Billfish tourney celebrates 40 years

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A Kids Fishing Day, and the MIASF One Day Slam ensured that the tournament appealed to all anglers

A Kids Fishing Day, and the MIASF One Day Slam ensured that the tournament appealed to all anglers

The Fort Lauderdale Billfish Tournament celebrated its 40th annual event this February at the Las Olas City Marina, just two miles north of Port Everglades Inlet. This was the first fishing tournament for Lou Statzer, owner of the Cabo 45 Express, Lili G.

“I’ve recently retired,” he says. “I’ve driven race cars, but this is one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. There’s excitement, challenge and good people.”

Steve Kotalas, also aboard the Lili G, lives in Key West in the winter and operates the NantucketTackleCenter up north in the summer. “I sponsor three tournaments myself and I’ve been fishing tournaments for around 20 years. This one is great. There’s a lot of fish, infinite grounds and a great bunch of people.”

The tournament is usually held in November, but was postponed because of Hurricane Wilma. Fishing began on Feb. 10 and lasted through Feb. 12, preceded by events such as an opening dinner at The Downtowner on the New River, as well as a reception and registration parties.

The ocean’s the limit for this tournament; the only boundaries are the time deadlines and the boat’s speed. It’s rumored that the fleet spread from Fort Pierce to Key Largo and west across the Gulf Stream toward the Bahamas — but fishermen don’t always share secrets. The many sponsors also cover the waterfront, and include Mercury Marine (the presenting sponsor), Bell South, Marine Industries Association of South Florida, Raymarine and the Miami Herald.

This is more than an exclusive grouping of big thoroughbred sportfishing boats. It has those — and in high style — but it’s a smorgasbord of big boats, small boats, center consoles, kids, families, dogs, country music, barbecue chicken wings and fishing displays. To my eye, this satisfying blend of high-tech and low-tech represents some of the best of boating and fishing.

This year 83 boats entered. They fished for catch-and-release billfish, and for “weigh in” fish such as dolphin, wahoo and kingfish. An observer verifies the catch-and-releases with a camera on each boat. Each billfish is reported to the committee boat when it’s caught and released. These net 200 points while a keeper nets a point a pound. There are eight events in the overall tournament so that many walk away with prizes.

There are three basic tournaments: the overall three-day event, the MIASF One Day Slam and the fly fish tournament with its own tailored set of rules. The FLBT was the first major AtlanticCoast billfish tournament to include this last year. There also are “value added” events. These include the Big Boat (larger than 31 feet and inboard) and Power Boat (outboards) challenges. These events give participants a chance to compete for the big money of the guaranteed prize pool, with points totaled from all days of fishing, but they also can sweeten the pot as entrants challenge other boats to compete for a prize pool created by all the boats who accept the challenge.

The MIASF One Day Slam on Day 2 gives a great chance for the non-professionals — people who can’t fish during the weekdays — to come out and win big. Boats of all sizes can enter. The prize for this is separate from the overall prize. The awards are based on the points won for the day, and the winning pool is based on the number of entries.

There are also six TNTs (Tournament Within a Tournament). Any boat can enter one or more of these, which are divided into the Billfish TNTs and the Fun Fish TNTs, each with three categories and multiple levels of winners.

All tournament participants are also eligible to compete for prizes as individual anglers. There’s also a serious effort to involve local young people who might not otherwise have the opportunity. On Day 2, a local fishing charter boat, the Flamingo, took out 27 youngsters for a sponsored Kids Fishing Day. As with the other events, there were prizes, and each participant got a T-shirt and trophy for participating.

All this takes a lot of organizing. Kitty McGowan, the executive director, has been at it for six years, as well as organizing other area events. And, of course there are many volunteers.

Jamie Strauss, the president for the past eight years, has been involved with the tournament for over 20 years. It was hard to get a chance to talk with him, because he was keeping tabs on the billfish, as they were called in over the radio — one after another, for a total of 440 sailfish and one blue marlin. Finally, during a lull (the 59 boats out for the day had already released 164 fish) we sat down to talk, enthusiastically accompanied by Snickers, Jamie’s two-month-old Lab. His two young daughters scampered around the docks with their rods and reels. Charlene Strauss, their mom, kept close watch. A huge tent spread over much of the parking lot, with a sound stage ready to crank out music and awards announcements. Barbecue fires were being stoked and “Hooters Girls” were arriving with trays of chicken wings.

