Put “fun” in extreme sports challenge
As proof that humans are an insane species, I offer Exhibit A: the Miami Raft Invitational Tournament (most recently held April 26, 2008). Forget trolling, forget towers, forget chasing down a fish that could spool the reel. This tournament reduces angling to the bare essentials: a man, a raft and a fish. For 21st Century anglers, it’s the closest they’ll come to “The Old Man and The Sea.” It’s also a hell of a lot of fun.© WWA
The Miami Raft Invitational Tournament, now in its second year, is the brainchild of Miami-based charter boat captain Matt Tambor. “We thought about doing it out of kayaks,” says Tambor about the genesis of the tournament, “but this is where all the balseros (Cuban boat refugees) land. We figured if we could do it without insulting any of the Cubans, it’d be a hoot.” T he tube raft concept ended up being a stroke of design genius, as raft anglers can sit at the hub of up to 16 rod holders. T hat just wouldn’t be possible in a kayak.
Some see the raft tournament as part of the extreme sports movement. “I’ve been fishing tournaments since I was 8,” says Matt Neber, a first time raft angler. He anticipated a very different experience on the raft. “I’m going to have a fish right here (he motions to his waist). I’m in a rubber inner-tube now. It’s more adrenaline. More exciting.”
© WWACaptain Ray Rosher of Team Penn Reels, who won last year’s tournament, describes it this way, “The challenge is trying to maintain two or three or four baits in the water at the same time. If you ever get seven or eight rods out, you take a deep breath and you almost don’t want anything to bite. You know, just enjoy the solitude for a minute. It’s a major achievement to get it all out there.”
Managing baits without a crew is one thing, but what about fighting a fish? “You lose a lot of line,” says Tambor. “You can’t chase them down. On the other hand, if you tighten up on some of these fish they start dragging the raft.”
An inflated tractor inner-tube can be framed with stainless steel, aluminum, PVC piping or other materials in order to fasten a rod holder, bait wells and other fishing accessories. To begin the competition, support boats tow the rafts offshore and position them in a north/south line near the color change of the Gulf Stream. Every 15 minutes the southernmost raft is moved, via support boat, to the northernmost spot. T his gives each raft a chance to be first in line to intercept sailfish, which tend to hunt from north to south, into the current of the Gulf Stream. Support boats cannot move rafts except to transport them to the head of the line when appropriate, and are simply used to revive fish after long battles or to salvage anglers if their raft springs a leak.
As far as presentation goes, raft anglers may actually have an advantage over boaters. “These fish will swim right up to the raft to try and eat the free pilchards we’re throwing out,” says Tambor. “You will see visions of sailfish that you will never experience (in a boat).” With that in mind, the event gets under way.© WWA
It’s 3 p.m. A squadron of sport boats race around Cape Florida, each carrying cheering men and strange looking rafts. It’s an odd spectacle. The first vessel out to the Gulf Stream color line is the tournament boat, carrying the tournament host, Captain Dan Kipnis. Eastern skies are clear while thunderheads rise over the Everglades. On the water, loose tracks of sargassum concentrate in the more stained water. T he men lower their rafts and begin rigging. Some have trouble standing, others constantly fidget with their lines. Once adrift the rafts look like huge bloated porcupines floating out to sea.
© WWABefore long, Rosher has the first hookup. Instead of fighting the fish aggressively, he actually takes the time to set out more baits. Apparently he’d seen a second fish with the first. This is where the raft fishing becomes interesting. As the fish circles, Rosher lifts up the spare rods and passes the fighting rod around the others. “Of course he swam right into the kite line and three down lines,” Rosher says. “ (On a raft) you’re kinda’ in a jam. Murphy’s Law kicks in.” As the fish pulls the raft east, the wind and kites push the raft west. He’s into his backing with 300- yards of line out and starts pulling his kites in.
Further down the fleet, frigate birds works a school of bait about 200 yards south of one of the rafts, but there’s nothing the angler can do about it. T he support crew tosses out live chum but it doesn’t make a difference, at least not yet.© WWA
An hour into the tournament and Rosher has landed his first fish and is hooked up again. T here have been other hookups, but they’ve all broken free. Kipnis notices that unlike most of the other anglers, Rosher set up inside the color line. When asked why, Rosher says there’s a lot of other boats outside, so he set up inside. He also knew, from the previous day of charter captaining, that people had caught fish in the dirtier water yesterday.
Around 4:30 p.m., the action really starts to pick up. One of the Contender rafts has a doubleheader, but the fish cross paths and break each other off. Meanwhile, a cobia remains hooked up. They are notoriously difficult to handle once gaffed. The angler jokes that as soon as he pulls the cobia into the tiny raft, he’s jumping out. Before long, Roger Rex of the “Scatterbrain” comes up with a mystery fish. It’s big. Could be a tuna. Could be a sail. “This fish is kicking my ass,” he says. All those aboard the support boat can do is yell encouragement. Suddenly the fish turns around, speeds back and is gone. We get news over the radio that a hammerhead shark is circling one of the rafts, curious about what’s going on. Another raft that just landed a tuna has a puncture and is slowly sinking.
© WWAAs the afternoon progresses, hookups pick up. At 5:40 p.m. someone lands a fish, then three rafts have fish on at the same time. We pull up to Neber’s raft just as he lands a sail. I ask him if it’s what he expected. “It was beyond my wildest dreams. It’s all about the glide. You gotta’ go to the fish. You can’t make the fish come to you.”
With an hour left in the tournament Rosher is in first place with three fish, all on circle hooks, all tagged and released, which gives him bonus points. In second place is Neber of the Contender 1 with three releases. Several rafts have one fish each, as well as fun fish like cobia, kings and tuna, which will shuffle the standings.
As dusk approaches there are a series of quick hookups. Rosher’s on again, and Tambor fights three fish at once. This won’t win him the tournament, but it’s quite a challenge. In round-robin fashion he fights each fish a minute at a time. In the end he loses one and lands a double.© WWA
At 7 p.m., with most of the anglers exhausted, it’s lines out of the water. T he Miami skyline fronts the sunset. Rafts are hauled onto support boats and everyone returns to shore. All told, five rafts where punctured, numerous fish were lost, and 20 fish were released. Like last year, Rosher takes first, this time with four sailfish tagged and released. Cort Vernon III of Capt. Harry’s takes second and Neber takes third. “I see next year being even harder to compete … I was blown away by some of the rafts,” says Rosher. “It’s a fun, fun deal at the end of the season. T here’s no big money on the line. Everyone just goes out and has fun.”