KEY WEST, Fla. Fishing guide Justin Rea saw fish feeding in the first places he looked Friday morning during the Superfly competition in the ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series Redbone Tournament.
But he didn't see enough fish feeding.
So he and angler Cal Collier Jr. kept moving. When Rea found exactly what he was looking for, it resulted in a tarpon-catching frenzy and the Superfly championship.
Collier hooked 17 tarpon and legally landed 12 that weighed between 10 and 25 pounds. Combined with a bonefish catch, it gave them 2,600 points to second-place angler Mo Smith and guide Mark Krowka's 1,400 points.
The Superfly event, a one-day, fly fishing-only tournament, preceded the now-weather-canceled two-day Key West Redbone event. The anglers are allowed to use only one fly pattern, but multiple versions of that pattern. Rea's "Justin's Triple Threat" is a shrimp imitation that will be carried in the Umpqua catalog soon.
Rea refused to credit his fly pattern creation for his and Collier's success Friday. That's why he kept moving even though he saw actively feeding fish.
"I was looking for a frenzy," said the 38-year-old guide, who was born in Idaho and moved to the Keys in 2001.
Rea had noticed that the wind and tide had pushed shrimp and baitfish into weed beds, which would likely suck the oxygen out of the water overnight, producing a die-off and the resulting tarpon feeding frenzy.
The Superfly was essentially over by 10:15 a.m. That's when Collier and Rea tired of tarpon and went looking for bonefish.
"It was almost like bass fishing," said Collier, whose father, Cal Sr., finished third in the event. "You'd cast in a hole in the grass, in about 3 feet of water. They'd either eat it, or you pulled it out, took the weeds off the fly and cast it back in another hole."
Mostly, though, the tarpon ate the fly.
Collier and Rea made a long run to catch a bonefish around 1 p.m. Then he and Rea made another run and a concerted effort at the saltwater slam.
"We had three shots at a permit," Collier said. "One just piled on the fly, and we thought we had it, but it just didn't have the hook.
"Justin did a lot of running. We covered 97 miles today."
But they did have the title well in hand on an unusually tough day of fishing. Eight of the 14 teams didn't register a legal catch in any of the three species. And the three other teams had just one fish, either a tarpon or a bonefish. A permit, easily regarded as the toughest of the three species on a fly rod, wasn't landed Friday.
Smith and Krowka, the runners-up, caught six tarpon and a bonefish for their 1,400-point total. Collier Sr. and guide John O'Hearn had three bonefish and a tarpon, for 800 points.
All the fish caught in this tournament are caught and released, and a legal tarpon catch requires only that the guide touch the leader with his hand, so it doesn't have to be boated.
Rea held his infant child on a shoulder Friday evening while discussing his flats fishing philosophy at the Conch Republic Seafood Company. Rea's sense of humor didn't leave him in spite of the hurricane evacuation warning that poses a serious risk to his young family's home on Sugarloaf Key.
"This might be my last guide trip," Rea said, managing a smile. "It depends on whether I've got a house when I get home."