They bill it as the world’s greatest kids fishing tournament for children ages 15 and under — and it probably is.
Since 2012, the Gasparilla Island Kids Classic Tarpon Tournament has been raising money for children’s health and educational programs throughout Southwest Florida.
“We want to instill in these kids the value of helping their fellow man,” said event organizer Sandy Melvin, a longtime Boca Grande charter captain and the proprietor of Gasparilla Outfitters on the island. “If they learn that now, they’ll carry it with them forever.”
This year’s event, held from 5 to 8 p.m. June 1, saw 40 teams with a total of 149 young fishermen and fisherwomen. Most tarpon tournaments in the Pass are held in the evening and scheduled to take advantage of favorable tides that get tarpon feeding. And they were definitely feeding.
“We had the most tarpon we’ve ever seen in our tournament, and maybe in any of the Boca Grande tournaments,” Melvin said. “There were 81 fish caught and released during those three hours — and that doesn’t count the fish they hooked and lost.”
Tarpon are notoriously difficult to land due to hard mouths and aerial acrobatics, both of which make it easier for them to come unhooked.
Entry into the tournament is a steep $1,000 per team, and 100 percent of that fee is donated to charitable partners.
“With great support from our sponsors and contributors, in just eight short years we have now raised over $265,000,” Melvin said. “Beneficiaries include Moffitt Cancer Center, All Children’s Hospital, The Englewood Community Care Clinic, The Island School, Lemon Bay Conservancy, the Charlotte County School System’s S.T.E.M Camp program, EasterSeals Southwest Florida and the Dee Wheeler Scholarship Fund.”
All fish caught in the tournament are immediately released. Tarpon are not brought into the boat to be weighed or measured. Instead, the fish is brought close enough that the leader — the 10 feet of line closest to the fish — can be grasped. Then the line is popped at the hook. Most hooks fall out in hours or days.
The first place team released six fish. Two teams released five. To determine who gets second place, the tie-breaker is who caught their last fish earliest. Third place is then awarded to the last fish landed by a team that was not already in first or second place.
This led to a heartbreak for WaterLine columnist Mike Myers and his team. They missed second place by 10 minutes, missed third place by one minute, and lost out on a bonus for first fish caught by five minutes. Despite this, Myers said the tournament was worth fishing.
“My kids had a great time out there,” he said. “They deserved to win it, but sometimes it just doesn’t go your way. That’s all right — we’ll be back next year.”