PANAMA CITY — Tournament day finally made it upon us, the season opener for the Florida Redfish Pro Series Emerald Coast Division. Jake and I felt confident going into this tournament knowing the previous weekends we were catching 6- and 7-pound slot reds. The biggest concerns were previous two weeks of tournament boats pre-fishing and beating the banks, the front that rolled in the night before, the 7:30 a.m. low tide with two sets of 0.1 tides, and the 20 mph north winds that had been blowing for 24 hours.
We knew with the conditions that had developed overnight — dropped to 44 degrees with 15-20 mph winds out of the north and the water temperature had dropped from 73 degrees to 66 degrees — it was either going to be an amazing bite or a grind. We launched from Bay Point in the Grand Lagoon at safe light. We drew No. 8 on the launch and off we went. We rounded Deep Water Point, the bay was capping, the wind was ripping, and the first wave hit the side of the boat, splashed over and soaked us. I knew at that point it was going to be a long day.
We continued toward our No. 1 spot in East Bay. As we got close to our No. 1, three boats were already on it. We turned and headed for the No. 2 spot, a dock that produced last year around this time during a tournament. We eased up to the dock and skipped under and around the dock. We worked that dock for 45 minutes, only catching a 15-inch trout. We ran to the No. 3 spot, another dock that has produced in the past. We worked that dock for 30-45 minutes and caught nothing. We didn’t see or feel a single fish; at that point, it had become a grind.
We then changed our whole tournament plan and made a move to set of flats that I found the day before that were holding. We snuck up onto the flats and a wad of 30 reds was just sitting there. I had a gulp shrimp and Jake had a chartreuse tail. We cast over the wad by 15-20 feet, as not to spook, and worked that bait naturally back to the wad. The wad saw the bait and took off as if a dolphin was chasing them. Neither one of us understood why that happened, as we didn’t throw on top of them, didn’t burn them, and we weren’t moving in the boat.
We continued down the flats, seeing reds every 50-75 feet, but couldn’t convince any of them it was a good idea to eat. While we were moving the flats, I positioned the boat about 100 feet or so from shore so we could throw and hit the shoreline, but not so close we spooked everything. The shoreline had a big jog in it, and we ended up in about 3 feet of water. I saw something big move off the port side, watched for a moment and a baby dolphin popped his head out of the water and started swimming beside the boat.
Where we were fishing, the dolphins aren’t used to humans and didn’t come up to the boat, like at the pass looking for handouts. This was exactly what we didn’t want or need when fishing a tournament; we packed up and moved again.
At 12:30 p.m. we decided to head back to the No. 1 spot, and all the boats from that morning were gone. We found the wind pattern and drifted a long stretch of bank and mixed bottom. Spot No. 1 had always produced 4-pound reds and bigger, and that’s what we were expecting. As we drifted, we saw big reds all over that wouldn’t eat just like the last wad we just left. We then saw five or six tournament boats on plane moving from the Intracoastal Waterway. Jake and I knew either they killed it where they were or they were grinding as well and headed for another bay.
Jake switched to a gold spoon and hooked up. We got it to the boat and it measured 19 inches at 2.5 pounds. We have a cull permit for this tournament, so it went in the live well and got the skunk out of the boat. We finished the flat and the 19-inch was the only red from there. We hopped across the bay to another flat that had produced good fish in the past.
We found the wind pattern and started a drift. About 50 feet into the drift, I hooked up and landed an 18¼-inch red at 2.3 pounds. He went in the live well with the expectation of culling up. We finished that flat with nothing else and decided to gamble, making a push for a shallow pond in the middle of nowhere. If you don’t time the tides just right, you get stuck. We barely made it back into the pond, with an hour to fish before the run back to the scales.
We fished the bank and deep holes around the pond. We had landed 6-pound reds out of there before, just not today. The hour was up; time to weigh in. We had 4.5- to 5-pounds in the live well. We were fishing for 10K, there were 49 teams, and 75 percent of the teams we were fishing against were the best of the best out there in the redfish tournament world. I felt if we had to grind and struggle that hard, there was a high probability that everyone did.
Out of the 49 teams, only 19 weighed in. It was a grind to see over 100 reds and only catch two dinks. We placed 19th, which is last of the teams that weighed in, but we do get points toward team of the year. We have a lot of work ahead of us to make top 5 overall for the year. We would rather fall on our face now instead of when we must have the weight to get into the money.