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Marine Madness

At Texas’ largest saltwater fishing tournament, many participants bring the whole family along for the fun.

By Eileen Mattei

By 5 a.m., the South Padre Whataburger is doing a booming business. Circle K’s Krispy Kreme doughnuts are moving off therack like free topwater lures to the anglers signed up for the Texas International Fishing Tournament. Texas’ largest saltwater fishing event, TIFT (August 2 – 6, 2006) draws 1,500 entrants, including entire families, to compete in its bay, offshore and tarpon divisions.

“TIFT is the one tournament I fish with my kids every year,” says Mike Jones, on board the 22-foot bay boat named Spook-em. Anchored in the Laguna Madre opposite Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Mike is smearing BullFrog sunscreen on the neck and face of his 10-year-old son Clay while his teenage daughter Chelsea pulls on wade boots, and family friend Terry Key prepares his tackle.

At 6:30 a.m. Friday, the TIFT officially opens. The sun is not yet above the horizon when Chelsea wades north in knee-deep water with her rod and a topwater lure. The three males follow, trailing floating tackle boxes and stringers. Other than the soft plop of the lures hitting the surface and the occasional squawk of a great blue heron, the bay is tranquil. Reflected on the calm water, Chelsea’s pink blouse mimics roseate spoonbills flying nearby.

Mike hooks into the first redfish, 23 inches. “We’ve got to do better than that,” he says, motioning the kids in an arc to his right. When father and daughter hook redfish at the same time, Mike loses his as he watches Chelsea bring hers in.

“I feel sorry for any boy who goes fishing with Chelsea,” observes Terry Key. “I think she can outfish any boy her age.”

Back in the boat, heading to another hotspot, the four sip from water bottles wrapped in the TIFT logo, which Mike’s company made and donated for the tournament. The next long wade brings in a few more redfish. Clay releases one nearly 30 inches long, too big for this tournament.

Wading is becoming more popular, although it still attracts only about 10 percent of the bay’s anglers, Mike says. The rest stay with drift fishing or anchored boats. Cloud cover brings a south breeze, which swings the boat around 180 degrees. Islands appear to be floating above the horizon, an optical illusion. After two hours, no other boats have joined the Spook-em because the foot-deep water is a big deterrent. An osprey is the only other fisher in sight.

Skimming past islets rimmed with short, dense mangroves, the boat leaves the backwaters, disturbing redfish whose large vee wakes run at right angles from the boat. Out in the Gulf Intracoastal Canal, boats — one is named Shallow-minded — dot the water like scales on a trout.

While the kids take a break from fishing, Mike starts Margaritaville on the CD player before he and Terry ease into the deep water bordering the canal. Clay and Chelsea prop their bare feet on the boat’s wheel and nibble curly Cheetos. Everyone’s killing time, waiting to get to the family’s favorite spot, which is currently occupied.

Finally, anchored at the prized site where the water is cooler and deeper, Mike is convinced that the outgoing tide is sure to bring some action. He begins coaching Chelsea as she reels in a gold spoon. “Go slow, slow. Reel really slow. You want it to stay submerged about halfway to the bottom.” When Mike loses a big trout, Clay asks his dad if he has a chance of winning the tournament. “That’s not what this is about,” Mike replies. “I’d have to start first thing in the morning and ignore you guys all day.”

After a long day on the water, the Joneses and Terry Key vote to head in to Port Isabel and the TIFT weigh-in at Southpoint Marina. The Spook-em’s catch ranks in the respectable class, 11 redfish and nine trout, but the satisfaction level from a day well spent is off the scale.

Offshore

Saturday 3 a.m. — fresh doughnuts at Circle K. At 4 a.m., Terry Gray is standing on the bridge of the Wet N Wild, a 48-foot Hatteras, heading due east at 17 knots in the Gulf of Mexico with a boatful of family and friends. The glow of the radar, GPS and depth recorder dimly illuminate the cockpit, not competing with the stars on the clear quiet night.

Sixty miles out from Port Isabel, out past the continental shelf, in water 2,600 feet deep, Terry and his friends are primed to bring in billfish, wahoo, tuna and other treasures of the deep. Clouds hide the rising sun as the eager anglers set out seven lines, using outriggers and center riggers to spread them wide apart. Slowing down to seven knots, the boat dangles mullet, lures and two top-popping teasers. Flying fish skitter like dragonflies across the Prussian-blue water that is still enough to mirror towering cloud banks.

