Gombert Prepares to Defend Title in 45th Bluewater Tournament

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.”

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Spring Snook Strategies

My story on spring snook for the Snook & Gamefish Foundation.

Spring has arrived, which means longer days, warmer water, less wind, and with a little luck, more snook.

The key is to be flexible. Typically, snook move from the backcountry, to the flats and then to the beaches from season to season. Perhaps that pattern is an oversimplification — inlets and passes and offshore wrecks come into play — but for the recreational fisherman, those three spots are the ones to focus on.

Since spring is a transitional season between winter’s chill and summer’s swelter, the challenge is to find which of those three locations — the backcountry, the flats or the beach — produces. And it’s not an exact science. A few years ago, I tried a formulaic approach, but found myself exasperated after consecutive fishless trips, so I called a guide friend of mine for moral support. His explanation: “Fish move.”

And so they do. Here’s a few tips to help you figure out where spring snook should be in the state of Florida, depending on where you live and the conditions, and how to catch them.

http://snookfoundation.org/content/refresher-spring-snook-tactics

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Boat Ownership: The Long Version

We all want what we can’t —- or don’t — have. It’s human nature. I thought fly fishing would quench my thirst for more. It didn’t.

One fly rod always leads to another. I started with one. I was up to a dozen at one point before I finally culled a few. Flies? I have boxes, stacks of boxes. A dozen spoon flies isn’t enough, I guess. Apparel? I still have a 30-year old vest hanging on my living room wall — a few feet above TWO sling packs — one from Orvis and another from Patagonia.

About the only thing I didn’t have to complement all of my fly-fishing stuff was a boat. I have a Native Ultimate kayak and a BOTE paddle board. When those two avenues of paddle power didn’t fit my needs, I waded.

More than twenty-five years of fly fishing without a boat, I must admit, is odd. Part of that stems from pure pragmatism. I’ve lived in places I could wade or paddle. Part of the delay, I have to say, can be attributed to pure fear originating from my days as a student at the Orvis Guide School. I was in my early 30s back then, but had never been in a drift boat, much less rowed one and barely knew the difference between the bow and stern. Predictably, I smacked every rock in the Big Hole River during our on-the-water training. Once we returned to dry land, I swore that if I ever got in a boat again, someone else better be in charge.

Fast forward 20 years or so, and I’m in St. Augustine, Fla. Great place to fish, but it helps to have a boat. Mud flats are not for wading. A kayak is fine, but paddle power makes it tough to cover ground when the reds are schooling in the winter or bunched up during the summer flood tides.

Thanks to my father, who decided to down size, I finally have a boat — a 13-foot River Hawk that he dropped off at my beach bungalow one summer afternoon. This little canoe can fish two and runs on a 5HP Tohatsu or a 2HP Honda. At first, I was elated about the concept of going faster and farther.

Then the learning curve set in. Boats are a hell of a lot of work and I have no mechanical skill. None.

One Step at a Time

With new owners, the path to progress is steep. First, I had to get a hitch on my Jeep. That took several trips to the mechanic and the dealership. Memo to all Jeep owners: If you get a non-Jeep hitch installed, you need to get the electronics calibrated — at the Jeep dealership. Then there was the adapter for the hitch, to ensure a proper hookup with the trailer’s wiring. Needless to say, neither of these two nuggets of info were in either owner’s manual.

Electrical problems continued to beckon. I had to get the tail lights fixed. Neither worked. Fortunately, a fairly handy friend helped me with this. Still, this project took several weeks of trial and error, mostly error. We tried to work with the original wiring, even replaced the bulbs and the running lights. Bit by bit, weekend by weekend, we eliminated options and simply decided to re-run the wires with a direct connection as possible. At that point, I was all for simplicity.

So, the boat was ready to go. But there was one problem. I didn’t know how to trailer the damn thing. My first couple attempts at backing up were absolutely brutal. It was a like a kid learning how to parallel park when he can barely turn the ignition key.

