I wrote a diary/journal/story on my Sam Crosthwait 2014 tournament last year. It was highlighted by brutal cold weather, wind, a fall/swim at the shark infested Skyway Bridge, a $500ish watch taking a swim, nearly getting stuck in inches of water all night, terrible fishing, and sleeping in sand dunes behind some multi-million dollar mansion. So, this year we vowed to have a better year and make some gameplan changes. We spent more time pre-fishing, scouting, catching, and even had a live well loaded with prime baits ready before the shotgun start.
The Sam Crosthwait is the unofficial kickoff of Summer for me, and it has been for 30 years now. It synchs up with Graduation time and now falls in between our annual trips to Port St. Joe and Mancation. In other words, I circle this time of year on the calendar every January. This year I was getting in an extra half day of pre-fishing with my brother and my old Athletic Director from High School. Call it a bonus, or call it research, either way, it was more time on the water at my favorite time of the year.
Jonathan Allen and I left Lake City shortly before noon on Friday, and we headed due South to Terra Ceia. It’s a beautiful area on Tampa Bay, directly across the bay from St. Pete. My former AD, Carlos Boothby, is now a full-time charter captain with Sinbad Charters. He’s also one of the nicest human beings on the planet, somewhere between Ralph Rowand and Jimmy Hesselbart. We showed up at roughly 3:00 p.m. and Carlos had the boat loaded with gas, gear, tackle, AND bait! He went out a few hours before we arrived and cast netted roughly a thousand prime white bait (scaled sardines). Told you he was a nice guy!
So, we stepped out of the car, grabbed our rods and were in Tampa Bay heading South in a total of 5 minutes. I knew exactly where I wanted to fish, and I wanted to fish it EXACTLY how we would fish it 24 hours later. It was the perfect recipe for pre-fishing. And, guess what?
Everything went perfectly!
Yes, re-read that line. I actually said everything went perfectly. That NEVER happens when fishing.
We pulled up to the area we’d fish the next few hours and Capt. Carlos lowered the power pole shallow water anchor. (Note: If you fish inshore, a Power Pole is crucial to your success fishing any water shallower than six-feet. They’ve completely changed the way to fish inshore.) We were going to fish, drift, stop, fish, drift, stop, for roughly a half mile of coastline and pot holes.
The first set of holes produced a few short snook and not much else, but there was a lot of life – mullet jumping everywhere. We bumped along, chummed, had a few snook pop the wounded baits, and caught a few more. Nothing special was caught, but there were good signs all around. Next stop I caught a bonnet head shark, and my brother, Jon caught a monster jack(fish). Mix in a few catfish and we were ¾ of the way to the trash can grand slam. So, we moved again.
The sun was lower, the tide was lower, and the gamefish finally started to show up. We caught several nice trout to 25-inches (great tournament points), a slot redfish, and some better snook. THIS is what we were hoping to find.
Then, she showed up.
She was a monster snook, and she cruised right by the boat in slow motion like she was the boss of the flats. She was in less than a foot of water and looked like Jaws coming down the shoreline with the wake she was pushing. We weren’t sure what it was, we just knew it was big, and then she set up camp about 25 yards behind the boat. I’ve never seen anything like it, she literally stopped and surfaced with her back and fins completely out of the water. Captain Carlos – who’s personal best snook was a 30” – threw a perfect cast at this 40”plus beast…and…
She INHALED the bait!
ZZZZZZZZ screamed the drag….and then….POP…
The fish was so large she broke the hook. I’ve never seen a snook break a hook. Ever. She also broke Carlos’s heart.
We fished a few minutes more and then decided to head back home so we wouldn’t be dog tired for the actual tournament the next day. Mother nature had other plans. A monster storm had blown up and swallowed us, so we took cover under a bridge for 45 minutes. The key to tournament fishing on these multi-day tournaments is to not wear yourself out. Mission (not) accomplished. And, to make it worse, the storm completely blocked us from traveling North, so we went the other way, South, to look for tarpon.
We wanted to look off the beaches and setup at a popular spot basically to watch the lightning storm and see if we couldn’t get lucky. Well, we didn’t see any sign of tarpon, so we took turns pitching baits hopelessly in front of the boat and let the current rip them by us at 100MPH. This was useless, but what could we do? We were stuck.
Then, I felt something. I thought it might have been a snag, so I reeled in, re-baited, and pitched again. Then it happened again. This wasn’t a snag now. In fact, this was a fish — a big fish. The next time it hit so fast I couldn’t even flip the bail over. My brother tried his hand and immediately hooked up, and he quickly the upper hand. A few minutes later a beautifully transparent 37″ snook came over the side of the boat. Mission now accomplished!
