Editor's note: With the 32nd annual Crosthwait Memorial Fishing Tournament set to begin Friday, one tourney angler gave the Herald a first-person account of his experience in the 2014 event. This is an abridged version. For the full story, visit Bradenton.com/fishing-boating.
By ROB CHAPMAN IV
Special to the Herald
It's 3:15 a.m. and I had just fallen asleep maybe three hours earlier. For an insomniac like myself, this may equate to 53 minutes of actual sleep.
It was tournament day, so I wasn't tired. I was wired.
Just five hours and 225 miles earlier, Jonathan Allen and I arrived in St. Pete from Lake City to spend the night with my brother en route to our final destination -- the Sam Crosthwait shotgun start at the mouth of the Manatee River. Growing up fishing this tournament was part of our fishing DNA. If you fished, you fished the Crosthwait. Period.Otherwise, everything you "caught" was all talk! Keep in mind this was decades before iPhones and Snapchat, heck, this particular tournament used these photos called Polaroids (for the under 18 crowd, Google "Polaroid photos").
We looked forward to this tournament 364 days out of the year. The memories are forever burned into my memory, and it's not just the fish, it's the shotgun start with hundreds of boats (seemed like a million when I was really young), it's the weigh-ins with giant offshore species hitting the deck and the camaraderie that our sport creates. We were competing against each other, but there's a mutual respect for anyone who consistently does well -- if you can earn Top 3 year after year, then you've flat out earned it. There are no shortcuts.
My first Crosthwait memory was from a tournament that I didn't even fish. My dad caught a 35-pound cobia on a day when I had a Babe Ruth game 20-plus tournaments ago. He was so excited (and so was the team), because at that time in our fishing careers it may as well have been a 1,500-pound bluefin tuna, because a cobia was like a mythical creature in our minds. We didn't catch them, only the pros did, and to catch it in a tournament was like winning the lotto. One problem. They didn't catch anything else to go with it, but still, the story of chasing that cobia off Anna Maria Island with Caleb Grimes and crew will never be forgotten.
Fast forward a few years
and I caught a sweet lower 30" snook wading the mouth of Perico as the high point fish for our team, Twin Towers. It was the first annual Junior Tournament and we had 183 points to win the inaugural title. My sister, Erika, won the junior angler award the next year, after catching a big flounder and trout. I continued to fish the tournament as a homecoming of sorts, whether in college in Jacksonville, or married and living just a few miles south of Georgia. At one point we had a Top 5 offshore finish (40-pound gag grouper as top point fish) and a Top 10 inshore finish (6 quality trout, redfish, and snook) in back to back years.
Preparation for this tournament starts weeks in advance. I ordered a brand reel (Quantum Smoke SL40PTs) and custom MXH rod, brand new leader and hooks, and some boats literally prefish every day in May trying to find the fish. Living 250 miles away, my prefishing consisted of swapping daily texts from tournament captain Josh Bibler and reliving flashbacks of the tide/moon phase/daylight timing/location that synched up with my historical best snook and trout (more on this later). It also consisted of hourly weather checks and forecasts.
We arrived at Bibler's house about 4 a.m. and immediately started loading. Typically, we'd fish six guys in the inshore tournament, spread out across a flat like we were running a Billy Donovan full-court press, jump in the water and wade fish for the next 15 hours. Bibler prefers fewer people on the boat and likes to run and gun. That meant we'd be primarily fishing from the boat and running from North Tampa Bay to south of Sarasota Bay. Josh fishes out of a Pathfinder 2300 HPS with a 300 HP Yamaha that's tricked out with more gadgets than a James Bond movie. It was the first boat I've ever fished out of with TWO Power Poles. (Note to self: When buying a new boat, buy dual Power Poles). In terms of inshore fishing boats, this was like having a brand new top of the line fully loaded Mercedes Benz. I almost felt guilty getting a little dirt on it.
