When the Inshore Fishing Association (IFA) Redfish Tour rolled through Sarasota in 2014, Capt. TJ Stewart and partner Michael Delagarza put together an impressive two-fish total of 15.39 pounds. That was just shy of a victory and good enough for second place.
The IFA returned to Sarasota on Sept. 10, and this time Stewart and Delagarza put together a total of 14.38 pounds between their two redfish. Despite the lighter total, it was enough to take the title and win the tournament that has eluded Stewart for quite some time.
“We got lucky,” Stewart said. “It’s about time I guess. We’ve been second or third place three years now.”
The tournament started early as 90 teams packed the 10th Street boat ramp before sunrise. By the end of the single-day tournament, only 38 teams would weigh in. Fifteen teams weighed in a single fish with 23 teams weighing in two. Anglers say that redfish have been a bit scarce, and with the combination of a slow tide, it was apparent the fishing was a little tough.
“I didn’t think the bite would last for us as long as it did. As tough as the fishing has been, maybe the redfish are moving around more than usual and not holding the weight they normally would,” Stewart explained.
“We ran across the bay four times searching for the right fish, starting the day up by Weedon Island where we got on a school early and landed a 27.5-inch fish and 26-inch fish. After 30 minutes we lost the school and couldn’t find them.”
With the maximum slot limit of 27 inches, they were a little heartbroken with the bigger fish. Stewart decided it was time to run south back to Bradenton waters, where he had seen a few fish the day before the tournament.
“I saw a few fish just off Emerson, maybe six or eight fish on Friday. We found them and managed to catch the bigger redfish at 7.39 pounds.”
When the fishing soon slowed, they ran back across the bay, finding another school where they would catch their 6.99-pound fish.
“We caught a few more overslot sized fish and a charter captain pulled in and started chumming, so we had to pick up and leave,” Stewart said, knowing the rules forbid anglers from fishing the all lure tournament near boats chumming.
They ran back across the bay once again where Stewart said they found a school of hungry fish, landing another half dozen in short time using light 1/4-ounce jigheads and Mirrolure Lil John jerkbaits, but not able to upgrade their total.
At the weigh in, their total would best second place’s 13.73 pounds. For the victory, they won a Ranger 1862 boat with 70 Yamaha and $2,535 in cash. The boat will be put up for sale.
Currently leading in the Florida West Coast Division team of the year standings, the duo may not be able to make the St. Bernard (La.) championship Oct. 21-22. Stewart’s wife is due to have a baby Oct. 31.
“It’s going to depend on the timing,” he said.