We had an accidentally successful final spot check and knew right where we’d be going 24 hours later during tournament time. The only issue was it was now late, way too late for pre-fishing, but that’s what Mother Nature had dealt us, so we made the most of this situation. We went to bed anticipating the early alarm and visions of big snook, trout, and redfish danced in our head.
We were confident when we woke up the next morning following our successful pre-fishing trip. We were so confident we set our alarms for almost 3 hours later than the previous year. Well, it was more like 3% confidence, 97% we were all wiped out from the grind the previous day – and we had an all-nighter planned that night. Maybe it’s fair to say we were smarter this year? I think so! (Note: that’ll probably be the last time I use the word smart)
We left the docks about 7a.m. and headed straight for Kyle’s dad’s house. All of that fresh bait he had caught the previous day was stored in a huge bait keeper. The bait keeper was so large it would potentially double as a cage to put over Jonathan if he crawled into a random yard – again. He might be cold and miserable, but at least he wouldn’t be attacked by a rabid raccoon. As we pulled up, there were several floating dead mullet at the top of the pen.
I know we all thought…
Here we go again!
But, wait…it was only a handful of bait – everything else was alive and frisky! How could this be? Would the jinx that plagued Team Outdoors360 worse than the Chicago Cubs finally have ended? Dare I say it, and this will be the last time, we made another smart move.
Now that we were two for two on good decisions it was time to make some bad decisions.
After the disaster of the 2014 tournament what better way to screw up 2015 than to start off with the same plan? So, you guessed it; we decided to follow the same blueprint. We chalked up the previous year to bad breaks and that freakish cold front and headed north in search of cobia. What seemed impossible was the fact that we ended up covering even MORE of Tampa Bay this year than last. We covered Tampa Bay more thoroughly than ESPN covered Deflategate. We didn’t miss a single marker or buoy and looked for hours. And, wouldn’t you know we didn’t see a single cobia, triple tail, or any species that could help us.
So, what’s next? Let’s do what we did the previous year – again. We drove North of Gandy bridge and looked up and down it for tarpon. Josh had hooked several tarpon exactly 24 hours later and saw dozens more. Money in the bank. Nope. Nothing. Not a single fish was under the span. We originally laughed at how this was playing out, and then I could see Josh getting frustrated. So, we moved.
The worst possible move would be to continue our pattern from the previous year, so we decided… to do it again. But, this year was different – Josh had hooked a monster fish just 24 hours earlier at this exact spot. The bad news was that a boat was camped out on the precise location we wanted, but the good news was that maybe it was just different enough to switch the mojo. Talk about optimistic. We were attempting to make mouth watering, super sweet lemonade out of broccoli and asparagus.
We had officially gone insane. Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Maybe next year we could enter as Team Insanity360? That has a nice ring to it.
We showed little patience with this spot and quickly decided to head south and leave the cursed Tampa Bay in our rear view mirror for good! In route, we loaded the live well and went in search of tarpon. As luck would have it, there were literally over 100 boats in the middle of a crazy tarpon bite. As we slowed down off Northern tip of Anna Maria Island, we saw boats hooked up everywhere. Tarpon were stripping lines faster than Will Muschamp cashes his UF checks. It was a full-on circus as boats were stacked on top of each other like Legos, and tarpon were flying in every direction. This was a guarantee.
We anchored in the middle of the chaos with our livewell of prime baits and waited for our turn. The boat next to us hooked up immediately, another boat showed up in the middle and hooked up. The fleet of boats would erupt in excitement with every hookup, and the schools of tarpon were feeding aggressively in every direction. Two hours later, we were still waiting for our turn. We had to make a decision to get to our next spot, go soon, or potentially miss on our window. Sound familiar? We were almost 12 hours into our tournament and had a total of zero points.
The only silver lining was that we were going back to our gameplan (again) that had produced an unreal run of quality fish in just a short time last year. We left the tarpon madness for our honey hole with a mix of desperation and optimism. That optimism turned to pessimism very quickly when we rounded the last corner in route to the spot. In the EXACT location I wanted to fish was a boat and an army of waders – 6 of them – covering the entire flat. Just when I thought there was no possible way to match the disaster that was the first day of the previous year, we had now beaten it, and the worst was yet to come!
We arrived at the flat later than when we hoped, and someone beat us to one end of the flat. The good news was that 75% of the flat was still open, so we drove up and set up camp. And then it happened…The Beverly Hillbillies showed up with a few dozen fishermen (maybe an exaggeration) on a “pleasure” boat and motored within 150 yards of us. Then they deployed on the exact spot that we approached like church mice, except they entered the water like a herd of buffalo wearing noisemakers.
