The BP oil spill had kept Clayton Syfrett from fishing off the northern Gulf coast for more than two months.
So the Panama City, Fla., attorney decided to pilot his sportfisherman named Contingent Sea some 450 miles to the Florida Keys to compete for the first time at the three-day Drambuie Key West Marlin Tournament held in late July.
The move paid big dividends as one of Syfrett's anglers scored a blue marlin release to win the top $25,000 cash prize.
"They closed my fishing down," says Syfrett of closures off the northern Gulf coast caused by oil slicks that fouled waters for months. "Normally, I'd be fishing around the oil rigs for yellowfin tuna."
After fishing the first day, Syfrett got more bad news. The National Hurricane Center had issued a tropical storm warning for southeast Florida and the Keys because of Tropical Storm Bonnie. The predictions were for sustained winds of at least 40 mph and waves of up to 10 feet.
Syfrett and his crew decided Day 2 was not going to be a fishing day, so they partied the night before. They awoke late that morning to find that Bonnie had tracked much further to the north and conditions were far calmer than expected. And more than half the tournament's 35-boat fleet had gone out.
"We kicked ourselves a bit and wished we had gone, but just stayed and did some work on the boat," he says.
Syfrett's angler, Timothy Trase Travers of Titusville, Fla., caught the blue marlin that won the tournament.
The fish, estimated to weigh 400 pounds, bit a blue, pink and silver Mold Craft artificial lure fished on 80-pound-class tackle.
"She screamed for a good five minutes and emptied half the spool," says Travers. "I got her back in and she put up a beautiful aerial show at the boat."
The Contingent Sea team also consisted of Dan Melton of Lighthouse Point, Fla.; Brett Berry of Spartanburg, S.C.; and mate Tony Proctor of Key West.
St. Petersburg, Fla., angler Steve Doss released a sailfish on Day 2 and caught a 38-pound wahoo on Day 3 that took his Whiskey Tango team to second place.
Brian Wenrick of Toledo, Ohio, released a sailfish the first day on board Dream Catcher with Capt. John Worton of Jensen Beach, Fla., for third place.
The angling contest, which coincided with Key West's annual Hemingway Days festival, attracted 35 boats and about 176 anglers, according to tournament chairman Tim Greene
Coincidentally, the oil spill was the reason why the tournament's field was the lowest in the event's 12-year history, Greene says.
"With all of the bad information that was getting out there, many people kept thinking that the Florida Keys would either get affected by oil or were being affected by oil," Greene says, adding that last year's field featured 53 boats during the height of the recession.
Greene says even when he was able to convince potential anglers the Keys were oil free, the spill still played a role in keeping people away from the Drambuie.
"We had at least three boats that wanted to come down from Alabama and Mississippi," he says. "But they were told that if they went through the slick, they would not be permitted to return for fear of contaminating the water in their marinas."
Despite the challenges this year, the tournament will continue, says Greene. The 2011 tournament is set for July 20-23.
"Hemingway will always be an icon in Key West and the tournament is an important part of the Hemingway Days festival," he adds.
One of the festival's highlights was the annual Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike Contest. Charles Bicht, a white-bearded 64-year-old resident of Vero Beach, Fla., bested 123 other entrants in the competition.
A retired construction project manager, Bicht says he doesn't write, but shares several other traits with Hemingway.
"I enjoy women, I fish and I drink," says Bicht, who won on his 12th try.
Other festival events included a short-story competition directed by Lorian Hemingway, the author's granddaughter, a wacky "Running of the Bulls," a one-man play and a street fair.
This article originally appeared in the Home Waters section of the December 2010 issue.