Mercury Redbone Slam Celebrity Tournament

The highly anticipated Mercury Redbone SLAM, presented by ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series, was scheduled for September 5-7, however, with Hurricane Ike dangerously close to Key West, event organizers rescheduled the event for October 17-19. This prestigious Redbone Celebrity Tournament is the first in an annual Florida Keys autumn trilogy of Mercury Redbone angling challenges.


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Photo: James Overstreet

Gary and Susan Ellis founded the Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series in 1988 with a mission “To catch the cure for cystic fibrosis.” Today, the Redbone SLAM is one of approximately 30 Redbone Celebrity Tournaments that are held each year, with all proceeds benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Participants in this highly acclaimed catch-and-release tournament target bonefish, permit and tarpon, and after the two-day event, the angler with the most slams and/or largest portion of a flats slam is crowned tournament champion.

Having ESPN here is a huge breakthrough. It's been the dream of the Redbone Series for a long time. This is a very special time.

Even though the tournament series raised over $1.5 million for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation last year, Gary Ellis believes it’s on the verge of a breakthrough. Ellis’ optimism is based on a new partnership that has created the ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series, and the Redbone SLAM represents the debut of this partnership. “Having ESPN here is a huge breakthrough. It’s been the dream of the Redbone Series for a long time. This is a very special time,” Ellis concluded.

The acronym SLAM stands for Southernmost Light-tackle Anglers Masters tournament. The maximum strength line permitted in this Redbone Series event is 12lb. test. However, this requirement allows for a heavier leader to prevent the rough mouths of tarpon, bonefish and permit from chaffing through the light line. In the spin/plug category, the length of the leader cannot exceed the length of the rod, and in the fly category there must be 12lb. test within 12-inches of the hook. Technically, the main-line allows for six-kilogram breaking strength, which translates to 13.2lb. test. This allows for the use of foreign manufactured lines, which adhere to the metric standard.

Awards are based on the most points accumulated with a representation of the most species of a slam. The angler with the most slams and/or largest portions of a flats grand slam will be the tournament champion. Points are awarded based on lure, with the least amount of points awarded in the general (bait) category, more points in the spin/plug category, and the most points for fish taken on fly.

During a successful Day One, Troy Pruitt and John Timura caught four tarpon early in the morning and put themselves in position for a comfortable lead. On Day Two, local guide Brian Helms brought his team to the same location for more padding-in-the-points before the hunt for bonefish, which would eventually secure Pruitt’s SLAM win. Pruitt ended up catching two tarpon and one bonefish on Day Two. “I think those tarpon are what helped us out with points,” said Pruitt, the 2006 Baybone Grand Champion Angler. “We knew they would be there. It was just a matter of getting there, and being the first boat there. Compared to Saturday, the conditions on Sunday were much more difficult for sight-fishing. It was a lot windier, and that made a huge difference,” said Pruitt.

While other competitors may have considered tarpon fishing on Day Two a risk, the Mercury Redbone SLAM Grand Champion said it was a gamble he was willing to take. “We were so confident that those tarpon would give us more points, we were more worried about another boat being there. It’s just a little area where they were holding – it’s not like we could’ve fished there with a few other boats,” remarked Pruitt.

The school of tarpon wouldn’t bite Saturday morning when Pruitt and Timura started with artificial bait. Pruitt decided that he’d start with live bait Sunday to entice a quicker bite, but it didn’t necessarily work out that way. He said the tarpon took the live bait right around the same time of day Sunday that they did Saturday, so it’s possible the artificial vs. live didn’t make too much of a difference. The team moved on to target bonefish around noon. They were fishing a shallow grass flat when they saw a puff of mud – with poor visibility, it was the only sign that a bonefish might be around.

“I put a cast right there in front of the mud and let it sit for a few seconds, felt him thump it, and he took off,” Pruitt said. “Brian poled me after it, and you know how the story goes – get him in the net and go from there. It was awesome.”