We caught a few trout and then watched the loudest human beings on the planet proceed to catch some nice snook and then a monster — in our exact hole. To make matters worse, we looked back and saw a storm building that looked like the cover of Independence Day. It was 40 miles south of us, but it was growing faster than my belly during the holidays. Within minutes, lightning was crashing closer and closer, and we made a bolt for the boat. And wouldn’t you know a boaters worst fear. Two words.
A lot of times there’s a third word that proceeds “dead”. It looks like a bunch of symbols @$%(^! Except we didn’t have time to get angry, we only had time to panic. The live well drained the battery, but luckily Josh had a plan. Unfortunately, that plan didn’t work as the battery charger could not – or would not – charge the battery. By this time the temperature had dropped 25 degrees, and somehow 2 feet water had 3-foot waves on it. We were in extreme panic mode by this time, and fortunately Josh had an additional battery for his trolling motor. We laid all the rods down, battened down the hatches, and the second Josh connected we hit the gas — and the storm was on top of us. We hit 70MPH and headed due whatever way the storm wasn’t going.
We took cover under one bridge, discussed how cursed our fishing trips had been and tried to figure out a game plan. Now all of that pre-fishing success was as dead as our battery (and charger). Our go to honey holes from 3 p.m. until 10 p.m. were covered by a storm that swallowed Sarasota, Bradenton, and Tampa Bay. We moved to Longboat Bridge for safety and joined several other tournament boats and a pile of die-hard drunk beach goers. Not exactly the recipe to win a tournament, but staying alive ranks higher than fishing through a storm.
After the storms finally fizzled out, we headed 100 miles the opposite direction from 12 hours earlier. We had a pair of OK trout in the boat, a random bluefish and 0.1% odds of winning. So, we decided to fish all night. Why not?
11p.m. Nothing. Midnight. Nothing. 4a.m. Nothing. Do you sense a pattern?
And then about 5:30 Rodney (aka Rodney The Rod Holder) doubled over and the drag started screaming. A few minutes later we had a solid 38″ snook. FINALLY! In 2 years of no sleep, pure exhaustion and fishing through the night we finally had a big snook. The problem was that now we needed at least three other quality fish in about 6 hours.
We decided to hit a flat where Josh had been blistering redfish for a few weeks. It was a guarantee. His buddy slaughtered them at the same time just 24 hours earlier. We came around the corner, and AGAIN another boat was motoring into our exact spot. They were courteous, we were courteous, and we were trying to set up for a pair of reds. Just then a boat full of the Junior anglers came blistering through — right through the flat where we were patiently wading towards like ninjas. They chewed up the shallow grass flat like a brand new John Deere mower, and we knew this area was finished.
Keep in mind that tournament fishing involves fishing on weekends, which automatically means there are googans EVERYWHERE. We know that. We expect that. But, it still amazes you every time you see someone come full throttle right by your carefully stalked area only to ruin it for everyone. Such is weekend life on popular waterways.
So, what to do? We were out of the tournament by this point barring a miracle. We decided to fun fish. We went back to those tarpon that had tortured us for hours the day before. Why not? We’re obviously gluttons for punishment by this point. So, we anchored up in the middle of the circus off Bean Point and started watching boats hook tarpon left and right. It was the perfect cherry on top of our melted sundae of pre-fishing expectations and failed plans. It was just a few minutes until noon, and we were waving the white flag.
We started packing the boat, eating our lunches, and I made one last cast. I routinely yell last cast, or 5 minutes at the top of my lung —because in my opinion the fish hear it and often cooperate. Well, it worked!
Fish on! I was hooked up to an 80-pound silver beauty that was tail dancing in between boats. We unhooked the anchor and gave chase. As luck would have it, she decided to wrap completely around another boat anchor. Multiple times. She was a goner. But, wait, the other boat let us pull up to them. We passed the rod, over, under, around, and miraculously pulled her out of the maze of fishing lines and anchor lines. 45-minutes later she had fought us up to the beach, and we were able to get under control. She wasn’t a tournament winner, but she was a winner in our eyes.
That single tarpon personified why fishing is so magical. You fish and fish, struggle, run from storms, hope for spots, cast and cast, get injured, try and get bait, miss fish, watch other boats hook up, and have just an awful 27.99 hours. And, in just one second it’s all worth it. Maybe she’ll be our good luck charm for 2016 when we go with an entirely new strategy. That’s a promise!