Cuda Bowl 9, 2019
The last few times Derek Rust and I had the opportunity to chill together we were either ducking hurricanes or repairing hurricane damage. Paul Nocifora and I have been friends on social media and have several mutual friends but hadn’t fished together so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I met Paul at his house in Naples. He and Derek had agreed to take his skiff for the Cuda Bowl. We hitched up and rolled south.
A few hours and several laughs later, we pulled up to Derek’s house just in time to jump in his truck drive to the Square Grouper in Cudjoe Key. If you are ever in the area, you will not be disappointed with a visit to the Square Grouper in Cudjoe or their new location in Islamorada. We signed in, had a few beers and talked a little trash about how many fish we were going to catch. The next day we were a little slow but we put on our big boy pants and headed out.
I’ve fished the keys quite a bit over the past 20 years but it seems like more often than not we’ve had gale force winds and/or clouds and rain. Not this time ISIS. Bluebird skies and light wind. Despite almost ideal conditions, we struggled to feed the big barracudas that Derek repeatedly put us on. 80 feet at 2 O’clock was a tough cast, then he said stuff the rod and two hand strip as fast as you can. When we got a cast where it needed to be, the fish would charge the fly as fast as you could strip only to stop on a dime 4 feet from the skiff and spook off. I’ve hooked several cuda off the beaches while tarpon fishing but never targeted them in shallow flats before. It seemed simple, but big fish are smart no matter what species. Day one was brutal. We got shots on tons of good fish but just didn’t have the combination together yet. We did get a shot on a group of permit. I was up to bat and I heard D say “Perm 12 O’clock”. My fly was already in the mail when I processed that his second statement was “Don’t throw that ****ing needlefish fly at them”. Needless to say, the shot was blown. I was promptly demoted to observer as Paul took over the pointy end of the skiff.
The Cuda Bowl is a two-day tournament where you can submit up to 3 fish per day. Day two we managed two nice fish and turned in 65.5 inches. We weren’t in the running for a place in the top three but we caught the intended species. When fly fishing in saltwater that’s a win in my book. I feel like we made a good showing on the partying end of the tournament even going the extra mile to make a second showing at My New Joint (upstairs from the Square Grouper).
The weekend was awesome with nonstop laughs as we were all three about to enter our busy season. We will not have three consecutive days to hang out and fish with our buddies until after tarpon season. This was the perfect way to start the grind. I’m already looking forward to the next time we get to spend a few day just fun fishing and heckling our buddies. Fly fishing in salt water for any species is tough but when you combine big fish and shallow crystal clear water, you are destined for some heartbreak. Until next year we will all have haunting visions of big cuda charging our flies only to flip us the bird and swim away.
If you are in the keys, be sure to try to get on Derek Rust’s schedule. If you are in Naples, stop in Mangrove Outfitters and take a trip with Paul Nocifora. In Tampa Bay, give me a ring and let’s chuck some flies. Huge thanks to Captain Justin Rea of Stingrea Charters for organizing such a fun event and Captain Tom Shadley (a 20-year guide out of Naples) for tying us the fly that finally got it done!