GASPARILLA ISLAND, Fla. Boats pulling into the docks at the Gasparilla Inn and Club on Gasparilla Island on the southwest coast of Florida disembarked anglers with stories that ran the gamut of heroes and zeros. Probably the most dramatic of the tales was told by Jim McDaniel who started his morning hooking a tarpon, one of only three caught on the first of two days of fishing.
"My guide Cary McGuire saw a few tarpon rolling in the Peace River when he was catching scaled sardines in the morning, so we decided to head to that spot first thing and put out some baits," said McDaniel. "We were only fishing for about 20 minutes when my rod doubled and this giant tarpon was in the air. I had no idea what I was in for."
"That was a 9:15 a.m., and that fish took us six or seven miles up the Peace River before we finally got to touch the leader. That was five hours and fifteen minutes later. We really would have liked to have measured the fish, but catching that fish was eating up all our fishing time," said McDaniel.
McGuire, who has caught a lot of large tarpon in his time estimated the size of the fish between 165- and 180-pounds. Tarpon caught on bait are worth 200 points in the tournament, while tarpon caught on lures are worth 250 points and tarpon caught on fly are worth 300 points. Only one tarpon in the event was caught on fly, although celebrities Andy Mill and Flip Pallot hooked three fish on fly during the day, losing all three.
For angler Gary Blackie who was also fishing in the boat with McDaniel, the giant tarpon on his teammate's line was the closest he got to scoring points. After that big fish was released, the two never had another bite.
The high point team for the day were the two anglers fishing with Capt. Steve Ahlers, a 20-year old native of the area who grew up fishing. Fishing with Ahlers were Dan Young (1950 points) and Scott Friedlander (1250 Points) who amassed a total of 3,200 points. Young is also in the lead in points for the Grand Champion Award given to the high point angler of the tournament.
"We set a goal of caching 10 snook today, and when we got to 10, we moved that number up to 20," said Young. "We ended up catching 30 snook between us, all on live bait."
Friedlander, an inexperienced angler caught the first two fish of the day, a pair of snook. From that point on, the action was steady all day.
"The fishing was slow in the morning," said Young. "Then the wind came up and the bite was on."
Angler Steve Waechter caught only one snook, but it was a beauty.
"We got eight trout, a snook and a red," said Waechter, who was fishing with guide Dan Chatham. "We caught other fish too, a big flounder and a bunch of jacks. The best fish of the day though was a 38 inch snook, the largest snook of the tournament so far."
Waechter said his game plan for Friday is to follow Young, and fish right next to him.
Anglers catching all four species in the event score an extra 300 points, so many of the teams that have already caught snook, trout and redfish are planning on chasing tarpon in the morning. Just in time, as the water temperature bumped up two degrees to 74 degrees, prime temperature for the tarpon to move into Boca Grande Pass.
The Raymond James Boca Grande Classic is an annual event to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and part of the Redbone Series—a collection of fishing tournaments around the globe started by Islamorada fishing guide Gary Ellis and his wife when their daughter Nicole was diagnosed with the childhood disease. Nicole Ellis is now in her 20s, a collage graduate who works as an executive for Rich's Seafood.
"Everybody had a wonderful time today and there were a lot of fish caught," said Erika Theisen, Special Events Coordinator for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. "The point margin is significant right now, but hopefully tomorrow someone will catch a slam and we'll award our winners.
For many of the anglers in the event, the cause is the most important reason to be on the waters of Charlotte Harbor.
"This has always been a fun tournament where the guys don't take the competition too seriously," said McDaniel. "We're all here to support a great cause, and to spend time with friends. Catching fish is just a bonus."
Day One Results
Top 10 Anglers by points in the Raymond James Boca Grande Classic
Angler — Points — Captain
1. Dan Young — 1,950 — Steve Ahlers
2. Scott Friedlander — 1,250 — Steve Ahlers
3. Ellis Green — 1,200 — Ryan McGhee
4. Ron Walker — 800 — Sandy Melvin
5. Gary Head — 805 — Michael Manis
6. Bryan Corr — 800 — Ryan McGhee
7. Jeff Strother — 525 — Rob Hayes
8. Ed Marinaro — 500 — Frank Davis
9. Robert Pare — 315 — Doug Creek
10. Phil Frederico — 305 — Ryan Rowan