Leaning over a satellite map of the currents, Terry points out water temperature variations. “Fish will be hunting for food at the dividing lines,” he says. Since the demarcation is usually marked by floating sargassum, the Wet N Wild zigzags along the seaweed, waiting for action.

Terry, who is on the TIFT executive board, is officially tracking reports from the other boats in the area about the billfish and tuna being tagged or boated. The first 20 blue and white marlins reported are tagged and released because they measure, from lower jaw to fork of the tail, less than the TIFT requirements of 101 and 67 inches. Just to be on the safe side, TIFT pegs the minimum billfish keepers at two inches above the federal lengths.

The Wet N Wild sparks to life each time the wake of a large fish is spotted. With the first strike, Stephen Gray, 10, slips into the fighting chair and reels in a small dolphinfish or mahimahi.

After that brief spurt of action, the boat keeps trolling as clouds drift in from the east, where waterspouts twirl and squalls darken the sky. Suggestions to head in that direction to wash the boat are rejected as the search for big fish continues, accompanied by reggae music from the satellite radio. When a guest is found to have brought a banana on board, she is soundly scolded, because bananas reputedly bring bad luck for those going after sailfish. Within a minute of the peel going overboard, a billfish strikes. But the boat throttles down too much, too soon, and the fish gets away. Another large fish teases the anglers without striking, bringing the consensus that it had to have been a white marlin: they’re real finicky.

“This boat’s philosophy’s is not to spread around the reeling-in during a tournament,” Terry says. Patsy Robinson is the designated reeler because she landed a 142-pound yellowfin tuna as well as tagging and releasing a white marlin on TIFT’s first day. When something big hits the blue and white lure with a ballyhoo around noon, Patsy scoots into the fighting chair, and everyone else leaps to reel in the other lines, clear the deck and make sure the youngest kids are out of the way. Everyone on board encourages and advises Patsy as her big fish runs the line out. Up on the bridge, Terry shifts from reverse to neutral to one engine, keeping the line taut when Patsy takes a breather and easing off as she reels in. “Once it’s hooked for three to four minutes, you have it,” Terry says, except for the critical moments of bringing it into the boat. “The captain and the mate have to communicate and not just verbally. They have to ‘walk the dog,’ manage the fish.”

A breast cancer survivor, Patsy had lost some muscles on her right side during surgery, but nonetheless she’s cranking on a right-handed reel. As the fish nears the boat, it looks like blue neon lights are flashing underwater as sunlight bounces off the twisting wahoo. Finally aboard, thanks to an enthusiastic team effort, the wahoo is large enough to possibly win the class. The crew is hungry for more strikes. When news comes in of a friend’s boat doing well just south of The Canyon, approximately 45 miles offshore, the Wet N Wild heads that way.

On the bridge, Terry pats his younger son’s leg as he describes his boys’ different talents. “Stephen likes to sit up on the bridge and fool around with all this — radar, GPS, depth recorders. Taylor likes fish. He’s going to be the slime guy.”

Family involvement matters to Terry, who is also chairman of TIFT’s endowment fund, which each year awards seven $2,000 scholarships, based on grades, TIFT involvement and financial need.

An immense school of bait fish shows up on the depth recorder at 60 fathoms, “That’s the most bait I’ve seen in my life,” Terry says, maneuvering the boat on top of the school. “We can hit more fish this way.” When Stephen, known for having sharp eyes, points out birds floating on the water or changes in water color, all pay attention, waiting for opportunities to rise to the bait.

In the last hour of the tournament, heavy rains move across the Gulf bringing lightning, rolls of thunder and hammering rain in a deafening surround-sound show by Mother Nature at sea. Nearby boats disappear from view as squalls overtake them.

The Wet N Wild heads in to the Port Isabel pier, where TIFT dock crews wrestle the big fish to the scales. Crews and spectators stop to admire the big ones that didn’t get away. Patsy’s wahoo places fourth, her released white marlin takes third and her yellowfin tuna wins its class. “The TIFT is totally fun, a family outing,” she says, “but we’d like to catch more next year.”

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