When former Denver Broncos offensive lineman Mark Cooper saw that no one caught a fish on fly tackle Saturday, he knew a fly rod wouldn’t leave his hands on Sunday. And that tactic paid off. Cooper used a Drew Dalaschmit-created shrimp pattern to land a 20-inch bonefish. As Cooper expected, when the Sunday catches were added to the leader board, he was the only angler to catch a fish on fly, which earned him an individual award for the event. “I’d rather catch one on a fly anyway,” Cooper said.

The family team of Dave, Linda and Brooke Denkert ended Day One in fourth place with one permit and one bonefish, good for 200-points. They would have landed a prestigious flats grand slam, but Brooke unfortunately hooked into a big tarpon that became unbuttoned after 15-minutes.

“The problem was I hooked too big of a fish,” said the 23-year-old daughter of her fishing partners, father/guide, Dave, and mother Linda. In this tournament, catching all three species is the key to overall success, not necessarily the size of the various species caught, although there are “big fish” awards given during Sunday’s tournament closing banquet.

A simple plan of returning to where the tarpon bite was through the first day proved advantageous for teammates Troy Pruitt of Naples and John Timura of Islamorada, to claim victory on Sunday with 800-points.

Mitch Howell and Larry Vaught, with guide Tim Carlisle, who were in second place after Day One, finished as runners-up with 600-points overall. Former Florida Marlins pitcher Bill Hurst, a Miami native, won the Celebrity Grand Champ award with one bonefish caught Saturday and one tarpon caught Sunday. Guided by Key West local Peter Heydon, Hurst narrowly edged former Denver Broncos and University of Miami offensive lineman Mark Cooper. Hurst topped Cooper because he caught multiple species while Cooper earned 300-points with bonefish alone.

“What helped me with the win was the guide,” Hurst said. “The guides in these tournaments mean everything, because they give you the opportunities, they put you on the fish. It makes a world of difference. It was hard to see on Sunday, tough visibility, very windy. But you know, I’ve fished enough of these Redbones over the last nine-years that, like anything in life, you suck it up, you go do it, and whatever the conditions present you make it happen.” Hurst caught a tarpon early Sunday morning on an artificial bait. He fished for permit for the rest of the day and wasn’t able to capitalize.

What is a Redbone?

Typically, an organization reveals the nature of its content and its objective by the wording of its name. Redbone is a catchy word, but it needs an explanation. So, what is a Redbone? A legendary blues musician? A hardworking hound dog? Try again. An embarrassed bonefish? Well…

In 1984, our newborn daughter, Nicole, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. We were told with considerable care, she should live to her early teens. After asking the question “What is cystic fibrosis?” we set out to find a way to fight it. In 1988 with the help of our friends, including legendary slugger Ted Williams, we founded the Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series to help the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation fund the research to cure CF. Guides, anglers and celebrities from film and sports teamed up on 33 boats to fish for redfish and bonefish. From that tournament came the name “Redbone.” We raised $16,000 that first year and more importantly, introduced CF into the conscience of the very caring community of Islamorada in the Florida Keys. From that small seed, the Redbone has mushroomed into more than two-dozen tournaments spanning both coasts of the United States and the Bahamas, and an art gallery specializing in angler art. In the last two decades, the Redbone has made a total contribution to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of over $10 million. In 2006 alone, Redbone fishing tournaments, with the cooperative efforts of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, netted over $1.5 million “to catch the cure.”

When the Redbone was first established, children with CF rarely lived to attend high school. Today the median age of survival for a person with CF is 35-years. We should not celebrate this achievement, since a single life is yet to be saved from this devastating disease, but it has become a sign of hope for a brighter tomorrow for individuals with the disease and their families.

Money buys science, and science saves lives. That’s why events such as the Mercury Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series, the Redbone@Large, and the Red-Trout Series are important. Through your support, you are insuring that aggressive, innovative research in CF will constantly be explored. By helping support the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, you are helping to build a bridge of hope that will eventually lead to the ultimate victory; a cure for cystic fibrosis. – Gary Ellis

Beginning with the SLAM, ESPN Outdoors will produce television shows for six Redbone events this season. For more information on the SLAM as well as other Redbone events, visit