BOCA GRANDE - If you live and work near what is arguably the world's most popular fishing hole, it is easy to take some things for granted.
By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 2002
BOCA GRANDE -- If you live and work near what is arguably the world's most popular fishing hole, it is easy to take some things for granted.
Breathtaking sunsets, pristine beaches and jumping tarpon are staples of life here on the west coast of Florida.
"But if you've been through what I've been through, you look at things differently," cancer survivor Peggy Delbridge said. "You take time to appreciate the pelicans and salt air on your face. You see each and every day as a wonderful thing."
When Delbridge was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, she didn't know what the future would hold. But after a year of treatment, the 50-year-old was awarded a clean bill of health, and decided she would fulfill a lifelong dream.
"I wanted to catch a tarpon," Delbridge said. "And I wanted to catch it in the chamber tournament."
The two-day tournament, which concluded Thursday, is advertised as the "World's Richest." The fishing competition is sponsored by the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce and never had trouble attracting entrants.
For nearly 100 years, the narrow pass that guards the mouth of Charlotte Harbor has been the destination of choice for anglers seeking the "silver king" of game fish, Megalops atlanticus. The tarpon, a chrome-plated monster with a mouth like a 5-gallon bucket, has fighting prowess and jumping ability.
In recent years, however, Boca Grande has been caught between "traditional" guides who employ the same fishing techniques as their forefathers and a new breed of charter boat captain who fishes with artificial baits from small outboard boats.
There are more guides than ever fishing the pass, but far fewer tarpon to be caught. As for the latter, theories abound, but one thing is certain: Entries in the 2002 Chamber of Commerce Tournament were down. Only 31 boats paid the $5,200 entry fee this year. In its heyday, the chamber tournament filled the 60 available spots months before the summer tarpon season began.
Some blame corporate downsizing as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Others blame the poor turnout on a declining fishery, the cause of which is a matter of debate.
But Boca Grande is a close-knit community. The residents who remain on the island after the tourists and seasonal guides have gone home are clannish.
So when resident Tori Kittredge heard that a friend, William "Dumplin" Wheeler III, had lost his tournament charter, she decided to get some friends together and help. "Tarpon fishing is a big part of our economy," Kittredge said. "We wanted to do something to help."
Kittredge talked to Delbridge, who had just overcome cancer, and the two decided to put together a team of women to compete in the $125,000 tournament.
"If we win, we are going to donate a portion of the proceeds to the American Cancer Society," Kittredge said this week, "and even if we don't win, we are still going to donate $11,000 to the same charity."
Kittredge and Delbridge rounded up three more recruits -- Shana Perry, Sandy Viren and Brandy Wheeler -- and bought pink T-shirts for everybody.
"Pink is the traditional color for breast cancer survivors," Kittredge said. "We also have been tying pink ribbons ... on fishing hooks that the other anglers can put on their hats."
Wheeler, a 60-year-old charter boat captain who fishes from the stern of the inboard-powered cabin cruiser Chico as his father did before him, said he likes the idea of fielding an all-women fishing team.
"It is always good to have young gals on the boat," Wheeler said. "I think we will do just as well as anybody out there."
Brandy Wheeler, who caught her first tarpon at age 9, was first mate and angler.
"My father always says that women are better fishermen than men because women listen to the captain," she said. "Tarpon fishing is not just about muscle. You need coordination. It is a team effort."
The rest of the team doesn't have much experience. Kittredge said she fished for tarpon just once.
"I hooked one, my reel jammed and then the line broke," Kittredge said. "While I was staring at my reel the fish jumped, everybody said, "Wow!' but when I looked up and there was nothing there."
But Kittredge and Delbridge said it doesn't matter how many tarpon are caught. The most important thing for the "Fishin' For Remission" team is friendship and the bond that will endure long after tarpon season has ended.
"We may be raising some money for cancer research, but this tournament means so much more to me than that," Delbridge said. "I want to show people who have cancer that they can beat the odds. Never give up. There is always hope."
Thirty-one teams fished the World's Richest Tarpon Tournament, sponsored by the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce, on Wednesday and Thursday. No fish were weighed either day and tournament officials were planning to meet to determine what to do with the prize money.
Capt. John Zorian's team had one release and was declared the winner in the "most releases" category and will be awarded $18,860.
For more information, go to www.worldsrichesttarpon.com.
Last week, the Miller's Marina Catch the King Tournament drew 18 boats. Thirteen fish were weighed, 24 released and $99,000 was paid out.
The first-place prize of $54,000 went to Team Publix and Capt. Rich Knox of New Port Richey for a 169-pound tarpon. Capt. Danny Stewart of Tampa, aboard Poon-A-Tick, took second and $26,820 for a 165-pounder. Capt. David Gause of Tarpon Springs, aboard Native Angler, took third and $12,600 with a 154-pounder.
For information on the Catch the King and Tarpon Tide Tournaments go to www.millersmarina.com.
-- TERRY TOMALIN