and Chelsea of Amongstit for organizing the adventure. They worked their butts off making this happen! For those who don’t know John he is a very talented producer, videographer and editor. John, though you may produce mostly whitewater videos you pulled off one helluva fishing tournament.

Tournament sponsors, Native Watercraft (Woody Callaway and Mike Hooks), The Kayak Fishing Store (Paul Zuzock), Kayak Angler Magazine, Watershed Dry Bags, Heroes on the Water, Smith Optics and Kokatat.

Realistically, I don’t think this event would have run as smooth as it did without local knowledge and help from Bobby Miller (Millers World) and local kayak fishing guide Rich Jones. Tip of the hat to you my friends. It was awesome meeting you both and if the tournament is held there again next year I sure hope to make it back!

Local Resources:

Videos – Adventure Fishing World Championship – YouTube Channel

Lodging, Marina, Food, Bike Rentals and Tackle – Millers World

Pizza – Island Café

Kayak Fishing Guide – Rich Jones – Kayak Fish and Explore the Everglades

Additional Photos

Amongstit created a fantastic video chronicling the event.