KEY LARGO, Fla. Bonnie Christ missed the Grand Champion Angler title by five minutes in the two-day ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series Baybone Tournament here Sunday.
In this particular tournament format that places a premium on catching both bonefish and permit, three permit finally showed up on the scoreboard on the final day after being missing in action Saturday.
The three anglers who caught both species were Christ, Jeff Parrish and Adrian Gray. The tiebreaker is "last fish caught first." Christ's permit was landed at 8:48 a.m. Sunday. Parrish's came to the boat five minutes earlier. Gray's was boated later in the morning. Thus, Parrish, who is from Buffalo, N.Y., took the individual crown.
"Last-fish-caught-first comes into play in a lot of these tournaments," said Joe Viar, Christ's partner and a veteran of this Mercury Redbone Celebrity Series events.
But if you think Christ was upset about that five-minute difference costing her the individual title, you need to think again.
As Viar put it, "We caught three fish and came away with three-quarters of the prizes."
In fact, this couple from the Washington, D.C., area, did exactly the same thing two years ago, when they combined to win the Team Grand Champion title. Christ was second in the Grand Champion Angler competition and Christ took the Grand Champion Female Angler title in the 2006 Baybone event — just like they did this weekend — with their guide Andy Thompson.
Competitor Brower Moffit's words after looking at Saturday's scoreboard became prophetic. Moffitt said, after looking at a permit-free results among the 19 teams, "A permit (Sunday) changes the game. Anybody who caught a bonefish today, with a permit tomorrow, they'll be in the running."
And since so few fish were caught in this event (32 bonefish on Saturday; 11 bonefish and three permit Sunday) that's exactly what it took to change the game — one permit — and ultimately, when that permit was caught.
"We made a one-hour run to 'back country,' the Florida bay," said Parrish's guide Chuck Schafstall. "We were fishing with a half-dollar-size crab.
"We saw three or four schooling permit, and Jeff made a perfect cast."
The 32-inch permit, estimated to weigh 28 pounds, made three long runs. Schafstall had the fish in his hands before it escaped and made one last run. They had no way of knowing at the time, but it would be the precise time when they finally landed that big permit that would ultimately decide the Baybone Grand Champion Angler title.
Parrish, national sales manager for Robert-James Sales, a major stainless steel valve and pipe fittings manufacturer in Buffalo, is no stranger to catching big fish. He also operates a guide service on Lake Ontario — Breakaway Fishing Charters.
But this permit, caught a long way from Parrish's home in New York, proved as satisfying as any fish he's ever landed.
In terms of total fish caught, another Buffalo resident and Robert-James Sales executive, Jim Boker Jr. and his partner, Matt Hicken, with guide Steve Thomas, were the overall champs, finishing the two-day event with eight bonefish caught and released. But without a permit among their catches, that proved to be fruitless.
Like everyone who competed here over the last three days, sunlight, or lack thereof, proved to be a major problem. Partially overcast skies again dominated the day on Sunday, just like on Friday in the Superfly event, and Saturday in the Baybone opener.
"It's really hard to see fish," explained Thomas, who has been guiding in the Florida saltwater flats for over 20 years. "If they're not tailing or pushing water, there's not much to rely on."
The team of John Timura, the defending Grand Champion Angler in the Baybone event, and his first-time partner, Troy Pruitt, the Baybone Grand Champ in 2006, were best positioned to win this event after Saturday, since they both had landed three bonefish. But Timura's one bonefish was their only mark on the scoreboard Sunday, and with no permit to go with it, both Timura, as an individual, and the team fell out of the running, even though they finished with 700 total points.
Sandy Moret, a fly fishing legend in The Keys, who operates Florida Keys Outfitters, didn't land a bonefish or a permit this weekend, while paired with his wife, Sue, and guide Rusty Albury.
Moret wasn't offering any excuses for that performance, but when quizzed about the difficult fishing conditions for bonefish and permit, explained it this way: "These are probably the worst tides of the month (for bonefish and permit).
"I would go after snook or tarpon or redfish. The water just never got low enough. I just don't think (bonefish and permit) were up in the flats.
"But it's a tournament situation."
It's not much consolation, but Moret added, "Every day after this, the fishing will get better and better, for about the next seven days."
Parrish wasn't thinking about days when he accepted his Grand Champion Angler trophy Sunday night. He was thankful for a mere five minutes.