You could tell it was a tournament day because we weren't even close to the first boat, and there were multiple boats arriving at exactly the same time. It's almost like the first day of school; you can taste the nervous excitement in the air like salt spray over a bow. I could also tell that regardless of what the tournament had in store for us, we would have a good time. The self-deprecation and insults (which is french-candian for you've earned the right to be my friend) began immediately
Speaking of salt spray, Mother Nature can be as cruel as King Joffrey from Game of Thrones. A late cold front days before dropped the water temperature 8-10 degrees in some places, and left behind a stiff 20-25 knot wind out of the North with a temperature in the upper 50s at night.
The Crosthwait is not an artificial tournament. That means your 29 hours of consecutive fishing actually turns into about 40 hours. Why? Because, you have to catch live bait to have any shot at winning. That means 3 a.m. wake-up calls at the start of the tournament and four hours scrubbing and cleaning the boat after the tournament from all of the chum, sea weed, bait, fish and other junk that gets accumulated.
We made the 15-mile run to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the dark along with all of the other idiots (that's a term of endearment for fishermen), directly into sloppy 2- to 4-foot seas. We were stacked tighter than sardines, along the span of the old skyway bridge, while bobbing in the dark like a cork in a washing machine. Did I mention we were idiots?
In order to get the best position we actually anchored off the stern, motored directly into the seas, and my job was to tie the bow off on the pier against the wind, seas and tide. I reached up, waited for a nice swell and extended my arm upward. I reached to a point that my favorite watch of all time -- a Gravitron Reactor, clipped the pier, hit the clasp, and splash. Have you ever seen something you love, and that your wife has no idea how much it costs, fall to the bottom of the ocean? It's painful.
Ten minutes after this snafu, we were getting bait, Kyle Dawson made a cast with his 12-foot cast-net, lost his balance from the waves, and followed his net into the water. Keep in mind the Skyway isn't your neighborhood pool with a few beach balls; it's loaded with big sharks, some of which would make Kyle a 240-pound snack. Luckily, he not only knew how to swim, but he also was able to keep the cast-net on his wrist while managing to avoid drowning, or getting eaten. At this point, you might as well have pitched a tent on the circus that had become Team Outdoors360.
After Kyle dried off in the brisk morning air, and I recovered from the sadness of my lost watch, we topped off the live well. For all of our good intentions and plans, Mother Nature took away plans one to four, and we were left scrambling. At 7:14 we had one plan, at 7:17 we changed it, at 7:22 we went back to the 7:14 plan, and then at 7:29 we decided to play for the win. We were going to head into the teeth of the wind and waves (again) and go for the win. We dipped under the Skyway (again) on our way north and officially began our tournament.
After we dipped under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and with the sun now peaking above the horizon, we saw what looked like an ocean of warm hot chocolate topped with whipped cream. Instead, we were greeted with ice cold waves of saltwater being dumped continually over us. We were officially on Tampa Bay's version of Disney's Splash Mountain for the next three hours with 2-foot to 5-foot swells and a stiff north wind directly in the way of our destination. In my opinion if you're going to fish a tournament, you might as well sell out and go all in for the win. This meant we were going to drive and scout virtually every channel and range marker we could find in Tampa Bay. Normally that's an exciting day's worth of fishing, with the possibility of seeing cobia, triple tail, tarpon, and who knows what else. On this day, the most exciting part was the couple of minutes rest from the absolute beat down Mother Nature was blasting us with
After finally arriving at our spot, we anchored up and were trying to decode the wind speed and direction, along with the tide. Our goal at this first spot was big redfish. "Big" meaning mid- to upper 30-inch fish and larger. Within minutes of being anchored, a 50-pound cobia came swimming directly at the boat. Our journey was going to pay off! I was rigged with a big threadfin for bait and casted it right on his nose. I went into free spool and my bait disappeared, the cobia disappeared, and I was anticipating a screaming drag.
