Beer and Loathing at the 13th Annual Liars R Us Offshore Fishing Tournament

image linking to 100 Top Captain and Guide Sites

THE GOOD

It has been my pleasure to serve as the tournament director for the Reeling for Kids fishing event held every May in Steinhatchee. This affair raises money for the Boys and Girls Club in Gainesville and for selected children's charities in Steinhatchee. Former UF and NFL football players Doug Johnson and Donnie Young are the nucleus of a group of dedicated folks who put on a nice time for participants and their families each year. Doug and Donnie spend a great deal of personal time each year raising money through sponsorships and donations in kind….and are constantly on the lookout for ways to improve the RFK event. Earlier this spring, Doug ran into Cleo Jones who is the tournament director for a large fishing contest out of Crystal River. Cleo is a personable fellow and as they talked, Doug realized we could learn from Cleo's event in order to improve RFK. Cleo donated some rods and reels to RFK and fished with us this year, all in all seemingly a great guy. He graciously invited us to visit and fish in his function, thinking we could each benefit from increased participation….Doug says we can learn a lot from Cleo.

About a week before Cleo's tournament, Doug called to get a crew together. We had too many folks for one boat so we decided to take his and my boat to Crystal River. This event has no web site, no online information. Doug asked me to call Cleo to get some info. I left my fax number on Cleo's answering machine around 5pm on Monday prior to the Captain's Meeting. Around 1am, Cleo started faxing to my home. It took me a second to wake up and realize what was going on but we finally got the new fax machine to work. The result was not very pretty….or legible. I could make out Winner will be polygraphed but not much else. I called Cleo the next morning to inquire about entry fees, and special rules, time for the Captain's Meet, check out and weigh in times, etc. I found him to be friendly and happy we were making the effort to fish in his tourney.

After making the trip to Crystal River, launching the boats, getting the bait, ice, food and obligatory victory cigars we were certain to need…we hit the Captain's Meeting with a full head of steam. The tournament base uses the beautiful facilities at the Plantation Inn and Golf right on King's Bay. I ran into several old fishing friends and made some new ones waiting on the meeting to begin. One in particular, a local contractor named Sonny Sounds, is a guy I see every Monday evening on the tennis courts. He won the big grouper prize at the RFK this year and we helped him celebrate. Earlier this year he called me in a quandary…he had chartered four boats to take his employees fishing the next day and one had broken down….would I please take a day off and take his folks offshore? No problem, I had the time and love to fish. I would not do it for just anyone but Sonny seems to be a great guy. There is always a lot of back-slapping and perma-grins at a Captain's Meet. Everyone is full of anticipation, tomorrow could be the day they win a big fishing tournament.

WTF, OVER

This happening seems well planned, there are tons of raffle prizes and some very nice auction items. Cleo starts the meeting by laying down the rules with special emphasis on how you must be checked out in order to weigh in fish…and you must have your fish cooler in the weigh-in line by 4pm at the latest. His last order of business is there is a name in red on the entry board. This gentleman is a local guide and is not eligible to win but wants to fish the event anyway. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. I immediately approach Cleo and ask for clarification, noting I am a full time employee of a Fortune 10 company but occasionally take charters out of Steinhatchee on the side. Cleo shrugs and says don't worry about it, you are good to fish…and hurries off. Darren and Donnie are with me and we are left to conclude his logic is: since I am not a full time local guide and no one has hired me to fish this tournament…we are good to go. As I look around the room, I see others who could fit my weekendwarriorfromanotherport status.

All entry fees go to charity but Cleo adds a nice twist on Calcutta wagering. Each team is auctioned off to the highest bidder, meaning the highest bidder gets any prize money won by the team. Each team has the chance to purchase back 50% that evening by paying the highest bidder half the bid. There are a few local boats that go for big money; our boat goes for barely over the minimum…it's obvious that no one is expecting anything good from us. It's also important to note that anyone could buy any team so I wonder to myself why the no guides rule is important. The Calcutta bids make up the pot of money to be won and it approaches $50,000. Leaving the Plantation Inn, we got the teams from both boats together, ate barbeque and laughed well into the evening.

SHANE IS A FISHING MACHINE

There were eight guys staying at Doug, Ed and John's four bedroom condo. I'm staying in the front bedroom with Darren, a good fishing buddy from Orlando. Just after midnight, I sit bolt upright in the bed. It sounds like a gorilla is growling in the room with me. There are fifteen pillows beside my twin bed. During the rest of the night, I occasionally zing one of them across the room at Darren's head hoping to stop his sawmill snore long enough to fall asleep. At ten till five in the morning, I gave up, got up and made some coffee. The Weather Channel radar showed a large red target straight offshore of Crystal River and drifting north. Over coffee the guys briefly discuss potential fishing areas, the truth is I can count on one hand how many times I've been offshore fishing out of Crystal River. I have no hot spots, just a general idea of where the reef line might be past 50 feet of water. Doug and John were taking a sponsor with local connections and some good areas to fish. The check out is uneventful, Cleo yells good luck as we idle by him toward the end of the no wake zone. Speed limit in the river is a 25mph crawl. In every tournament, there's at least one guy who is certain he is more important than everyone else and needs to pass everyone in line…he showed up on this day in a large white boat with three motors and immediately overcompensated for a shortage elsewhere.

