Ride the Bull IV Breaks Kayak Fishing Tournament World Record
By Chris Holmes
Photos courtesy of Ride the Bull
A recent poster on Facebook wrote: "I'm quitting kayak fishing- it's becoming too mainstream." He was kidding of course, but if you attended the recent Ride the Bull IV kayak fishing tournament, you realized there was some truth in that statement.
Kayak fishing tournaments are nothing new, but Ride the Bull is decidedly different. So different in fact, that this year's event broke the record to become the world's largest kayak fishing tournament. An astonishing 523 participants signed up for the event and 488 kayaks launched on tournament morning.
While most 'yak fishing tournaments are local or regional events, some have a history of drawing kayak fishermen from far and wide. The famed JAX Classic in Jacksonville, Florida has claimed the title of largest kayak fishing tournament in the world for the last nine years, but that changed Saturday August 17, 2013 in tiny Grand Isle, Louisiana.
This was no easy feat considering Grand Isle comes in as a mighty underdog. Jacksonville is the largest city by contiguous area in the U.S., and the largest city by population in the state of Florida. On the other hand, Grand Isle is a tiny spit of sand.
Comparing head-to-head statistics, Grand Isle, which is Louisiana's only inhabited Barrier Island, comprises only eight square miles and has a full-time residential population of around 1,300. On the other hand, Jacksonville has nearly 840,000 residents and covers 840 square miles. The JAX Classic's top attendance was 435 participants in 2012.
Ride the Bull is the brainchild of Grand Isle resident Captains Danny and Kristen Wray as a way to showcase Grand Isle as a premiere kayak-fishing destination and kayak-friendly community.
What has made Ride the Bull so popular, so fast? First and foremost, kayak fishing continues to experience tremendous yearly growth. "Yak fishing is not a fad and it's definitely here to stay," said Captain Danny Wray. "Our motto this year was 'Bring a friend.' I figured if most people did that, we'd see a huge jump in attendance," Wray added. Apparently it worked.
The event packs so many different aspects into one tournament that participation has exploded in the four short years since its inaugural event. First and foremost, the atmosphere of Ride the Bull is different. A dinner and a film festival kick off the night before and gets everyone pumped up to Ride the Bull.
Although there are thousands of dollars of cash and kayak prizes on the line, there's no sense of cut-throat competition. The tournament participants range from professional kayak anglers to those that are 'yak fishing virgins. While fishing experience does not hurt, all realize that any participant can win the event. Bull reds are not picky eaters and you just need to be lucky enough to have your bait in the right spot at the right time.
Ride the Bull boasts a unique format: the kayakers head out on a "shotgun" start into a defined area of Caminada Pass. All tournament participants are required to wear a provided orange safety vest and it looks more like opening day of deer season than a 'yak fishing tournament. There's no solitary fishing here, the anglers are close enough to hold friendly conversations.
The spectators are another unusual aspect of the event. Several fishing piers, a large bridge and a beach shoreline afford non-fishing friends and family the unique opportunity to watch the fishing action as it unfolds. Further proving that this is no ordinary kayak fishing tournament, one contestant paddled by in a multicolored clown wig, another in a jester hat. Previous years have seen real bull horns affixed to the bow of several 'yaks.
The most unique aspect is that it is a live-weigh, bull redfish-only tournament. Several "assist" boats mill around through the hundreds of kayakers anchored up in the confined tournament boundaries of the pass. When a big red is landed by a participant, the assist boat takes the fish and puts it into an onboard tank.
The angler's number and the time of the catch (for tie breakers) are recorded and the fish is whisked to the dock where it is promptly weighed, measured, tagged, revived and released. Volunteers from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana handle the fish with the urgency of a hospital operating room. The bulls are sent swimming away to be caught again and provide some valuable research.
Capt. Danny Wray is as laid back as they come. But as morning storms threatened to delay or scuttle the event entirely, he was as unsettled as the weather. "We don't gamble on safety. Kayaks can't outrun the storms and they certainly can't outrun lightning," Wray said.
Wray conferred with tournament assistants and checked and re-checked the radar to get a handle on the surrounding weather. As the 7:30 a.m. shotgun start approached, light rain persisted, but angry storms miraculously parted at the west end of the island. It was go time.
The air horn sounded and the floating throngs were loosed amid screams and hollering.
This year's event saw some fast and furious fishing. Despite rainy weather and strong tidal currents, the first few hours gave the assist boats all the action they could handle. Shouts of "fish on" carried from one end of the pass to the other. The hot bite ended just as quickly as it started. When all was said and done, it took a redfish just over 24 pounds to even make it into the top ten. In addition to the scores of bull reds caught, many black drum, sharks, jack crevalle and a handful of giant stingrays were also landed.
Jeff Gleason of Folsom, Louisiana was top finisher with a bull red that weighed in at 32.96 pounds. Jeff took home a brand new Hobie Pro Angler 12 and $2,200 cash as his first place prize.
More than just a kayak fishing tournament, Ride the Bull has truly evolved into the Wrays' dream of a festival celebrating everything kayak fishing has to offer. Though soaking wet, worn out and for many, fishless, the common sentiment among participants was that they couldn't wait to do it again next year. A bull red in a kayak is likely the largest fish many coastal kayakers will catch. Grand Isle is a perfect location to saddle up your kayak and go for a "bull ride." Make plans to attend next year. Odds are that over 500 of your closest kayak friends will be there.