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Swamp Guides Ball by C.A. Richardson

I've been out of tournament fishing for awhile and really don't miss it. But I jumped at the chance to compete in this past weekend's Swamp Guides Ball event. It's an annual tournament that takes place in the Florida Keys and benefits the Keys Guides Association. It's sole purpose is to help fishing guides in times of hardship such as the catastrophic event (hurricane, Irma) that took place last September... that storm truly ravaged the Keys!

I was invited down by a good friend, Steve Stanley, and one of the best backcountry guides in the Keys, Capt. Dave Denkert. We had a sound plan based off some pre-fishing intel they had done the day before. You see in this tournament the goal is to catch a three fish "slam" a bonefish, a redfish and a snook. That really means we are going to have to cover a lot of water!

And of course, the weather sucks. You knew that was coming it's tournament day. So we ran from Islamorada all the way to Flamingo in Everglades National Park. That takes nearly an hour by the way. We get into an area where the tide has started to fall out around some creek mouths. Capt. Dave starts poling the skiff around hunting for laid up snook. It took some time (about 90 minutes) before we hooked a legal snook but old Steve came through for us using his trusty buck tail jig.

Now we had to run about 30 minutes to the next zone where both Steve and Capt. Dave said catching redfish should be much easier. I wish they hadn't said that! Because when we rolled up on the flat another skiff was already there and releasing a nice redfish. Damn, thousands of acres of flats and the spot we need has another skiff in our way. Oh well, improvising is what we are supposed to be good at with a collective ninety plus years of fishing experience on our boat.

So we decided to pole the boat in the opposite direction and see if we could get lucky. The water was super dirty and the tide was ripping out but you could still make out the pot holes in the grass. I tied on a Z-Man TRD in the Canada Craw color and pegged it to one of the new SnakelockZ jig heads. Capt. Dave shook his head and said "what the hell is that supposed to imitate?"... I sarcastically said, "a Coney Island hot dog of course." You know what happened next, within three casts I had a redfish pulling drag off the spool and a grin on my face that couldn't be wiped off!

Now it was get serious time. We had to make a run in a 20mph head wind about 40 minutes away to have a shot at the bonefish. If we could get a bonefish under these conditions it would certainly put us in Top 5 contention!

We arrived at a flat that Capt. Dave had caught several bonefish three days prior to the tournament but that was then and this is now. Because of the cold front and brisk wind the water had chilled to 71 degrees... not the best bonefish scenario. So we opted to utilize some fresh shrimp and do what Keys Guides call "booger fishing". We've got two hours Capt. Dave informed us before lines have to be out of the water.

Certainly one of us would catch a bonefish by then or would we?

Time seemed like it was going by fast and nothing, not a nibble. What fish doesn't want shrimp kabobs for lunch? Now with under an hour to go my rod tip bounces and the drag screams... finally I thought. But no, it turned out to be a 30" Bonnethead Shark. Then five minutes later Steve's rod heels over and starts ripping out some drag... nope, a damn Jack Crevalle. Where are the bonefish? Now with 20 minutes to go Capt. Dave makes one more adjustment and says this is it boys. Do or die. We both launched the baits into the big sand hole at the end of the flat. Instantly Steve gets a hit! But again we find it's not a bonefish but another jack family cousin, the Blue Runner. Shortly after that time ran out on us but we gave it a good shot. You can't help but lament that one bonefish would have turned our fortunes completely around!

Oh, well that's tournament fishing. And the one reason I don't miss it but still love it all the same.

Capt. C.A. Richardson
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