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Slamming In The Florida Keys

Slamming In The Florida Keys

The Redbone Series of tournaments benefitting the Cystic FibrosisFoundation are spread all along the Keys. Here's a look at the events, as well as how and where to catch the fish they target! (May 2009)

Florida Game & Fish editor Jimmy Jacobs hoists a redfish taken in Florida Bay during the 2008 Redbone Celebrity Tournament.
Photo by Howard Taylor.

"Polly, you have a tarpon on!" hollered my fishing partner, Carmel Cafiero, as the great silver fish grabbed my bait within arm's reach of the boat.

Excitedly, Carmel quickly began coaching me on how to fight the fish, reminding me to bow to it when it jumped. The tarpon put on an acrobatic show and after two impressive leaps, it was gone.

I am fairly certain that I never bowed as instructed or even did anything remotely correct in fighting the fish. Stunned, my brain was absorbing what I had on the end of my line and I just watched in amazement.

Cafiero apologized for getting so excited and worried that she may have kept me from landing the fish. I assured her that she had not been the cause of the freed fish and our guide Capt. Andy Putetti was certain that the fish, which he estimated to be about 60 pounds, would never have been landed anyway. Our lines were rigged for redfish, and the gear I was using was not heavy enough to boat that tarpon.

This was the second day of the 2008 Mercury Redbone Celebrity Tournament in Islamorada, and if I were fishing either of the other two tournaments of the Redbone Trilogy, the tarpon would have given my team valuable points and the loss would have been greater. The targeted species for this two-day tournament were redfish and bonefish. Nevertheless, jumping a tarpon is never unwelcome and my partner Cafiero, Captain Putetti and I were fishing this leg of the tourney for fun and most of all for a worthy charitable cause.

In 1984, Capt. Gary and Susan Ellis' newborn daughter, Nicole, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. The family learned that with considerable care, Nicole's life expectancy was only into her teens.


To raise funds to find a cure for CF, the Ellis family, with the help of friends, including baseball legend Ted Williams, organized a tournament of 33 boats to fish for redfish and bonefish. In 1988, the inaugural tournament was held in Islamorada, and became known as "The Redbone."

The first Redbone raised $16,000 and more importantly raised awareness of CF in the Islamorada community. The Redbone has since mushroomed into more than 30 freshwater and saltwater tournaments spanning the United States, Bahamas, Mexico and the United Kingdom. In all, the Redbone series has raised more than $10 million toward finding a cure for CF.

Today, the median age of survival of a person with CF is 37 years. Nicole Ellis graduated from college -- a milestone that she was not expected to reach at the time of her birth. She is now pursuing a career, but still speaks at many of the tournaments to personally thank the anglers and guides. She is a reminder that even though much has been accomplished in treating the disease, not a single life has yet been saved. The cure has still not been found.

The Florida Keys are host to three Redbone events, known as the Trilogy. These tournaments have set the bar for angling excellence since 1990.

In September, the charm of Key West provides the backdrop of the Mercury Southernmost Light tackle Anglers Masters Celebrity Tournament, better known as the S.L.A.M. Anglers fish for bonefish, permit and tarpon.

David Collier prepares to release a bonefish taken in a Redbone Series tournament.
Photo courtesy of Cal Collier Jr.

To qualify for a Grand Champion prize, an angler or team must catch and release all three species. In the 2008 event, 15 teams caught and released 18 bonefish, 15 tarpon and 11 permit.

The second leg of the Trilogy is the Mercury Baybone Tournament in Key Largo. It is generally held in early October and bonefish and permit are the target species for this tournament. Nineteen teams in the 2008 Baybone caught and released a total of 43 bonefish and three permit.

The third and final tournament of the Trilogy is the Mercury Redbone Celebrity Tournament. Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key hosts the tournament's participants and events in November. Fifty-one teams fishing out of the Lorelei Marina caught and released 20 bonefish and 131 redfish in last year's tournament.

The Redbone point system for each tournament is based on the number of a particular species that are caught and released, and the method or lure used. Anglers boating a permit, tarpon or bonefish using a fly rod are awarded the maximum amount of points. Those using artificial lures receive the second highest number of points in the spin/plug division. A fish caught using bait receives the lowest amount of points.

Additional points are awarded for each slam an angler catches. In Key West, a slam consists of boating a bonefish, permit and tarpon. A Baybone slam in Key Largo is a bonefish and permit. At Hawks Cay, a Redbone slam is a bonefish and redfish combo.

Plotting a strategy is what gives these two-day tournaments an added dimension. Do you throw a fly for the extra points or stick with live bait? Of course, weather conditions and tides can greatly affect what species to target in the morning or afternoon, or whether to go after bonefish one of the days and reds the next.

The guides are arguably the most important element in the tournament series. The captains who participate in Redbone tournaments donate one day of their guide fees to the charity event. As a whole, they are the single largest contributors in raising money for CF in these events. My guide Capt. Putetti was very much under the weather the two days we fished together in the Redbone Tournament. I would not have blamed him at all on that first day if he had decided to go home and get some bed rest or had decided not to show up the second day. But hardly able to speak, Capt. Putetti gave us his best effort and two full days on the water.

The celebrities that give up their time and dollars to fish in the tournament series play a huge role in the success of the Redbone. The fishing is only a part of the entire event. A

nglers and guides enjoy kick-off dinners, cocktail receptions and award banquets while mingling with well-known anglers, sport celebrities, television personalities and musicians.