Just being happy to be on the water, we let the weather dictate our course. The thunderstorm was now north of due west, we headed just south of it. You have to cover a lot of salty water to get to a depth of 60 feet from Crystal River. Seas were running 2-3 from the west keeping us slightly under 30 knots to be comfortable. The morning is overcast and cool, a welcome break from the heat we were expecting. We stopped in 58 feet and started scouting for fishy looking bottom. The first few spots we found produced no takers with cut or live bait. The storm is four miles north and seems to be hanging around on the radar. With no luck on the bottom, we troll the same area and catch a nice 10lb red grouper while reeling a fouled plug in. Working the same area, we get a 12lb gag. Trolling between these spots we've found continues to produce fish, Shane caught two more chunky 12lbers who fought for the best spot in the fish box. We got as near the black clouds as I wanted when the diesel dies. It cranks and dies again…the quick diagnosis is a blocked secondary fuel filter. Donnie eyes the storm and wonders aloud where the life jackets are. A streak of lightning hits the water a couple of miles away, the VHFs crackle from the near continuous static discharge. The filter is located in the engine room. It is a breeze to change at the dock. Rolling around in three footers offshore is a different story but after some adjustments, the big motor roars to life. The squall dissipates in the time it takes to change the filter. Things are once again spinning in a greased groove. Resuming our trolling pattern, we pick up a few more fish and ponder our chances.

I predicted before the event that it would take an aggregate of 55lbs or better to win, barring one of those occasional 25lb fish that can skew results. We didn't have a big fish but we had five respectable ones I put at 50+lbs. After fishing in tournaments all over the southeast, I understood the importance of being on time to the weigh-in line…at just over fifty miles offshore we headed in early to make sure we made it. We got to the dock at 3:25, weighed the fish to select the five heaviest and figured the total at around 52lbs. We didn't think it would be enough but anything can happen in a fishing tournament and…you never know until you go. We p ulled into the Plantation Inn at twenty till four. Donnie and Darren carry the heavy cooler like its empty and joined the rear of the weigh-in line at quarter till. Cleo is serving as weigh master and is visibly having a large time. There are a bunch of teams in line, each nervously eyeing the others fish but enjoying the moment. This is almost as much fun as the Captain's meeting, there are some real characters in line that enjoy performing in the big group. Cleo weighs our fish in at 53.9lbs on the official scales and we are in first place by over 10lbs. WOW!

WHO HID THE CLOCK?

I looked at my watch and see four o'clock….but there are other teams still joining the back of the line. I ask Cleo who is enforcing the time, he says he can't do it all by himself and the deadline was more of a guide that a rule. Seems strange to me after the fuss the previous evening. It would be easier to suspend the laws of physics than to monkey with the end time of a weigh-in in any other tournament but hey, it's his deal and he can run it any way he wants. Just then, I see Sonny Sounds' boat cruising down the canal at speed. He's a good fisherman and I figure since he owns a home in and goes fishing regularly out of Crystal River, he is probably the man to beat. We help him unload his fish, he has a 15lb class grouper and several other nice ones. He joins the weigh-in line at 4:07, several teams come in behind him. Although he is a threat to beat us, it never occurs to me to ask for disqualification on time. This is a friend and we're here to have fun…how chickenshit would that be? After his weigh-in, Sonny is in first for heaviest fish and third for aggregate. We drink a beer together and I open my victory cigar. I invite Sonny to fish with us sometime when we head to the east coast for offshore trolling action. He seems delighted at the notion. As I head for the awards ceremony, a short, ugly man with exceptionally bad breath asks me if I am a guide. Looking directly into his beady eyes, I reply "Not today pal, just fishing with some of my buds" and think nothing more about it.

WHAT IS THAT DAMN SMELL?

The crew and I are jubilant, HOLYFREAKINGSHITWEWON! One of the first things we talk about is how much money we should donate back to Cleo's charity. Ed and I discuss buying a big cooler in the auction to give some more money back. We did not come here to make money but to enjoy ourselves and support Cleo. The money is a bonus and we intend to leave a bunch behind. We're sitting up front in the meeting room when Cleo and one of his volunteers call me to the podium and tell me they have to disqualify my team because someone has complained that I am a guide….I say the rule is ambiguous and when I asked for clarification, Cleo told us we were good to fish on Friday night….Cleo looks a little unsteady on his feet...AND DENIES EVER SAYING IT. The edges of my vision start to blur. I'm not normally a confrontational person but a white rage builds and threatens to overflow as I contemplate the treachery involved here. The rage passes quickly and I start to feel slimy just breathing the same air as Cleo and company. It smarts to see the disbelief in Ed, Donnie and Darren's eyes when I tell them we've been disqualified. They overheard my conversation with Cleo Friday evening. Darren is indignant and tells Cleo he is a lying sumbitch. I hit the door headed for the boat to get away from the stench.