It took a half dozen or so lessons, but eventually I got better. The pivotal moment came when I took a solo trip to the local police station to practice backing up and parking. I thought I had it all figured out because I had been earlier in the fall and the place was vacant. I went in early November, and the parking lot was packed during the week and on the weekend due to early-election voting.

I turned down a side street in search of open space, but that option yielded an abrupt dead end when I realized there was no place to turn around. With a car, turning around is no biggie. With a trailer, even a small one, it’s a big, big deal. You better plan it out. Stop at a gas station? You better stop at a place with enough room. But I digress…. I was forced to back down a long stretch of pavement and back the trailer into a nearby yard to right myself and get back home. I did it twice, on separate trips.

But I was not done with obstacles. I live on the beach, which means I have a great view of the ocean, but a lousy dirt driveway. It’s not just any dirt driveway. It’s a soft, sandy dirt driveway.

After backing down the long straightaway near the police station, I was feeling confident when I returned home. That optimism was short lived, however, when I tried to back up and got stuck — twice. This was not the first time. It was an ongoing problem all summer and fall. Backing up my driveway without four-wheel drive is an invitation to call your local Triple AAA service.

I figured I had the problem licked with two loads of gravel and rock. Not so. The rock buys time and a bit of firmness, but not much, particularly after a rainstorm. I can power the Jeep up the narrow curves that lead to my cottage, but going slow ensures bogging down. But go too fast and you can’t position the trailer where you want. The solution: Take one shot at backing up and re-position the trailer by hand. Simple.

Time on the Water

Once I got a feel for trailering, a surge of pride washed over me. I was ready to hit the water. I figured I had conquered the world by learning to back up in a straight line. Little did I know land presents one set of problems, but a day on the water can yield a slew of other obstacles.

Like engine trouble. Leaving nothing to chance, I cranked the engine on dry land about once a week or so to make sure everything was on in order. Once on the water, however, the little Tohatsu would crank, run for a moment, just enough to tease you, and sputter into submission. I barely got past the ramp before heading home in defeat after months of planning and preparation went for naught.

I called one of my buddies that night. He diagnosed the issue immediately: “Gas in the carb,” he said between sips of cold beer. “You gotta let it run out when you flush the motor or it gunks up the engine.”

Fifty bucks later, I got the carb cleaned up and learned the value of using ethanol gas. Meanwhile, I switched to my 2HP Honda. It has an internal gas tank and weighs half as much as the 5HP Tohatsu. A lighter boat is easier to pole, and fewer moving parts lead to fewer mechanical problems.

A Measure of Redemption

Although I damn near tossed the boat and trailer off the Vilano Bridge after motor issues ruined the last trip, I rallied and somehow found enough resolve to make plans for another outing.

I set expectations low with a short, quick trip to a swath of water known as Salt Run, which is just a roll cast away from my house. Worst case scenario: I could walk home if things got rocky.

As I pulled into the ramp, I felt surprisingly calm. Part of me wondered if there was anything that could go wrong. However, I knew there wasn’t much else that could go wrong and even if it did, I could handle it. Somehow.

Turns out the trip went well. The only setback was minor. My trolling motor quit, but after dabbing the connection with anti-corrosion spray (a must for any boat owner), I was back in business. Thing is, I really didn’t even need the trolling motor. My boat is so light poling is a breeze, particularly with the little Honda.

All in all, it was a good trip. After I got home, I cracked open a beer and took inventory. Six months ago, I didn’t even know what a transom is. Or how a winch works.

Now I can fix a boat, run it, pole and fish from it. It was a lot of work, but worth it.

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Boat Ownership Simplified and Revisited

My story in Hatch Magazine on the honeymoon in a marriage of fly fishing and boat ownership. Enjoy.

http://www.hatchmag.com/articles/owning-boat-why-you-should-and-shouldnt/7714349

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Anglers In Action: How You Can Help Conservation

My story for the Snook & Gamefish Foundation on the Joe Bay Fisheries Project. Enjoy.