All I got was a swing and a miss. Just a few minutes later he surfaced again, and I pitched a new threadfin right beside him, and Josh pitched a fresh pinfish. He ignored both baits and disappeared never to be seen again. That fish would have been a 120-point fish in a six-fish tournament that typically nets 350 points for a winner. That's usually a tournament winning fish with 5 other decent fish. (Translated for non-fishers = Heartbreaker). After we tried to chum him back in, or catch some monster redfish for a few hours, we had nothing to show but a sunburn and some trash fish (catfish, lady fish, jack crevalle).
Strike 1. Strike 2.
Next stop was a bridge that spanned Tampa Bay. We drove along its base looking it over for an hour, like a bear stalking its first meal from hibernation. Nothing. That meant it was time to lick our wounds from the long haul north and head back to our original starting point -- after catching more bait (again). After three hours, we rode through the washing machine known as Tampa Bay, caught fresh bait and looked over a bunch of markers with no cobia on them. Luckily, during fishing tournament you get more than 3 strikes, because we were now on strike 4 (for those keeping score at home). Our next stop was a dock that Josh had pulled some 40-inch snook out of earlier in the week. Instead all we caught were jacks. Strike 5. We moved up to some bigger structure where Josh and Kyle consistently catch big trout and solid snook. We caught one micro snook and nothing else.
Now we were more than 13 hours into the day and the tide was ripping out toward a negative low tide (and we had no point fish), so we hit a spot that we all knew had produced in the past. The tide was down lower than anticipated, but we gave it a shot. We spread out with our chum buckets, jumped in the water, and after about 15 minutes we all realized there wasn't enough water to hold any fish. So we went into "Get us out of here before we're stuck out here until tomorrow morning" mode! If you've ever realized that you are literally 10-12 hours away from the tide rising, with no bug spray, and looking at a night stuck in the middle of a bay...it's not a pleasant feeling.
Strike 7, 8, and 9.
We decided to all push the boat toward a narrow little channel back toward shore. This meant pushing a 2,000-pound boat through 4 inches of water a long way. Hell Week during Lake City's baseball season with Coach Tom Clark couldn't prepare me for this type of workout. We pushed, and pushed, and eventually Josh was close enough to attempt getting the boat on plane (translated: Get enough speed and water so the boat can go!!!). We walked a safe distance away in case he lost control, and he gunned it.
He gunned it, and started to get on planeuntil he ran into a sandbar, and we were done. We began discussing sleeping arrangements on the boat, and if they would deliver pizza to a bunch of beat down fisherman stuck in Tampa Bay.
Strikes 10-63. Essentially we were getting no hit through 7 innings, while the other team was using us as a punching bag! This was officially the worst tournament I had ever fished.
But wait... while we were busy counting stingrays, Josh backed up the boat even farther into the mangroves, and gunned it one last time. I'll never forget the scene as he looked like a possessed Evil Kannieval ripping through the ankle deep water and blew right by us at almost 70MPH. We found out later that he had run in such shallow water that he had significantly damaged his propeller.
So, let's recap after 12 hours of tournament fishing.
1 lost watch. Price - too much. 1 man overboard. Price - Kyle's pride. 1 damaged prop. Price - I don't want to know.
And the big one: ZERO fish for ZERO points.
There was hope...sort of. At least we weren't going to be having a picnic at midnight on some sandbar with the guests of honor being mosquitoes and no see-ems.
After a full day of misery and bad luck, I made a suggestion to the captain. I wanted to hit a spot that I hadn't fished in more than 5 years, but had been producing for 20 years. This "spot" was a high-traffic area, meaning you have the weekend warriors, the cruisers, the tubers, and the Jet Ski morons (The exact second anyone hops on a jet ski, they are possessed by a total lack of inhibition, and therefore become a moron - myself included).
