For the third stop in the Quest for the Crest sailfish series, an elite group of anglers paid a visit to the Big Chill in Key Largo for Jimmy Johnson’s National Billfish Championship held March 5-8. Visiting premier sailfish destinations from Palm Beach to the Florida Keys and following the southern push of sailfish, crews competing for the Crest accumulate points through four events, with Key Largo the favorite stop on the tour.
Battling for a purse of $543,250 and the coveted National Billfish Championship rings, 47 teams competed in the two-day tournament in the fabulous Florida Keys. Hosted by Jimmy Johnson, two-time Super Bowl winning coach and former coach of the University of Miami and Miami Dolphins, this event is crucial to the overall points standings and a turning point for teams looking to capture the Crest. In addition, the prestigious event benefits the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, a South Florida-based cancer related research, diagnosis and treatment facility.
In this endeavor everything is on the line, with each of our sailfish releases worth approximately $18,768!
Thankfully, I have the privilege of fishing aboard Liquid, a 39-foot Mercury powered SeaVee owned by Vince Virga and captained by Art Sapp of Lighthouse Point, FL. Joined by Jim Steel, Jimmy Demarco, Skip Dana, Chad Troncale, Keith McDonald and Carl Schachter, we had already enjoyed success this season taking 2nd Place in the Sailfish Challenge good for $146,820, which put us in the hunt for the total points lead in the series.
Our trip to the Keys was much anticipated and the event kicked off with a celebrity fish-off on Thursday, with some of the world’s best billfish teams hosting Jimmy Johnson’s closest friends from the NFL. Aboard Liquid, we had the honor to fish with Dan Stubbs, who played for Jimmy Johnson during part of his career and ended up winning two Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers. He also played on the Miami Dolphins and won two National Championships playing at the University of Miami. A serious presence on the field, Stubbs is also an active angler and managed to catch several sailfish, kingfish and blackfin tuna while learning the intricacies of live bait kite fishing.
While teams had been reporting sporadic sailfish sightings while pre-fishing within the boundary zone, from just north of Fowey Light off Miami, to the western boundary off of Duck Key, there wasn’t much current and the action leading up to the event had been pretty slow. However, things were about to change in a big way, with teams preparing for an approaching cold front that would hopefully ignite the bite.
On Friday, lines-in was called at 7:30 a.m. and teams were greeted with blustery west winds gusting to 30 knots. High Life struck first at 7:53 a.m., and from there they continued to gain momentum releasing a double at 8:46 a.m., which was good enough to give them 1st Place in the Early Bite Calcutta worth $1,500. After battling back and forth and climbing to the 1st Place position before being jumped, we managed to hold 3rd Place with four releases. At 4:00 p.m. lines-out was called and Doing It All was in 1st Place with 5 releases, good enough to capture the Tier 1 Daily Calcutta worth $32,400. Contender One ended the day in 2nd Place with five releases. It was definitely a slow day on the water with only 56 sailfish released, and some boats didn’t see a single billfish the entire day. Thankfully, the winds were forecasted to turn out of the north and anglers had a renewed sense of hope that the bite was going to pick up for the final day of fishing.
Saturday morning presented anglers with variable winds, requiring helium balloons to keep kites aloft, compared to the previous day’s need for heavy wind kites. While we were in the zone with beautiful blue water, current, baitfish and frigate birds, we were hearing releases over the radio and watching our hopes slip away as several teams built a lead to surpass our first day’s tally. Our first bite of the day came at 10:38 a.m., but it fortunately came in the form of a triple-header. We were lucky to successfully catch and release each of the fish and then had two more quick bites that turned into releases. With only 28 minutes left in the tournament we hooked into a double header and managed to release both fish, which was good enough to hold off the rest of the fleet and give us our first win of the season. Releasing 11 fish over the two-day period we were awarded $206,650, which was the largest payout ever recorded in a Bluewater Movement’s sailfish tournament. The purse consisted of $47,000 for 1st Place overall, $33,255 for the Tier 1 Daily, $69,120 in Tier 2 Daily, $34,875 for 1st Place Leaders Board, $8,100 for 1st Place Self Centered, $1,000 for High Point Boat Under 40-feet and $11,800 for winning the Mono A Mono!
With a strong push on day two, Bar South jumped up the leaderboard and took 2nd Place with 9 releases. Contender One finished in 3rd Place overall with 8 releases and Rockstar rounded out the top four with 7 releases. The bountiful waters of the Florida Keys are full of life and if you spend enough time soaking baits you are going to see some pretty amazing things. Besides radio reports of Cuban rafts, enormous whale sharks, giant bluefin tuna, turtles, porpoises and numerous species of prized sport fish, there was yet another remarkable sighting. The crew aboard D & D managed to catch an estimated 130 pound yellowfin tuna on 20 lb. sailfish tackle. In addition to their amazing catch, D & D overcame not seeing a single sailfish on Friday to jump up the leaderboard and take home the Day Two Daily Calcutta with 7 releases good for $32,400, which also bumped them up to 6th Place overall.
Besides collecting oversized checks, it’s our love for the ocean and competitive nature that makes tournament fishing so enjoyable. Special thanks to the crew aboard Liquid for making this all possible and tournament director Jamie Bunn for yet another amazing event. Visit bluewatermovements.com for information on how to participate in next year’s tournament trail.