Islamorada is the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, and nowhere exudes the casual elegance and Florida Keys charm quite like the Cheeca Lodge & Spa. Unfortunately, weather conditions were rough and windy during the Second Annual Cheeca Lodge All American Backcountry Fishing Tournament held this past November, but a tenacious group of 30 anglers fishing on 22 skiffs still managed to release a remarkable 193 game fish.
During the two-day catch and release event, anglers targeted five different species including snook, redfish, bonefish, tarpon and permit. Tackle divisions included fly, artificial and general, with trophies awarded for both team and individual efforts.
The iconic World Wide Sportsman in Islamorada served as the event's fishing headquarters where 30 anglers departed each day on 22 skiffs.
“The goal of the tournament is three-fold, with a focus on enhancing Cheeca’s position as the premier resort fishing destination in Islamorada. The second is to make this event the most impressive and celebrated fishing tournament in the Keys. The third is to raise money for the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust,” said Cheeca Lodge General Manager Herbert Spiegel.
After persevering through difficult conditions, the final tally included a remarkable 97 snook, 75 redfish, 13 tarpon, seven bonefish and one permit. Individual Grand Champion honors went to James Bokor of Tavernier, who released 10 snook and 10 redfish for a total of 1,935 points. Bokor, a well-known name on the tournament circuit, was guided by Frank Ortiz of Key Largo. “I’m honored and humbled to win this tournament because it’s fashioned after one of my favorite events, The George Bush/Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament, which I fished for many years,” Bokor said.
Runner-Up Grand Champion was Samuel Rose of Miami, releasing six snook and 10 redfish, also for a total of 1,935 points. Rose was guided by Mike Hutchisson from Miami.
In a fitting tribute to Veteran’s Day, active duty soldier Rob Dixon of Clarksville, Tennessee, and wounded soldier Kevin Willette of Chicopee, Massachusetts, were named the Grand Champion Team. Fishing with guide Mike Makowski, the soldiers racked up a total of 2,780 points. Dixon is a Chief Warrant Officer of the 5th Special Forces Group and Willette completed his service as Army Specialist. Both were ecstatic with their win, having never fished in the Florida Keys before. “Spending time with our guide Mike was amazing,” said Willette. “We never would have won without him. He is the best and this was one of the highlights of my life,” he added.
Fishing legend Stu Apte and his partner, Art Webb from Virginia Beach, Virginia, took home Runner Up Grand Champion Team honors. Guided by Tavernier’s Steve Thomas, they scored a total of 2,650 points, inching out Dale DePriest and Guy Fullhart by a mere 40 points. Webb also landed Grand Champion honors in the Fly Division, releasing an impressive two snook and five tarpon on fly for a total of 1,800 points. Apte took home the Artificial Division Grand Champion honors with one redfish, four snook and one tarpon for 850 points, winning by just 25 points!
General Division Champion Angler was Chief Warrant Officer Rob Dixon, releasing eight snook and nine redfish. He was deployed for the first time during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and returned to serve his country five more times. This decorated soldier has been awarded four Bronze Stars and two Army Commendation Awards. Dixon joined the service in 1994, and after completing Military Occupational School and Jump School he volunteered for the Special Forces. “In the military, I found myself. I found out who I am. I also gained perspective of what’s important in life,” he said.
Soon after the tournament, Officer Dixon was deployed to Afghanistan for the first time. “There is a unit there who needs me, and I want to be there for them,” he noted.
Angler Jeff Sanders from Macon, Georgia, released an 18-pound permit during a torrential downpour to take home the Most Outstanding Catch trophy. Sanders was thrilled with his permit, and added it to his list of tarpon and bonefish to finish out his inshore grand slam. His guide was Lonnie Shaw from Islamorada.
Proceeds benefit the George Hommell Jr. Florida Keys Habitat Fund, established this year by the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust in honor of Islamorada fishing icon George Hommell Jr. Bonefish & Tarpon Trust is an organization of concerned anglers and guides who are dedicated to conserving and enhancing global bonefish, tarpon and permit fisheries and their environments through stewardship, research, education and advocacy.
The event kicked off with an elaborate welcome party, included a spectacular barbeque on Cheeca’s beach, and culminated with a lavish awards banquet. The tournament was a huge success and next year discerning anglers from around the world will return to Cheeca Lodge & Spa for the Third Annual Cheeca Lodge All American Backcountry Fishing Tournament. Visit cheeca.com for complete results and information on how to participate in next year’s event.