“It’s always been a forward-looking tournament,” he told me. “We were some of the first to start tagging fish for environmental reasons, and then among the first to stop doing this when some thought that it perhaps did more harm than good. We also began using circle hooks early on, to avoid injury to the fish.”

Strauss says there’s also been a change in the final day’s ceremonies.

“We used to have a black tie affair for the awards ceremony, but now it’s family and friends and we wear what we’ve fished in, or whatever else we want,” he says. “The Las Olas City Marina has been a great place to do this because of its facilities, the space for the tent and stage, and the great help we get from its management.” (Mike Horn, the dockmaster, rearranges boats for the event so that most of the fishing fleet can dock together. No one minds; all can come to the party.)

As the fishing day ended, exhausted crewmembers struggled with the weigh-in fish, carrying them to the official scales on the stage. This time in a tournament is always busy, as boats rapidly maneuver in to offload fish, and everyone cleans up. (Boat Owners Warehouse and StarBrite offered free cleaning products to each boat.) But it’s never too busy for the exercise of bragging rights or to talk about past tournaments.

One year the lead boat broke down just short of the inlet. He wouldn’t win if he didn’t make it in on time. The boat second from the top gave him a tow rather than racing past to collect first. Another year a lead boat wanted to make sure everyone saw the huge number of flags indicating the number of fish caught. Rather than hang them from the outriggers, as do most boats, he stopped just short of the check-in point to launch a helium balloon so he could trail the flags up high for all to see. This took a bit of doing — just enough for the boat to reach the station too late and not qualify.

This year the 34-foot Sea Vee center console, Double D, headed out with five aboard. None dreamed of the shock and awe awaiting them at the end of the day. Tournament fishing on a boat this size involves close work in the small space, and people become very familiar with the other occupants and intimate with the spaces of boat. You think you know everyone aboard. But as they headed back off Key Biscayne, exhausted and happy, a “huge” rat suddenly appeared out of nowhere. It ran out of the innards of the boat, up onto the console and out onto the steering wheel. Being skilled and well equipped anglers, the crew managed to catch it with the net. Apparently, due to the highly unusual size, some thought was given to bringing it back to the official scales. But in the true spirit of the tournament, they released this catch — overboard. The Double D was a big winner in several categories; it was rumored that the rat brought luck, but those in the know said it was just good fishing.

As I walked around the docks, the talk was good. The captain of the Miss Britt of Miami, a 34-foot custom inboard sportfisherman, told me, “It’s my fourth year and one of my favorites. There’s lots of room to fish, and they do a great job organizing it.”

Bill Wietcha, a seasoned professional captain on the brand new 52-foot Viking, Game Time, of Coral Gables, said, “It’s a great event. The location is great, there are no boundaries, and I like the way it’s run.”

Yolanda and Greg Haskin, who fish Keeping it Reel, a 35-Sea Hunter powered by two 275-hp Mercs, loved the MIASF one-day event. “It gives everyone a chance.” This sentiment was echoed by many, including 18-year-old Chris Pelly, captain of a 26-foot Sea Vee, powered by a 225-hp Merc, as he skillfully maneuvered into the dock with his crew of teenagers. “This one-day tournament is great for smaller boats. We fished all the way up off Lake Worth.” (They won the One Day Slam, netting over $6,000.) Of the more than $160,000 in cash prizes, the 50-foot Viking, Wound Up, took home nearly $64,000.

Speaking of awards, a past tradition was revived in the judging of the “Miss Billfish” tournament. The event was staged near the end of the last day as excitement ran high, with six contestants competing for the title.

Boating and fishing are alive and well, despite what some say. The Fort Lauderdale Billfish Tournament is a grand testimonial to that fact, and to the fun that family and friends can have on the water.