PENSACOLA, Fla. — Jeff Pope and Brandon Buckner knew it was over when they heard the sound of a motor flipping on and a boat roaring off. The duo had been fishing near the always-dominant team of Craig Johnson and John Ochs all weekend, and if the competing team were already heading back toward the dock, they knew they were in trouble.
Their prediction was correct.
Johnson and Ochs brought in a 12.5-pound bag on the final day, crushing the competition and claiming their first Redfish Cup title. It was a long time coming for the pair, who have more top-five finishes than any team in Redfish Cup history, but had yet to take home top honors.
On a day when weights significantly dropped off, Johnson and Ochs were followed in second place by Jeff Pope and Brandon Buckner with 9.79 pounds; Matt Haag and Scott Hughes in third with 8.58 pounds; Alex Suescan and Eric Taylor in fourth with 7.61 pounds; and Mike Friday and Danny Latham in fifth, with only one fish at 3.9 pounds.
For Johnson and Ochs, the key was sticking to their guns and fishing a more traditional shallow pattern, rather than the deep-water bite near a local bridge that many teams targeted.
"I never even looked at that bridge," said Ochs from the weigh-in stage. "I don't really believe that's redfishing."
In the end, his confidence paid off, as the team focused on a stretch of shoreline in Panama Beach rich with larger slot-sized redfish. They were able to play to their sight-fishing strength and avoid the crowds of boats putting pressure on the deep-water bite, and it paid off huge dividends.
"Slow it down, fish sand — do good," said Ochs, encompassing their entire strategy with only a few words.
The pair switched between Johnson gold spoons, Berkley Gulp! and Exude Dart to catch their fish and changed strategy only minimally on the final day to seal the win.
"We didn't change where we were going, but we changed our schedule," said Ochs. "We went straight to our best spot and caught the two fish we weighed in."
"It was like someone was telling us we didn't need any more weight, because the next six or seven all broke off."
The win was a long time coming for the pair, who have long been known as one of the most talented teams in saltwater fishing but had failed to break through with an event win. They can now head to Biloxi for the Redfish Cup Championship on Oct. 10-12 with the monkey finally off their backs.
"It's just a huge relief," said Ochs. "I've been trying my butt off to get it, and now that I have it, I don't know if I'll try as hard anymore."
In other Redfish Cup news ...
Veteran Redfish Cup anglers Andrew Bostick and Mark Sepe took the Academy Team of the Year presented by Crocs Award after leading from the first day of the 2008 season and every day since. The Florida anglers were the picture of dominance, winning three of the last five events and creating an insurmountable lead along the way.
"This means everything in the world to us," said Bostick, who will split $10,000 with his teammate and have all of their entry fees for next season covered. "We couldn't ask for anything more."
After winning the 2007 season-ending championship in Pensacola, it was only fitting the duo would seal Team of the Year honors in the place where it all began. But the weekend wasn't without drama for the pair, almost caught by Louisiana anglers "Cajun" Phil and Kevin Broussard after the first day on the water.
"The whole tournament was tough for us, because so much was on the line," said Sepe. "The spots we fished last year to win it here didn't have the bites, but somehow we pulled out enough weight in the end."
The team now heads to Biloxi to join the 19 other teams at the top of the overall Redfish Cup standings with the pressure off, and a goal of winning back-to-back championships within sight.
"They call this stuff hardware, and the more I get, the happier I get," said Sepe. "Now we can just fish to win."