I never liked fishing tournaments. If you boil it all down, the main reason I fish is to relax and, as the spooky new-age types say, “find my center”. I always intuitively knew that if it became competitive all of that hard-won inner peace would go “poof”.
Fair or not, I also held a bias against competitive angling. The mere word brought to mind images of hefty, bearded guys in logo-riddled jackets bellowing like bulls as they pulled stressed fish from the live wells of glittery go-fast boats. The tournaments I’d watched on TV were testosterone-laden, tacky, overly commercial affairs. Not for me, I thought. But hey, things happen.
A few years back an acquaintance called to say he’d like to sponsor me in the RedSnook, a local tourney founded to drive funds for the Conservancy, a praiseworthy non-profit organization that actively protects our local natural resources. I called my good buddy Joe “Sully” Sullivan and asked him to join me. “It’ll be casual”, I said, parroting the words of our sponsor. “Just a bunch of folks out having a good time for a great cause.” Like me Sully was suspicious, but we set aside our cynicism, signed up, studied the rules and tide charts and put together an impressive plan of attack. Truth be told, we enjoyed the preparation and anticipation.
I was pleasantly surprised. Yeah, there was a bit of swagger at the silent auction preceding the actual tournament, and certainly some good-natured smack talk here and there, but there was also lots of good-natured ribbing and a sense that this was not a kill-or-be killed affair. Overall the mood was casual — deceptively so. The room was full of well-to-do supporters of the Conservancy, many of whom wouldn’t know a topwater plug from a drain plug, but in their midst were some hard-bitten, sunburned types whose averted eyes aroused suspicion. “Those dudes are guides”, Joe said. “We won’t be fishing against them——we’re in the unguided plug division.” Cool, I thought. We’ll be facing weekend warriors like ourselves. I liked the odds. So did General Custer.
When we arrived at the launch site in Chokoloskee (a small outpost located near Everglades City) we found scores of skinny-water skiffs stacked along the docks. Participants milled about, several trying to shake off debilitating hangovers. Measuring boards were dispensed, sleepy anglers shuffled to boats, and we all roared off into the near-darkness. Half an hour later Sully and I were throwing lures against a favorite shoreline, a new sun coloring the eastern sky. We were happy.
We fished hard for two days, caught very little, and, well, got our asses handed to us on a paper plate. It’s not that we fished poorly-we hit productive spots, placed our casts well and stayed focused throughout. We just didn’t close deals. Check that-I didn’t close deals. Joe caught a real nice snook within the first few minutes of the first day and added nice redfish, so it was time for me to hold my own. Didn’t happen. It was like the fishing gods got together the night before, drank enough scotch to muster a mean drunk, told the fish to avoid any offerings from the skinny guy with the greying hair, and went to bed to sleep it off. The frigging fish did as they were told. Joe’s valiant effort saved us from embarrassment, but it was not enough.
I don’t remember how far down the list of competitors we ended up that day, but it was well south of relevant. One of the contestants in our division was Roland Martin, a professional angler of considerable fame. He placed well down the list, which is telling. We had unwittingly stumbled into a pit of vipers, a circle of accomplished anglers who knew the waters well, fished them in expert fashion, and enjoyed feasting on wide-eyed newbs. Getting whupped is tough enough on any given day. Getting whupped when you underestimate your opponents and publicly suffer the consequences is a bitter-ass pill to swallow. We choked it down with a warm beer and went home dejected.
Day later we were still a bit stunned. Yeah, we were just a couple of weekend hacks going up against a group that included some bona fide ringers—including seasoned tournament angers and guys who fished the Glades far more than we did—but we’d fished the area together for close to 20 years and, dammit, we were pretty damn competent. I don’t believe we felt any pressure during those two long days, and the mood on Joe’s skiff was light. We just didn’t catch enough fish.
In the end we shook it off as bad luck. The months clicked by, our confidence was renewed, and we found ourselves sponsored for the same tournament again. No worries, we said. Last year was a fluke, a funky aberration. We’ll just fish the same spots we normally do and take home the top prize with a flourish. Not so much.
We placed third among 10 or so teams. Disappointing given our lofty goals, but not profoundly bad. The same cycle ensued. The following year? Third again. This past month? Third again, missing 2nd place by mere inches. In the interest of fairness, Joe and I took turns sucking every other year.
To be clear, we are not dumb guys. Maybe not Mensa quality game-changers, but we dress ourselves and hold down jobs. So why the hell couldn’t we post a single win while fishing waters we know well? Hey, your guess is as good as mine. It would be fair to say that November can be a tough month in the Everglades. Most of the fish (and the bait they feed on) tend to stay outside in the Gulf until it’s warm, and Joe and I favor the deep backcountry. But, as tough as it is to admit, that’s just an excuse. How do I know? Because the anglers who keep finishing above us each year are catching more fish. A lot more fish.
In the end, my opinion about tournaments has not changed. Most are overwrought affairs that turn a beautiful pastime into a frantic affair. But I don’t care. Sully and I will be fishing the RedSnook each year until we claim the top prize. Not because we’re obsessed with winning or overly competitive or because our self-worth is directly tied to how well we fish.
Aw, hell, yes it is.