By Captain Jay Miller
Every spring the Shell Oil Company sponsors a private tournament here in Key West: the “Shell Key West Challenge”. This is a charity event to further Diabetes research to someday find a cure for Diabetes. Participants enter their teams of 6 or less to fish for two full days targeting a long list of sport and game fish that Key West waters have to offer. This “scavenger hunt” if you will is a game of strategy for the teams as up to 3 of each species of fish are worth a determined # of points ranging from 10 to 40 points. The list includes everything from snappers, groupers, and barracuda, to Sailfish and Marlin. Points are tallied up after day one and are added to day two’s points which are worth double points. This makes it anyone’s game as the team in last place on day one could win the tourney on the second day. Also, certain species caught that are exceptional weight can accumulate a 10 point bonus. The event is kicked off with a cocktail meet and greet in which all teams are randomly chosen out of a hat to be paired up with the one of the chartered boats. A banquet is held for all the participants and awards are given out the evening of the final day.
Now each team as I stated before has some sort of strategy. Due to the location of certain fish on the list requires travelling to different areas to fish for them. Every captain is different; some start offshore in hopes of getting some big fish and amass points with quality, as others start inshore to rack up points on smaller fish that may be quicker and easier to catch. Either way most end up fishing in both areas at some point in the day.
The weather was nice this year as it usually is in April. East winds were blowing a moderate 15 knots. My team this year consisted of Richard, a business owner from Miami, his son Matt, and their friend Hunter. These guys are no strangers to catching fish or to this tournament, as this was their 20th year fishing in the Shell Challenge. This puts a lot less strain on a captain knowing that in a tournament with a strange crew, angling issues are not a problem.
Fishing the Reef Starts the Day Off Right
We started off day one with some inshore Patch reef fishing. Snappers were first off the list as Hunter caught a 14lb Mutton Snapper to get the bonus 10. Next were sharks on light tackle. These weren’t man eaters by any means, but a 30 pound reef shark on a Yellowtail rod is a lot of fun. Plus, here’s that strategy thing again, the quicker you catch the fish, the more time to target other species. Spending 45 minutes to an hour on a big shark eats up precious time. Once we caught the sharks we picked up and moved out to the reef which was very close by. Barracudas, Groupers, Mackerels and even more snappers followed. The reef had more life on it this day than all winter, well, almost. It truly was “alive” with fish of all types. Next move for us was short, less than a mile, and into the Bonitos, and Kingfish off the edge of the reef. Now the nice part about our blue-water fishing this time of year is that most blue-water fish are close to shore so having short runs from home means more time to soak baits. As we trolled out from the reef edge we picked up a couple Blackfin Tunas, and a Wahoo. After a short delay in winding in fish we decided to hit a wreck and dropped some live bait down on a popular Amberjack spot. Bonus points were given to AJ’s over 40 pounds and these were definitely in the bonus. Matt, a high school football coach, had a complete workout catching a 65 pounder on light tackle braid. Pound for pound I think Amberjacks may be some of the strongest fish in the ocean.
From the wreck we finished off the day live baiting for a Sailfish. At the time lines out were called, we were tied for 10th in points.
Day two was almost identical to the day before, but this day we started off on the reef rather than anchoring up somewhere. The reef was good to us once again catching an even better variety. By mid morning we were posting up a big number of points. Not anchoring our boat gave us more time offshore which worked out well. Just outside the reef edge, a beautiful color change had formed up in 120 feet of water which produced some nice Bonitos, Kingfish, and Mackerels for us in a very short time. We then moved out a little deeper in 300 feet and the Tuna bite was on. Working this depth was perfect as we caught plenty Blackfin Tuna, a couple Mahi, and two Wahoo that put up some great points for us.
Within a mile from the tuna bite we took a short break from trolling, got out the wreck rods and within a few minutes caught our three Amberjacks which were once again all in the bonus. Once we finished with the wreck we decided to spend the last 45 minutes on the color change once again to try for Sailfish. Though we didn’t get a Sailfish, the day ended with a 15lb Mutton Snapper from 150ft deep.
By the end of day two we placed fifth with 990 points earning an invitation to the banquet and a fifth place trophy. Overall I think we had a good tournament, a great crew, and a fun two days of fishing for a great cause.