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Hurri-canceled

9/5/2008

KEY WEST, Fla. — The calm before the storm has turned out to be anything but.

With Hurricane Ike at Category 3 strength and predicted to head in a lazy curl smack-dab into the Florida Keys by Tuesday, Monroe County authorities ordered non-residents to evacuate Key West beginning Saturday morning.

So just as the 14 angler and guide teams who fished the Superfly one-fly-pattern tournament Friday were licking their chops for a better day of fishing on Saturday, they got the word: the Key West Redbone SLAM, presented by ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series, has been called on account of Ike heading down the pike.

"It couldn't have been worse for us," said Gary Ellis, who along with his wife, Susan, founded the Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series 20 years ago to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Even one day of fishing, he said, and the tournament would have upheld its obligation to anglers and sponsors.

Instead, they'll have to reschedule, likely for later in the fall.

"This one's not even going to hit us," Ellis predicted. "It's going to veer south and hit Cuba. And I don't wish any ill will toward Cuba, but better them than us."

It's not the first time the Ellises' tournaments have run against stormy weather. Hurricanes Andrew (1991), Georges (1998) and Irene (1999) all brought evacuation orders during tournaments, and Michelle (2001), just moments before Ellis would have blessed the boats at launch.

For anglers and guides set to fish the SLAM, the news was a blow. Most of the teams that had fly-fished Friday had struggled with the predominantly westerly winds.

"A west wind," said guide R.T. Trosser, "kills Key West."

He thought the west winds were a result of Hanna, the tropical storm crawling north along the east coast of Florida, churning counterclockwise. Saturday, the veteran guide predicted, would bring stable fishing and "no effects from either storm," he said.

But as guides stood at the bar of the Conch Republic Seafood Company and watched the Weather Channel, disbelief quickly turned to acceptance. This is the tip of Florida, after all, and storms are nothing new.

"The thing is, you can't get out of the Keys," guide Mark Johnson said. "You've got one road out" — that would be skinny little U.S. 1 — "and one little airport. When they say go, you go."

For the men who spend hundreds of days a year on the water around the lower Keys, hurricanes have a history of rearranging their workplace, and that aftermath can be unpredictable. When Hurricane Wilma raked south Florida in 2005, guide John O'Hearn said, it erased grass from the ocean floor around some flats, rendering those areas bare and easier to fish.

Guide Drew Delashmit said Wilma also deposited trees into channels where he was used to running.

"They suck for us as a civilization, but it's not like the Keys haven't been getting wrecked by hurricanes for eons," he said.

Bo Sellers, another lower Keys guide, recalled seeing crabbing pots dangling from the branches of trees 12 feet above the water's surface. Considering the water beneath was about 12 inches deep, that was no small feat of strength.

"The only thing that could have put them there is waves," Sellers said. "It's like someone threw them up as far as they could."

O'Hearn recalled the 40 mph gusts that preceded Hurricane Gustav, which just blew through, balling up bonefish. "The fish know to feed right before," he said. "They know what's coming." Thus, pre-storm fishing can be extraordinary.

Ditto, he added, right after a storm, when fish are hungry after fighting four days of winds and strong currents.

"But normally, everybody has left," John O'Hearn said of the aftermath. "So you're just going fishing with your buddies."