The ride back to Gainesville gives me plenty of time to consider what has happened. I know from first-hand experience, being a tournament director is not for the faint at heart. You have to make decisions that may please some or upset others. Cleo was drinking at the Captain's Meeting…as were most folks. He was also drinking at the weigh-in. I like a beer as much as anyone but when saddled with that kind of responsibility, I refuse to imbibe until after the competition is in the books. Doug was prophetic when he said we could learn from Cleo. We learned we do it right and Cleo has some problems. The RFK tournament committee does not drink during weigh-ins to ensure we make sound decisions grounded in the rules….and then we have a blast after we hand out the money. We now have up close experience with what happens when you do it wrong. Cleo made some unfortunate decisions while running an otherwise nice event. In my opinion, to do it right: a) he has to say you can't fish when asked about the rule on Friday night or b) own up to allowing us and deny the protest. He chose: c) deny everything. Rather than being malicious, I suspect it is nothing more than sheer incompetence on his part. The money would have been nice but the thrill of winning and the feelings of camaraderie with my teammates were like a wonderful drug. It took less than thirty seconds to snuff it all out.

As I enter the city limits of Gainesville, the cell phone rings. Cleo is calling to apologize. After everything I say, he says "I'm sorry". Thinking of him, sorry is one word that jumps to mind...and heartily agree with him. He further enlightens me that Sonny Sounds is the participant who complained and I should blame him. This news rocks me. Sonny said nothing the previous Wednesday when we asked him to fish with us. He said nothing at the Captain's Meeting when he had a chance to buy our team or protest our entry. Instead he grinned and acted like the buddy we thought he was. This is a guy I would have run through a wall with. One of the teams weighing in after him bumped his team to fourth place for aggregate. They only pay three places.… We can only guess Sonny decided that the $2000 third place money was worth more than the relationships he had with several of us. With four guys on his boat, Sonny apparently sold his soul for his $500 share. Losing the $7000 first place money stings but does not compare to the pain of being stabbed in the back by a so-called friend. Before I hang up with Cleo, I give him my opinion stated above: If that is the way you interpret your rule, you should have told me not to fish when I asked for a rule clarification Friday night. You should also have disqualified everyone who brought their fish to the weigh-in line after four o'clock. When you tell me we can fish, and then allow us to spend the time and money necessary to do so…you have to uphold your decision over protest….and you can't just enforce the rules when you feel like it. To anyone wanting to fish this event in the future…my experience is that the rules follow the path of least resistance. I wish you good luck but none of us will be there to assist you.

THIS IS DEFINITELY NOT...A NO-SPIN ZONE

In the week since the Liars R Us event, I've received calls from Cleo again as well as Sonny Sounds. Cleo still blames Sonny, Sonny blames Cleo. Sonny then says he is innocent, blaming the short, ugly man on his crew for the protest. The spin changes every time they think of another way to distance themselves from the smell of what they've done. My old tournament partner, Capt Sam Crutchfield sings a great song, "The First Liar Ain't Got a Chance". Cleo is a likable guy but he screwed the pooch and won't admit it. He is absolutely forgiven but I'll never trust him with anything meaningful…like the whereabouts of my beer cooler. Sonny is also a likeable guy but a little money was apparently more important to him than friendship. We are all wired differently and we all have opinions. I think he got wired as a shallow, superficial dude with little regard for anything other than Sonny Sounds. I believe in personal responsibility and accepting the consequences for my words and actions. I would look you in the eye, admit my blunder and try to make it right. People will make errors, that is all you can ask. Sadly, neither of these guys think they made a mistake. Karma is a bitch and she'll find them sooner of later.

YOU STEPPED IN WHAT?

I'd be interested to learn if this tournament sends out 1099 forms to anyone winning over $600 as required by IRS regs. If not, they would put participants at risk for an audit. They can start with that short, ugly, beady-eyed dude...take some Tic-Tacs with you.

PS:

Its been 12 days since the tournament....why would I want to write about this rotten experience? Sonny is a major disappointment and guys like that don't change their stripes. Too bad he was not good enough to beat us on the water. We had hope for Cleo and asked for nothing more than a public apology since he basically denied what he said to us and made it look as though we were cheating. He said he would but...the truth again lies somewhere beyond his grasp. This story is for you, Cleo. Cheers!

Copyright by Capt. Wiley Horton