Here's the key. I knew this spot always produced on this specific tide, on this exact moon phase, during this time of day. The time of day was now dusk, as we had successfully pitched a tent over the circus that had become our 2014 Sam Crosthwait Fishing Tournament. How successful had this spot been for me in the past? I caught my first ever snook here when I was 15 years old. I was fishing on Parks Robinson's Robalo, with Joey Spivey, and she was 45" and 32-pounds! Fast-forward 10 years and I had a trout bite I'll never forget. On top water I rattled off a 32", 29", and 27" trout within 30 minutes. Here's the wild card, the last time I fished this area I had no beard, and no gray hair. Now, I had a full-grown man beard, and 692 gray hairs
Limping in and exhausted, we hopped out of the boat about an hour before sunset. Immediately, Jonathan caught a small snook, which on this day felt like a blue marlin. Ten minutes later, I saw something on the surface, cast my top-water lure of choice (super spook) and hooked a 23-inch trout. Normally this is a decent trout, but it was more important because of the mental hurdle it cleared. We actually had a point fish, and a solid one at that.
With a little hope Jonathan and I started chumming more aggressively. This is where fishing live bait can be a game changer. As we threw out the chum (white bait), the water came to life. It's like a football game when you seize a sudden turnover and the whole complexion of the game turns. There were pops and blowups all around us, like an Orville Redenbacher bag of popcorn. Then it happened. Zzzzzzzzzzz.
My line started peeling out, and it meant one thing. SNOOK!!! If you've never caught a snook, you just aren't living life to its fullest. They have it all -- power, speed, jumping ability and tenacity. This fish went on a blistering run and took to the air, and after about a 10-minute battle I landed a 33-inch, 12.5-pound beauty. She wasn't a tournament winner, but she was big points, and now gave us two-point fish.
At this point we waved Josh and Kyle into our area, and they waded in with chum reinforcements. We went all in. After I had the snook measured and released I filled up my bait keeper and joined the team fishing the cut. Within 5 minutes I had another bite. Zzzzzzzzz.
Now it was so dark that I couldn't be sure what I had. All I know is that it went on two drag-screaming runs that would have made Usain Bolt jealous. Then it took to the air, and Josh yelled "tarpon," and that was my thought process as well. After a few minutes, we finally saw a 3-foot long silver tank, and it was another big snook. So, in a little over an hour we now had three of the six fish needed to give us a shot.
Remember the football analogy? The floodgates were beginning to open. As I was photographing my fish, Josh caught a big over-slot redfish, and Kyle and Jonathan both had some hits from some good fish. All of a sudden, Team Outdoors360 had life. Buoyed by this run we headed south toward downtown Sarasota. Fishing this tournament for as long as I have, I've tried every scenario. We used to fish it all day and all night, then I became older, and realized that was stupid, and so we would pack up the boat, get a hot meal, and sleep in our warm beds. I guess I've now gone back to the stupid level, because we committed to fishing through the night to try and win this thing.
If we had a shot we needed to catch a bigger snook, tarpon, or redfish over night. I'll give the cliff notes version of what transpired over the next nine hours of "night fishing".
Freezing. Wet. Wind. Exhaustion. Freezing. Wet. Wind. More wind. Zero fish.
We caught a bunch of fresh bait and set up camp for the night. We immediately realized that wading until dark-thirty, and then fishing just off of the open Gulf of Mexico meant we were re-enacting an episode of "Deadliest Catch" on the Bering Sea. It was so cold and miserable that Jonathan actually wandered off the boat and onto the beach in search of warmth, or just a buffer from the wind.
The next morning we thought we had lost him, because we couldn't find him and our yells went unanswered. He had found his warmth curled up behind a sand dune, on a bed of fresh sea grass and sea oats near the backyard of some gazillionaire. We were shocked that there wasn't a BOL (police talk for Be On the Lookout) for a homeless guy with a goatee in a pair of khakis when he came straggling out of the darkness.
Unfortunately, that was the highlight of the night, and We spent the next morning contemplating a run offshore for permit (we would have been beat senseless) and cruised the shoreline looking for tarpon or cobia. We had no luck on any of the above, and our last-ditch effort on the flats yielded nothing better than our fish from the previous night. So, the tournament of crazy lows, and a one-hour high, had finally ended.
We finished with zero regrets, close to zero sleep, a ton of laughs, and some stories to tell. After we limped home(actually you don't limp when Josh is behind the throttle), we cleaned the boat like it was our job, and set the cruise control for 250 miles north to Lake City.