While enjoying appetizers, tasty entrees and frozen cocktails at Hawks Cay, participants in the recent Redbone Tournament got to swap angling strategies and fishing stories with Jose Wejebe, the host of "The Spanish Fly" television show, and world-record setting angler Stu Apte. Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, major league pitcher Tim Wakefield and former Denver Bronco and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mark Cooper were also plotting their tournament strategy with guides and tournament partners.

I was eager to meet my celebrity partner Carmel Cafiero, an investigative reporter for Channel 7, WSVN-TV in Miami. I was excited to have been paired with Carmel and appreciated the fact that she shared a passion for angling to the same extent as me, if not more. Cafiero fishes every chance she gets and even told me she planned her wedding in Alaska to take advantage of the salmon fishing. As a bride, she wore a white ball cap! I also got a kick out of her sporting her own rods and reels and learning that she keeps them with her in her office at the television station.

Cafiero is a very capable and experienced angler and fishes the celebrity category of the Redbone tournaments on a regular basis. Over the years, she has gone home with more than her share of awards. In the Key West Mercury S.L.A.M., Cafiero has claimed the award for the biggest tarpon, most bonefish and Celebrity Grand Champion. She also won the Celebrity Grand Champion title of the Mercury Baybone Tournament.

Anyone can fish in a Redbone Tournament. Even though a number of anglers take the competition seriously, the vast majority of participants are quite happy to just have a fun time on the water. The tournament was designed to raise money for cystic fibrosis. An entry fee is all that's required.

An angler of any skill level will have a memorable time during the 2 1/2 days of events and soon realize the true purpose of Redbone. Most of those who fish a Redbone tournament are quickly hooked by the passion of others who have joined the Redbone family.

Strong winds and a chop on the water compelled Capt. Putetti to make the lengthy run from the Lorelei Marina on Upper Matecumbe up into Florida Bay toward the Snake Bight area just east of Flamingo. Putetti knew where the redfish were likely to be, and the mangrove islands would shelter us from the wind.

On this overcast day, targeting reds seemed a better idea than looking for bonefish on open flats with winds gusting 20 miles per hour and higher.

The flat water and calm breeze we found on the leeward side of the mangrove shoreline provided perfect conditions for sight-casting to cruising reds. We saw and cast to a number of "pushes," the bumps in the water's surface that redfish cause as they swim across the shallows. We tossed our shrimp toward bait splashing up under the overhanging mangroves, and to fish that were visible lying far back under the branches.

Cafiero and I took turns, one casting close to shore and the other making casts several yards out from the island. The redfish were showing up between the boat and the shoreline and outside the boat toward open water.

The mangrove island was ideal snook habitat as well, so whatever action we got would have been fine with us. Cafiero made several dead-on casts to fish under the mangroves and moving reds, but we got no takes.

We also fished "ditches" -- run-offs that branched off the main Snake Bight channel. When the tide falls the water funnels into the deeper finger channels and fish hold in these 3- to 4-foot-deep holes looking for bait. This is where I jumped the tarpon.

"Muds" or vast areas that have been mudded up from feeding mullet are also good places to look for redfish in the bay. Bonefish can also be found in these types of muds. Pinch the tails off a live shrimp to produce more scent in the murky water.

Bonefish and permit occupy very similar habitat. The first ingredient for a successful day for bones and permit is to see the fish. Sunny conditions allow for a better chance of seeing a spooky bonefish from a greater distance, and in deeper water. Poling the boat quietly across the flats is the method most anglers use when stalking bonefish and permit.

Both species hunt for shrimp and crabs feeding on the bottom with their tail often sticking out of the water or "tailing." Seeing bonefish can be quite tricky. You often see the shadow they cast, a slight surface movement, or the "V" wake they create when cruising along. Scanning the sandy flats for white puffs of sand they leave behind as they dig nose down looking for food is a way to locate them.

Bonefish feed over shallow flats, only a foot or two deep. Permit frequent the flats, but you won't find them on the "crown" of the flat. They prefer to be close to deeper water on the edge of a flat or a bank. Structure and artificial reefs also attract permit.

Live shrimp and crabs worked on the bottom will attract a feeding bonefish. A jig tipped with a shrimp will also entice a bonefish. Try a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jig in a natural color such as white, pink or tan. Permit, on the other hand, much prefer a live crab.

Both species will take a fly, bonefish more easily. Permit are more challenging and most consider catching one on a fly the ultimate achievement for a flyfisherman. Patterns imitating a small crabs or shrimp in tan or pink are popular.

Anglers in the Key West S.L.A.M. Tournament targeting tarpon in the lower Keys sight-cast to tarpon rolling or lying just offshore in calm water. They are often found in ditches or channels and moats around islands. They also hang out around structures and overhangs. The best condition for tarpon is calm water to be able to see them roll. Warm weather with no cold fronts also is best.

Large blue crabs and shrimp are good choices when sight-casting to a tarpon. They will take a fly as well, and some flyfishermen are of the opinion that they are no more difficult to land with a fly rod than a traditional rig.

Some anglers anchor near a bridge drifting live mullet and pinfish in the current. An ideal situation would be an outgoing tide at last light.

The Redbone Tournaments offer an array of exciting and rewarding opportunities to test your level of skill, whether a novice or expert. But more importantly, you are helping to "Catch the Cure" for CF.

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