It’s now 2017, and the Snook & Gamefish Foundation Angler Action Program continues to grow. The electronic-logging program for fishermen has been used in state-wide stock assessments for snook, trout and redfish since its inception six years ago. But Angler Action is more than just a tool to assess the population for a particular species of fish. It’s now a big part of a study in the Everglades.

Joe Bay, a chunk of water on the northeastern shore of Florida Bay, which has been recently re-opened to fishing after nearly 40 years of closure, is the focal point of a comprehensive study to evaluate the impact of the no-fishing edict.

Since 1980 until late 2016, Joe Bay was off limits to fishing due to declining American Crocodile populations in the area. However, the American Croc, once endangered, has since rebounded and the no-motor area was re-opened to fishing in November of last year, which led to the Joe Bay Fisheries Project, headed by Florida International University Associate Professor Jennifer Rehage.

http://snookfoundation.org/content/angler-data-helps-re-open-joe-bay-fishing-after-nearly-40-years-closure

 

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Boating solo

Launching a boat by yourself can be a bit daunting. I’m finally starting to get comfortable with this. Unfortunately, the last few weeks have been windy, so I haven’t gotten out as much as I wanted to.  The conditions are typical for Northeast Florida in March. You only get a day or two every few weeks to truly fly fish. I had the boat all hooked up yesterday, but got called into work.  Turns out the winds cranked up a little earlier than expected, so it was just as well since my window for calm conditions was limited.

While we wait for the wind to lay down, here’s a video on how to launch a boat by yourself from Florida Sportsman.

 

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A Tribute to Great Sports Writing

Dave Kindred was one of the writers I most respected when during my 25, 30-year newspaper career. It’s great to see him still writing. He writes because he loves it, not for the money or fame. Something to think about. Quite refreshing.

Jeff Pearlman interviews him with a nice Q/A:

Dave Kindred

 

 

 

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A Lesson in Docking a Boat

I’ve learned how to trailer a boat, how to launch it, how to fix it and how to run it.  One of the last tasks for me was learning to dock properly. I went out on the water earlier this week, but of course had no idea how to dock. Fortunately, the winds were light and there was plenty of space at the dock.  I got it done, but it wasn’t pretty. Here’s a video of how to get it done.

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A Little Fishing Info

Here’s a late winter/early spring fishing report from Oyster Creek Outfitters/Saltwater Flytyers:
Captain Tommy Derringer of Inshore Adventures reports that an unseasonably warm winter has left the water a bit murkier than usual for late February, making sight fishing a bit problematic. The reds are still schooled up , but they’re tough to see because of the lack of water clarity. A word of advice: Hit the creeks and blind cast the holes to produce double-digit fish outings. Capt. Tim Boothe visited the middle section of the Mosquito Lagoon and says he saw a number of nice schools, but the fish were fickle. Oyster Creek staffer Bill Stalcup said he’s heard reports of baby tarpon and snook in the southern part of St. Johns county. With March winds on the way, it never hurts to get out of the bluster and find a secluded pond.

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A Little Time Off the Water

Winter is here in Florida, which means more wind and less time for fly fishing. All you can do is fish between the fronts. The best-case scenario is one day a week to set up a trip. Needless to say, work, family responsibilities and short winter days yield a lot of time indoors.

A few restless anglers in Northeast Florida got a welcome break from cabin fever recently when Bruce Chard spoke at the First Coast Fly Fishers banquet at the Jacksonville Marriott.  A noted guide from Key West, Chard was gracious with his time and put on a first-class presentation where he spotlighted the top places in the world for shallow-water fly fishing. It was worth the hour drive from St. Augustine.

Chard is also a fantastic caster. Fittingly, he gave a morning casting seminar. I didn’t have time to go, but the man can flat out toss a razor-sharp loop. Here’s a clip of his technique.

 

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