Here’s my story on the 45th Annual Bluewater Tournament in St. Augustine. I’m covering it for FishTrack.com this weekend.
By Mike Hodge
One fish won it last year. That probably won’t happen again.
At least that’s the thought process of Mark Gombert as he prepares to defend his Billfish Division title in the 45th Annual Bluewater Tournament this weekend in St. Augustine.
Gombert braved high seas last May as an unexpected tropical storm grazed Northeast Florida and caught the tournament’s first sailfish, fortunate timing that allowed him to win a tiebreaker against several other competitors.
All told, the Billfish Division generated just four sailfish, an acceptable total given the lousy weather. However, this year Gombert expects tighter lines during the photo-release affair.
“We’re going in with the intention of trying to win it again, if we’re lucky enough and maybe upgrade a bit,” Gombert said earlier this week during a telephone interview. “Last year was a really tough year for everyone. The weather was really horrible. There were very few fish caught. This year will be a lot better, though.”
The forecast calls for a seasonable spring temperatures and wind for the April 28-30 event, a scenario that has left Gombert optimistic, so much so that the St. Augustine angler passed on an opportunity to compete in this week’s Offshore World Championships. The winner of the Bluewater qualifies for the Costa Rica tournament, but Gombert decided to compete close to home.
“To be honest, going down there we wanted to have more of a solid win than just a one-fish win,” Gombert said. “One of the guys down there who fishes with me is down there fishing it. My normal crew is just starting to get out for billfish. We’ve been doing kingfish, wahoo, tuna-type stuff. We’re adding the billfish stuff to our profile, if you will.”
Last year’s Bluewater was driven as much by perseverance as skill.
“It shrinks the playing field when you’ve got bad weather,” Gombert said. “You limit the people who are willing to go out and be abused by the conditions in the boats that are able to handle those conditions safely. This tournament is traditionally a big-boat tournament. You’re dealing with guys who are willing to get beat up for two days in six, eight foot seas. Last year, unfortunately, the weather was really snotty.”
Gombert, who is from St. Augustine, enters the Bluewater with a smidge of momentum, finishing second in last weekend’s local Mahi Madness tournament on his boat, Preventive Maintenance, a 39-foot Yellowfin, which is powered by four 350 HP Mercury engines.
“You’re always pumped if you’re doing well,” Gombert said. “Any tournament series when you’re getting accolades, it always makes the morale better with the crew and team. You’re always striving to do the best you can, but if you’re winning tournaments or placing well in tournaments, you always have that feeling, whereas if you get out and get browbeat tournament after tournament, you get disheartened. It’s hard to keep everyone pumped up.”
Teamwork, as expected, is crucial to a boat’s success. Everyone has a role, the captain, the angler and crew. The first fish to the boat often is the tournament tiebreaker.
“It’s not as intense as NASCAR,” said Northeast Florida Marlin Association President Paul Raudenbush, whose club is hosting the Bluewater. “But it’s certainly a team sport.”
The format is captain’s choice, meaning anglers can pick two of the three days to fish. Points are awarded on a sliding scale. For instance, a blue marlin merits 500 points, a white marlin 200 and a sailfish 125 for the $35,000 event.
“It’s a catch twenty two,” Gombert said. “What do you do? Take a shot a blue marlin and get hooks in one. … I think it’s a 500-point fish. Sailfish is 125. Let’s say you catch six sailfish over one blue marlin, you’re actually higher in the points.”
Gombert prefers using ballyhoo on a circle hook for bait and big plastics when it comes to artificials.
“The weather was so bad last year, it was hard to pull big plastics trying to chase blue marlin, so we opted to go with smaller baits and go with sailfish,” Gombert said. “We’re hoping the conditions will be good enough to make a big run and pull some big plastics trying to find some blue marlin a little bit deeper, offshore.”
Guided by Simrad navigational technology, a run of 60 miles is the plan.
“What we’re looking for are hard edges, not so much water temperature,” Gombert said. “We’re looking for hard, defined temperature breaks, edges and color changes where you have higher nutrients. Clean water versus dirty water.”
Last weekend’s pre-fishing yielded additional insight for formulating a strategy.
“We covered a lot of water,” Gombert said. “We were fortunate enough to find a couple fish. We actually missed a couple marlin. Our game plan is to pick up where we left off and find the edges and get after them.”