Cockerham and Gillman score a 14.5 lb bonefish to win the 37th Mercury Outboards Bonefishing World Championship.
Four-time winner Jose “Pepe” Lopez, Coral Gables takes second;
defending champion Gary Merriman, Atlanta finishes third
ISLAMORADA, In the Florida Keys ---- It was a horse race to the finish on the flats of Florida Bay as Mark Cockerham guided by Capt. Mark Gillman brought in two weight fish Friday, one a huge 14.5 lbs. to win the grueling weeklong 37th Mercury Outboards Bonefishing World Championship.
Cockerham and Gillman, both of Islamorada, had been in the middle of the pack of 20 teams of anglers and guides from six states throughout the five days in a tournament that combines skill, battles with Mother Nature and mind games on top of it in catching and releasing the grey ghost of the flats the wily, hard-fighting bonefish.
Many thought history would be repeating itself as Jose “Pepe” Lopez, Coral Gables, guided by Capt. Billy Knowles, Islamorada, took the early lead and held it for three days in the event.
Lopez and Knowles almost mirrored their tournament start of two years ago by catching, weighing and releasing two bonefish of 13.8- & 12.12-lbs. In 2001, the team recorded an insurmountable first day lead and a wire-to-wire win to record their fourth championship.
The veteran team, hoping for two final weight fish of five they could weigh, never saw it develop instead scoring eight smaller “release” fish of at least 18 inches or more in length.
On the water anglers try to judge which bonefish eight pounds and over to release and which to bring to the scales (later released) when the extra points of five tournament weight fish, usually in the 9 – 13 lb. range becomes a factor. The event is also unique in that all four prominent tackle styles (bait, artificial spin and plug, and fly) can be used, as well as the interests and skills of each angler depending on the weather.
“Though we had spent some time scouting the area, the weather conditions changed over the five days and scattered the fish and changed our plans daily,” said the mentally and physically exhausted Cockerham, whose fiancée, Danielle, was expecting their first child at anytime.
The owner of Max’s Marine and winner of the event in 2000 said on each of the first three days they had one weight fish (10.2-, 9- and 11-lbs.) along with one release fish daily. On the fourth day (Thursday) they added 300 more points with three releases and still weren’t among the top five teams.
That was until Friday.
“We had two weight slots reserved for something big. In past years I’ve lost this tournament by keeping smaller fish as weight fish. You never know, there’s so much strategy and you can almost go nuts with the mind games. We figured it out with every hand we were dealt and with the last hand it worked out this time.
“The tides had been screwy so at 5:45 Friday morning we went to the bridge to see which way they were flowing. Once we did, we decided to give a local flat called the ‘downtown area’ one or two shots. It was raining and lightning bad. It was hard to see, but two fish came up and just came together. Both were pigs.”
Gillman picked up the rest of the story.
“Right at 7:30 with pouring rain it was hard to see the two fish come up. Mark took a shot with a crab just as lighting struck, for us in a good way. The bonefish made a hard run across the flat and went off it into deeper water so we dropped the Mercury 60 on the Hell’s Bay Whip Ray and motored after him. He knew all the tricks and ran back onto the flat again so we poled again and chased it until he dropped off and we had to motor again. The fight took over 20 minutes.”
“When it went into the net we knew we had a chance in the top five,” said Cockerham. “After catching the last fish we knew we were in the thick of things.”
The final 11.3 lb. bonefish put them over the top beating Lopez and Knowles and the other teams.
Defending champion Gary Merriman of Atlanta, guided by Capt. Tim Hoover, Marathon, finished third. Merriman, a sporting goods/fly fishing shop owner (The Fish Hawk), didn’t make a move until Wednesday when he caught his first weight fish at 13.10 lbs. He followed that up on Thursday with two more weight fish of 11.5 and 9.2 lbs. But like Lopez and several others, he failed to bring in his final two weight fish to the scales on Friday.
Jim Mooney, Islamorada, was fourth and Robert Collins, Naples, Fla., rounded out the top five finishers, said tournament scorekeeper Charlotte Ambrogio.
Among the prizes awarded to the top anglers Dan Zicari, Vero Beach, Fla. who finished seventh guided by Capt. Mark Krowka, Islamorada, was named the all-tackle champion catching fish with each of the four tackle styles, two of them over eight pounds.
Novelist Carl Hiaasen, Islamorada, was the spin division champion and Tom Siska, Saddle Brook, N.J. was the fly champion.
Cockerham’s win also advances him to the Fourth Annual Rolex/IGFA Inshore Championship Tournament, in May, 2004, where he’ll compete against some 40 winners of other similar tournaments from around the world.
Money raised from Mercury Marine’s sponsorship and entry fees goes to conservation and environmental efforts in South Florida. The awards banquet and weeklong camaraderie was held at the Lorelei Restaurant and docks.
Final standings-Top 10
37th Mercury Outboards Bonefishing
World Championship – Islamorada, Fla. Oct. 13 – 17, 2003
20 angler/guide teams from six states entered
1st --Mark Cockerham, Islamorada, Fla. 4834 pts. guided by Capt. Mark Gillman, Islamorada
2nd--Jose “Pepe” Lopez, Coral Gables, Fla. 4535.5 pts. guided by Capt. Billy Knowles, Islamorada
3rd-- Gary Merriman, Atlanta, Ga. 4147 pts. guided by Capt. Tim Hoover, Marathon, Fla.
4th--Jim Mooney, Islamorada, 4110 pts. guided by Capt. Rick Miller, Islamorada
5th --Robert Collins, Naples, Fla. 4031 pts. guided by Capt. Rich Tudor, Islamorada
6th --Fred Troxel, Big Pine Key, Fla. 3938.5 pts. guided by Capt. Dale Perez, Islamorada
7th-- Dan Zicari, Vero Beach, Fla. 3868.5 pts. guided by Capt.Mark Krowka, Islamorada
8th --Richard Stehly, Minneapolis, Minn. 3420.5 pts. guided by Capt.George Wood, Islamorada
9th --Moe Slayton, Duck Key, Fla. 2972 pts. guided by Mike Guerin, Las Cruses, N.M.
10th--Ed Casale, Westfield, N.J. 2571 pts. guided by Capt. Rick Moeller, Islamorada
Total of 42 weight fish and 129 release fish, all caught and released