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Florida Keys Fishing Tournament Coverage

George Bush Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament
By Islamorada Sport Fishing
contributing writer John Geiger.

Capt. Jim Trice on Junior Fishing Tournaments

Jim Trice grew up in Homestead where he fished “constantly.” He had a 12-foot aluminum boat with a 2-horse Johnson. He couldn’t imagine his wonder years without fishing. He now wonders what Keys kids do if they aren’t into water sports.

“We want to get them addicted to fishing so they don’t get addicted to something else, like drugs,” said Trice, now of Islamorada.

The folks at the haughty Islamorada Fishing Club agreed with him and a new fishing tournament,  the Islamorada Fishing Club Junior Derby, was born. That was five years ago. This year the tournament takes place Nov. 30 at the Islamorada Fishing Club. Entry is $40 per child. (But call 664-3836. Some kids can fish for free if money is an issue.)

The tournament gives out a ton of trophies and prizes in three age categories: 6 and under, 7-10 and 11-16. The top prizes will go to the anglers who can catch not the heaviest nor the longest, but the most species. And everything from sailfish (200 points) to needlefish (50 points) counts. The idea is to teach kids about the diversity marine life in our waters, Trice said.

This tournament, as well as other all-kids tournaments, like the Kiwanis Club Kids Fishing Derby, the Islamorada Junior Sailfish Tournament and the World Wide Sportsman kids tournament, are successful at getting kids on the water in their own backyards. People come from all over the world to fish and dive here, but many Keys kids have never been on the water.

Last year, 35 kids fished the derby. This year, they are expecting more. 

Are these tournaments working?  

One time, a local guide asked a teen from up the coast if he wanted to fish the tournament. The guide, Tad Vandermark, donated his day and the kid’s dad put up the $40 entry fee. Well, the kid couldn’t cast so well, so Vandermark told him to buy a hula-hoop. It wasn’t for swinging hips. The boy put it on the grass at his house and tried to toss a lure in the hoop day after day for a month before the tournament.

“When he fished the day before the tournament, he could barely cast his arm was so sore,” said Trice.

His arm felt better for the tournament, good enough to catch his first bonefish and redfish. Two of each in fact. That catch could have won him the popular Redbone Celebrity Series Tournament some years.

“The kid was blown away,” said Trice. “You know he’s addicted now.”

John Riegor of Duck Key just about drove himself crazy trying to catch a bonefish heavier than any others in the annual George Bush Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament, Nov. 20-21. Despite the sweat and frustration, he would have been happier to take second place.

“It would have been great if he caught one bigger than mine,” said Riegor, in reference to the tournament’s namesake. “It’s got to be tough for him to catch a bonefish at all. He’s got secret service, TV crews, Marine Partrol, camera boats, all over when he fishes. How is he supposed to catch a big fish in all of that?”

Bush did catch one of those tricky little fish. Capt. Al Polofsky of Tavernier helped him spot the 10-and-a-half-pounder. That’s a respectable fish. Nowhere near the two 13-pounders he caught a few years ago, or Riegor’s 13-pounder, but it broke Bush’s two-year skunk streak.

“It’s great to finally get the skunk out of the boat,” Bush told reporters.

Riegor said he and Capt. Rich Tudor have a great perspective on the Bush caravan. First thing in the tournament, they fish in a spot that all the 61 anglers on as many skiffs pass as they cruise out on plane to the bayside flats. They see each skiff head out one by one. Then comes Bush.

“It looks like a parade!” said Riegor, who owns Turn Key Marine in Marathon.

But Keys captains and anglers like things quiet. When they fish in the backcountry, they judge a day as much as how few boats they saw as by the number of fish they caught. It’s a paradox that they aren’t bothered by all the fussy Secret Service agents who clear the way or all the clumsy media that tag along with the angling president. Maybe they’re used to it. George Bush is just about a freshwater Conch since he’s been coming to the Keys to fish since he was vice president to Ronald Reagan in 1980. George Hommell guided him then, after a friend of Hommell’s, Nicolaus Brady, who would become the Secretary of the Treasury, introduce them. On his first day fishing with Hommell in the Keys, Bush had to contend with the security, media and 40 mph winds. Casting and even finding the shadowy bonefish in such conditions is a dream.

Despite the odds, Bush caught a 9 pound bonefish when nobody else was catching anything.

“That’s when he got hooked,” said Hommell, who was with Bush and Polofsky in the skiff during the tournament. 

After he became the 41st president in 1988, Bush continued to fish the Keys because that’s where he could relax, said Hommell. The president, who grew up catching bluefish and mackerel off Kennebunkport, Maine, landed two 13-pound bones, a tarpon more than 100 pounds and permit. One time he took his grandkid, Jebbie, who caught his own permit.

 Hommell was mum when asked if there were any plans to bring more family members, like the current president, to the Keys. After Bush caught the fish on Nov. 20, the first thing he did was call family members on his cell phone. One of the first calls probably went out to Jeb Bush, governor of Florida. The father did not call his son, George, said Hommell. The current president was in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, where he was welcoming Eastern European nations into NATO and pushing for support to disarm Iraq.

Back in the Keys, captains and angler said the tall, 78-year-old former president looks healthy and in good spirits. The former head of the CIA and ambassador to the UN still seeks challenges in addition to hooking up with the skittish bonefish. The former World War II combat pilot is now preparing for his final parachute jump.  

Locals and tournament anglers just don’t see the president as an aging politician raising money for his own library, although that’s what he did. 

Mitch Howell, who has been fishing the tournament since its first year, summed up the anglers’ perspective on the president and his sideshow. 

“He’s just one of the guys,“ said Howell, who owns a home in Key Largo and Plantation. “Just like us, he just wants to hook up with bonefish.”

When he’s here, he puts on khakis that shield from the sun but don’t reflect light onto that flats that could scare bones. He wears a fishing cap or a wide-brimmed hat. He takes in the mangrove islands, ospreys, eagle rays, and beautiful cloud formations over the bay.  “When he’s here,“ said Howell,  “he’s no different than you or me. But he sure gets a lot more attention.”