ISLAMORADA, Fla. — A thousand yards from the Channel Five Bridge in a location known locally as the Craig Key Mafia, a 70-pound tarpon lunched Brower Moffitt's fly on the first cast.
Moffitt's guide Mike Ehlers had spotted the fish ghosting across the sand in four feet of water just a few minutes into the outgoing tide, and a well-placed cast put the food, in this case a fly tied with polar bear fur, directly in the path of the slow-moving fish.
Fifteen minutes later, the fish went deep, using the currents to pull the angler and guide under the Channel Five Bridge, which is actually two bridges, the main road south to the Lower Keys, and the remnants of the old railroad bridge that ran to Key West.
As the fish worked through the spans several times, Moffitt struggled to track the fish and keep his fly line and leader off the barnacle encrusted pilings while working it to the surface where the leader could be touched by the guide, making it an official catch.
Ten yards from the pilings, Ehlers grabbed the leader and broke the fish off, one of only two tarpon caught on fly during the first day of the Florida Keys Outfitters IGFA Inshore World Championship.
"I really didn't think that fish was going to eat the fly," said Moffitt, of West Palm Beach, Fla., who qualified for the event by winning the Redbone at Large Deepwater Fall Tournament in Deep Water Cay, Bahamas. "It was 40 feet from the boat when it just turned and jumped on the fly. It's a good way to start the first day of the event."
Moffitt currently sits in first place in the Fly Division with 400 points based on that tarpon release and a bonefish release earlier in the morning.
Two other anglers sit just 25 points behind with 375 points — Robert Collins and Kathryn Hoar each scored three redfish releases on the first day, but Moffitt is ahead on more than just the score card, having released two of the five species that make up a slam, compared to the two others that only have one species catch to their credit.
In the FKO/IGFA Inshore World Championship, the key is to catch a slam (all five species: tarpon, bonefish, permit, snook and redfish) which trumps all points. Point totals only figure into the equation in the case of a tie in the number of slams, or if no one catches a slam.
In the Light Tackle Division, Jake Turek of Tavernier, Fla., fishing with guide Dave Denkert, leads the 12 other competitors with 600 points, based on a catch of one tarpon on bait (100 points), two snook on bait and one on artificial (200 points) and three redfish on artificial (200 points).
In second is Barry Shelvin with 400 points, and like Turek, he caught three of the five species needed for the slam (tarpon on bait — 100 points; permit on bait — 150 points and three snook on bait — 150 points). Shelvin was fishing with guide Frank Ortiz.
"All three snook were nice fish for anywhere in Florida," Shelvin said. "One was 38 inches and over 20-pounds, and the other two were about 28 inches. I also had several other fish that I couldn't stop, and they broke me off."
All five species were caught during the first day of the event in which 23 anglers (10 in the Fly Division and 13 in the Light Tackle Division) released a total of four bonefish, seven tarpon, four permit, eight snook and 15 redfish.
Eight of the anglers in the event didn't score a release, which many of the guides attributed to calm waters that made it easier for the fish to sense the presence of an approaching boat.
"We saw bonefish all day, but couldn't get them to eat," said Paul Tejera, who was guiding angler Sandi Bishop from Knoxville, Tenn. "It was really tough fishing, but it was tough for everyone. Hopefully we'll get a little wind tomorrow and Thursday which should make it a lot easier to get the fish to bite."
This is the 10th year of the Inshore World Championship, all of which have been held in Islamorada. Participants in the event qualify by winning one of 40 IGFA sanctioned tournaments on three continents. Sight fishing these five species in Islamorada is considered one of the most difficult challenges in saltwater angling, which is why there is so much value placed on scoring a slam in the event.
"I thought it was a great day of fishing," said Sandy Moret, owner of Florida Keys Outfitters in Islamorada. "There was a lot of quality catches even though there were tough conditions — flat calm and fairly hot — but they caught a lot of nice fish, including a permit on fly, only the second one since we changed the event to two divisions. Several anglers had three fish today, so it's going to be anyone's game."
Eight of the 23 anglers didn't record a catch, whether because of broken lines or leaders, pulled hooks or fish that didn't eat. Nils Zackrisson of Sweden was one of those anglers, having qualified for the event by winning the Pike Challenge in Sweden. The hot temperatures and skittish fish made fishing tough for this visiting angler.
"We saw about 20 tarpon but they weren't interested in eating anything I threw at them," Zackrisson said. "We started our day fishing for redfish and snook but didn't see any. It was really tough. I have a really good guide but I actually feel more comfortable with a fly rod, so I'll fish those starting tomorrow."
Slams are going to be tough to score based on the first day showing, so the second day of fishing will allow anglers to position themselves to spend the last day of the event targeting species in hopes of scoring a slam. On the final day, anglers will have a better sense of what it's going to take to win the event and a World Championship.
All five species must meet minimum length requirements to count as a catch. Bonefish must be at least 18 inches; tarpon 36 inches; permit 18 inches; snook 24 inches and redfish 18 inches.
In the Fly Division, anglers score 200 points for every bonefish release; 200 points for a tarpon; 300 points for a permit; 150 points for every snook and 125 points per redfish.
In the Light Tackle Division, anglers can use bait, artificial or fly, with different point values awarded based on the difficulty of the catch. A bonefish on bait scores 100 points, on artificial 150 points and on fly 200 points. Tarpon score 100 points for bait, 150 for artificial and 200 for fly, while permit score 150 points on bait, 250 on artificial and 300 on fly. Snook count as 50 points on bait, 100 on artificial and 150 on fly, while redfish score 50 points on bait, 100 on artificial and 125 points on fly.