KEY LARGO, Fla. Catching a permit Sunday has become a premium after Day One of the ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series Baybone Tournament. With 19 teams competing, 32 bonefish were caught in less-than-ideal Florida flats fishing conditions Saturday, but not one permit.
Because this tournament series places a premium on multi-species catches, one permit could decide this event Sunday. More than one permit landed would be the equivalent of striking gold.
"A permit (Sunday) changes the game," said Brower Moffitt, who caught the only bonefish Saturday on a fly tackle. "Anybody who caught a bonefish today, with a permit tomorrow, they'll be in the running."
Each tournament in the Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series, which raises money for funding a cystic fibrosis cure, is formatted like a Russian nesting doll. In other words, it's a tournament, within a tournament, within a tournament, within a tournament.
Overall the team of anglers John Timura and Troy Pruitt with guide Brian Helms lead the event with 600 points. Both Timura and Pruitt landed three bonefish Saturday. (This is a catch-and-release event; bonefish and permit must meet an 18-inch minimum length limit and an 18-incher scores the same as a 24-incher.)
All six of those bonefish were caught on shrimp and spinning tackle.
Mo Smith, Frank Deluca and guide Mark Krowka caught five bonefish, also on shrimp and spinning tackle, and are in second place in the team standings with 500 points.
Jamie Wilkinson, Jerry Vaillancourt and guide Mike Kozma caught three bonefish, but because they were taken on artificial lures and spinning tackle, the team was credited with 450 points.
The key here is a "slam." In this particular Redbone Series event, the species targeted are both bonefish and permit. A slam of bonefish and permit has a multiplying effect. Thus every team will be targeting permit Sunday. There wasn't a permit caught in the Superfly one-day event that preceded this event Friday either.
Although plenty of permit have been sighted in the Florida flats in the Key Largo area, not one has been landed in two days now, thus the permit focus Sunday.
Sunlight, or lack thereof, was again the story Saturday, just as it was Friday in the Superfly event. Without the vision afforded by clear blue skies, it's difficult to see fish in these saltwater flats.
Saturday dawned with a clearing thunderstorm that presented less than ideal conditions in the early hours. Continued cloud cover for most of the day even without the thunder and lightning left difficult conditions for all 19 teams no matter whether they stayed close to Key Largo or made long runs either north or south.
But that made for some interesting fishing stories at the end of the day.
Maybe the most interesting was that of the Wilkinson/Vaillancourt/Kozma team. Wilkinson, of Orlando, Fla., caught all three of his team's bonefish on a homemade 1/8th-ounce jig that guide Mike Kozma ties.
"I would never have thought of doing this here," Wilkinson said. "It's the closest thing I've ever done to bass fishing in saltwater."
Kozma, who will mark his 39th birthday next week, targeted areas where falling tide created current. He couldn't always see the bonefish Wilkinson caught, other than the occasional tail sticking above the surface, but he knew where the current was likely to place the fish.
"Fish actually feed better is this slop," said Kozma, in reference to the weather. "I hope it stays like this again (Sunday)."
That team likely is the only one to share that sentiment.
Wilkinson was the only angler to land a fish in the spinning tackle/artificial lure category.
On the other end of Saturday's story, but at the top of the leaderboard, was the team of Smith/Deluca/Krowka. Smith, the neurosurgeon from Memphis who has multiple Redbone Series event titles, caught all five of his team's bonefish on shrimp and spinning tackle.
"We were dodging downpours (all morning)," said Krowka, a renowned guide who has averaged more than 300 days on the water each year for the past two decades. "We caught three fish early when we had opportunities in the first two hours, then right at the end of the day we got two more.
"We had very little straight fishing time today. It was pretty tough."
Krowka took his anglers north, which was where the storms tracked, and was why their fishing conditions were worse than those of teams that stayed closer to Key Largo.
"The roundtrip today was about 120 miles," Krowka said. "We were dodging lightning. There were horrible storms up there (north) all day long. It was bad.
"I'll ad lib (Sunday) morning and decide what to do."
Krowka's team, just like Kozma's, isn't positioned well in the team standings because of the weight the Redbone Series places on a legitimate "team" competition. One angler has caught all the fish on both those teams.
That's why Timura and Pruitt are positioned perfectly to score the most points Sunday, since each angler landed three bonefish in their first-place 600-point total. Permit will be their sole focus Sunday. A slam is the ultimate goal, which in this Baybone event, means both bonefish and permit. When you add a permit to a bonefish, creating a slam, it adds bonus points to the total catch.
Timura, a previous IGFA Offshore Champion who lives in nearby Islamorada, was quick to credit guide Brian Hoelms for the team's success. Helms, though only 26 years old, has been guiding for eight years in the Florida Keys.
"Tenacious," is the word Timura used to describe their relatively young guide.
"Even when he isn't booked (on a guiding trip), he's out there fishing," Timura said. "He's the hardest working, most dedicated guide I know."
Especially here, that's quite a statement.
As a side note to the success of the Timura/Pruitt team, Saturday marked only the second day they've fished together. In previous saltwater events, they both had regular partners, but both partners happened to have other obligations for this event.
If they can match that karma working for them again on Sunday, there's no doubt that their three-bonefish-each day has them best positioned to rack up points. But, again, that's only if they can land at least one of the so far elusive permit.
Finally, there's one more fish tale that must be added to Saturday's results. Brower Moffitt hadn't caught a fish when the final minutes of the tournament approached. His partner, Barbara Huffman, landed a bonefish on bait earlier in the day, so they'd at least posted 100 points.
But in those last minutes, when all fishing lines had to be out of the water by 3 p.m., Moffitt, Huffman and guide Bruce Stagg spotted two schools of bonefish.
"There were 17 minutes left," Moffitt said. "We saw two schools of tailing fish, each one with about eight to 10 fish in it."
Moffitt had already pulled out his fly fishing gear, which carries premium points for fish landed. He made two casts to the first school without a take. Then he made one cast to the second school and enticed a strike with on a Big Kwan crab imitation fly pattern.
Even though rules allow a fish hooked before the 3 p.m. deadline to be fought until landed, Moffitt pulled the fish from the water at 2:59. It was worth 200 points, and was the only fish landed on fly tackle Saturday.