Coweta, Oklahoma is a long way from the salt. That didn't stop firefighter Chris Thomas from dreaming big, really big. Billfish big.
He'd seen photos of kayakers catching wahoo and sailfish in Florida, but an exploratory trip came up dry. "I was disappointed. On our way home my wife found Joe Hector's Extreme Kayak Fishing site. I decided right then that I'd fish the Sailfish Smackdown," Thomas says.
Why not mix two flavors of crazy? The February 2014 Sailfish Smackdown itself was no sure thing, the first billfish-only kayak fishing tournament ever tried. Meet Joe Hector, the brash New Jersey native who founded a Pompano Beach, Florida offshore tournament series for 'yak anglers who are tired of tame skinny water. Of course it didn't start so ambitious. That took time.
"Fishing off piers wasn't really my thing," says Hector. "What the hell. I'm going to buy a kayak and see what happens. Hopefully I won't get killed."
That was 2006, when there was virtually no offshore kayak fishing scene beyond California and Hawaii. Certainly not in Florida. Hector tangled with a tarpon right off the bat. Slowly but surely he and a like-minded crew of adrenaline-seekers pushed farther offshore where they picked up other brawny pelagics: dorado, kingfish, and wahoo. "It was just us and boat guys screaming at us," he remembers.
Hector knew those boat guys. He'd been one in the past, even crewing on a cruiser that won $40,000 at a big-money tournament. He craved that ecstatic feeling again. "Every fisherman has an ego. He wants to be the best," he says. When he founded the EKFT series in 2011, he brought all the glitzy trappings: champagne showers, prancing bikini girls, a jacket for the winner a la the Masters, and poster-sized checks with a lot of zeroes to the right.
The energy fueled the growth of a nascent southeast beyond-the-breakers community. Three years in, Hector was ready to go after the biggest game of all. Billfish. And that brings us back to Okie Chris Thomas.
"I figured it’s a good vacation. In Oklahoma in winter, it's 17 degrees out. The $150 entry fee is cheap. I'm paying for a sailfish lesson. If I catch one, it'll be a catch of a lifetime," Thomas says.
Hector was gambling too. Predicting billfish is no easy deal. They come 'round Pompano Beach in January and February, but still. "You need to get lucky. You need the right water. If I could get just one or two, that would make the tournament right there," EKFT owner Hector says.
On tournament day just a couple hours in, Thomas hooked up. "At the captains' meeting, I heard you need to let them run. I tried to concentrate on that. When I finally decided to come tight, it dawned on me it might not be a sailfish. Then he broke the water and jumped. The rest is a blur," Thomas says in a hushed voice, as if he's still dreaming.
He leadered the fish after a tense, 20-minute battle, by dint of his first spike already the winner. Hector, on a tournament support boat, assisted with the healthy release and joined the celebration.
It wasn't over. Fellow Oklahoman Ryan Jones was up next. The manager of OKC Kayak, Jones was a late convert to Thomas' dream-big plan. He'd never been offshore, yet he caught and released EKFT tournament sailfish number two. Then, incredibly, Thomas hooked up again, but this one peeled off. Two locals finally got into the game. Five billfish hook-ups—Hector couldn't have been happier.
"Unbelievable. These guys from Oklahoma come in first and second. The locals weren't too happy, I'm not going to lie," Hector says. It didn't show at the awards ceremony.
"Every single person there congratulated us. They made us feel it was the greatest thing in the world," says Thomas. And the winner's jacket, how did it fit? "It's awesome," Thomas says. —KF