KEY LARGO, Fla. Adrian Gray had never fished one of the prestigious Redbone Celebrity Series tournaments, and didn't expect to do so any time soon. But that changed when he answered his office phone at the International Game Fish Association headquarters in Dania Beach, Fla., on the Tuesday before the ESPN Saltwater Series Baybone Celebrity Tournament.
The call was from an old friend, Barry Shevlin. Rather than an invitation, Shevlin's message came more in the form of a command: "Adrian, you're going to fish with me in the Baybone tournament at Key Largo this weekend."
It would turn out to be one of those "life's most unforgettable experiences" for Gray, a 30-year-old production coordinator for IGFA publications.
Not only would Gray catch the biggest permit in the tournament, held Oct. 3-5, his catch would be captured on video by one of Gray's "fishing heroes" Jose Wejebe for ESPN television. Plus, Gray got see see Wejebe fall head over heels out of the camera boat while doing so.
"It was funny," Gray said, in recalling that Sunday on the water. "This is the first tournament I've ever fished. And to catch a big permit, then see someone you consider a celebrity, someone you grew up watching on TV, and all of the sudden this guy's in front of you with a camera, then falling in the water. Well, I'll never forget it, that's for sure."
And it's the kind of moment unforgettable (not necessarily comedic) that seems to occur on a regular basis during this Redbone Celebrity Series events. Gary and Susan Ellis began putting together these events in 1988, shortly after their infant daughter, Nicole, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
When the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation was founded in 1955, the life expectancy of CF sufferers was pre-junior high. Nicole is now 32. During her lifetime, that CF average life expectancy rate has grown to 37 years. And it's getting longer at a rapid rate, thanks to new scientific research.
"To catch the cure for cystic fibrosis" is the motto of this Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series founded by the Ellis family. In addition to raising almost $2 million now for CF research, the Redbone Series has matched that in unforgettable days on the water like the one Gray had near Key Largo on Oct. 5.
It's that common bond of fishing that brought Gray and Shevlin together as partners in the first place. Shevlin, a lawyer in Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., has two young sons who are avid anglers. Josh, now 13, won the IGFA Junior Angler World Championship twice. Jake, now 9, won the title in 2007 before the five-year-old tournament series was discontinued.
During those years. Selvin and Gray grew to be friends while Gray regularly snapped photos for IGFA of the Selvin brothers with tournament trophies in their hands.
The entry fee for a two-person team in the Redbone Trilogy Series the Slam at Key West, the Baybone at Key Largo and the Redbone at Islamorada is $3,500 per team. It's not the kind of money 30-year-old publications producers at IGFA, or just about anywhere else for that matter, have in hand for weekend fishing excursions, no matter how worthy the cause.
But when Selvin's partner had to withdraw at the last minute, Selvin didn't have to think long about who he would recruit to join him in the Baybone event at Key Largo.
"(Gray) couldn't afford to fish in a tournament like this," Selvin said. "I called him and said, 'Adrian, you're my buddy and you're coming with me.
"It took him all of about 30 seconds to say, 'OK.'"
Gray will never have any regrets about that decision. And neither will Wejebe, about a decision he made that Sunday. The long-time host of ESPN's "Spanish Fly" TV show, Wejebe was instrumental in bringing together the television network and the Redbone Series this year.
"We're trying to take this to people who would never see this type of fishing," Wejebe said to the participants assembled for the awards dinner at the Baybone's conclusion. "We're going to give them a chance to see what you guys do, to see what it's all about.
"It's really a hard thing to explain unless you're right there."
Between weather and logistics, gathering stories for the Redbone Series this fall has already had a couple of false starts. The Slam at Key West, scheduled for Sept. 5-7, ended after the one-day Superfly event due to a mandatory visitor evacuation caused by the threat of Hurricane Ike.
Then the next Redbone event, for striped bass, bluefish and false albacore at Montauk, N.Y., had to be cancelled due to high seas when a "nor'easter" blew in the weekend of Sept. 25-26.
And that last day in Key Largo, Wejebe and his camera man, Mike Torbisco, had accumulated plenty of beautiful Florida saltwater flats fishing video in general, but not one fish-catch.
Wejebe and Torbisco had been following partners Mitch Howell and Steve Rubin and their guide Bob Branham all day. But flats fishing for the two species targeted for this event, bonefish and permit, was extremely tough. Only 46 fish were caught among the 19 teams competing for two days, and only three of those were permit.
With just a few hours of fishing time left that Sunday, Branham took Howell and Rubin back to a place that he was confident held fish, even though two previous attempts there over the weekend had produced nothing.
Branham's shoulders visibly slumped, according to Wejebe, when they got to the spot only to find an anchor buoy floating there. Rather than disappointment, Wejebe realized it might be one last chance to video a fish being caught.
"That buoy is usually an indication that someone has been anchored there and they left to fight a fish," Wejebe said. "We looked up and, sure enough, I see a boat on the horizon."
Wejebe and Torbisco sped off and found Gray, Shevlin and their guide, Eric Herstedt, while Gray was trying to land what would turn out to be a 31 7/8ths-inch permit.
"Usually what I do in that situation is put on my mask, fins and snorkel and swim around underwater to get some shots of the fish," Wejebe said. "But we didn't have time for that.
"I just grabbed the underwater camera while Mikey was shooting some other stuff. That camera weighs about 80 pounds. I'm shooting and I took a step and tripped over this little tackle box.
"I went straight over the side of the boat, but I managed to catch the (boat) gunnel with one hand as I went.
"So imagine this picture: These guys have just caught their first permit (of the tournament). They're suddenly being filmed by an ESPN crew, and then I'm in the water with both feet sticking straight up in the air.
"Finally somebody pulled me back in the boat."
Maybe Wejebe's dunking is what it takes to break the string of bad luck that has followed the Redbone Series for the past two months. That will become apparent this weekend, when the re-scheduled Key West Slam is held. The competitors will be fishing for the saltwater flats "slam" of permit, bonefish and tarpon.
But no matter what happens this weekend, the friendship between Adrian Gray and Barry Shevlin has gone to another level anchored by the unforgettable moment of a big permit on the line and Jose Wejebe's feet sticking out of the water.