A 300-boat tournament for sheepshead? You gotta see it to believe it.

On a warm Saturday afternoon in late February you could expect to see a few boats hanging around the Mayport jetties. Especially since this was the first nice day after a couple of weeks of unseasonably chill weather, and since this is also a pretty good month to catch sheepshead, which tend to like rocks and other solid structure.

What I didn’t really expect was a literal sea of boats surrounding the rocks. The north side was an unbroken line of anchored craft, while the south side (both inside and outside) looked like you had to take a number to get a spot. That’s a surprising number of boats, but Jeane Bernacki (who was captaining our boat through the throng) wasn’t surprised.

“This is our biggest year so far,” she said of the 2007 event, “and with 291 boats entered this isn’t even half of them. We’ve got boats scattered up and down the First Coast and probably on the nearshore wrecks as well. Sheepshead are real popular today.”

That would qualify as an understatement. Any time you can draw 291 boats for a “local” tournament, you have obviously captured the attention of the local angling community. To do that for a saltwater tournament in February is virtually unheard of. And, with sheepshead as the target? Who would’ve thought.

I guess that just goes to show that the competitive angling spirit is alive and well in Northeast Florida, and certainly validates the adage, “If you build it they will come.” Especially, if you build it as well as the Jacksonville Offshore Sportfishing Club (JOSFC) has built the El Cheapo Sheepshead Tournament.

In fact, since its inception in 2001, as nothing more than a fun event for club members, the El Cheapo has grown into the largest sheepshead tournament in the world.

The logical question is why sheepshead? Frank Joura, who has been the tournament director since 2003, has a logical answer.

“Our club,” Joura said, “has 10 in-house monthly tournaments a year, but we didn’t get started until March. We like to do things for our club members, and non-members, that are simple, inexpensive and fun. Two of our members—Kevin Shivar and Rob Darner—started thinking about what could we do in February.”

“The problem,” Joura continued, “is what do you do in February? What’s biting, what’s good, and what’s close enough to the Mayport ramp that people don’t have to run a long way if the weather is bad and run up big fuel bills?”

The answer Shivar and Darner came up with was sheepshead. And, when you think about what the hot bite is in the Mayport area in February, it was actually a pretty astute idea. Action with every other inshore species in the area can be plagued by cold weather, previous cold weather, or anticipated cold weather. February is not always a great month for Northeast Florida inshore anglers. But, it is a great month for sheepshead, and some of the best fishing in the area is within two miles of the Mayport boat ramp where the JOSFC has its clubhouse.

“Kevin and Rob also came up with the El Cheapo concept,” Joura continued. “During the first two events in 2001 and 2002 the entry fee was just $40 per boat, and the awards were all modest amounts of cash from the entry fees. It was basically just a fun thing to do in February that didn’t cost a lot, and took advantage of a very good nearby fishery.”

The first year (2001) drew 39 boats. In 2002 that number climbed to 50. For 2003 the entry fee was increased to $60, but that didn’t dissuade anybody and 64 boats showed up. The following two years saw 87 and 76 boats respectively.

In 2006, however, that number jumped to 170 entrants, and there was a simple reason for that.

If you’re having a tournament you need to award prizes, and the more you award the more competitors you draw. The early El Cheapo events, with their modest entry fee, were strictly cash prizes. And, in keeping with the El Cheapo philosophy, not a lot. First place was $600, and things dwindled after that. That changed significantly in 2006.

“I’m a general contractor,” Joura explained, “and I deal with a lot of local, non-fishing, businesses on a daily basis. During one stop, a local business owner who had some of his employees fish the tournament in the past told me that he would like to be a part of the event next year. I asked him if he would like to get a merchandise prize together as a sponsor and he was all for it. I thought that was cool, and the light bulb went off. I figured that if he wanted to get involved, other non-fishing businesses might.

“I ended up opening my Rolodex and calling my electricians, plumbers, drywall guys, and everybody else I did business with and asked if they would like to kick in. The response was great. Even though they weren’t fishing businesses, the base of fishermen in Jacksonville is incredible. Tournament organizers are always hammering the fishing-related businesses for prizes, but you can only go to that well so often because there is only so much they can do. But, there are plenty of other businesses that recognize fishing is big and would like to be a part of a reputable annual community event. But, they seldom get asked because they are not ‘fishing-related businesses.’ In 2006 we got all these community concerns on board and our prize structure took a big leap upward, and so did our turnout.”

For 2007, the cash and merchandise prize total for 291 boats was $12,620. That included a boat/motor/trailer for first place and a pair of kayaks for second place. The prizes, however, weren’t just for the top ten finishers.

“We always have a cash prize for the smallest fish,” said Joura. “Not everybody will catch big fish, so why not? And, we also have a kayak division with a cash award for the highest finishing kayak. You’d be amazed how big kayak fishing has gotten in Northeast Florida, so we like to recognize them. With the jetties so close a kayak doesn’t have far to go, so we encourage them to participate. The prize is for the largest kayak-caught fish and it was $250 this year, but they are also still eligible for the overall awards. Lastly, we do three random drawings for a ‘mystery fish’ and pay $100 for each. Everybody who weighs in a fish but didn’t place in the prize structure is up for that. We try to give everybody a chance to win something.”

Toss in a fish fry (with plenty of fresh sheepshead), a merchandise raffle, host the event at a spacious ramp with a clubhouse, and it’s not hard to see why the El Cheapo has become a popular annual event in Jacksonville. For 2008, it will be bigger.

“We’re going to inaugurate a special Youth Division,” Joura noted. “Capt. Don Dingman, who heads up the Hook The Future program, will be joining us in that, and I think 2008 will be our biggest year ever.”

If you build it, they will come. But, sheepshead? Who would’ve thought.

The One That Didn’t Get Away

Every fishing tournament has a story about “the one that got away.” Last year’s El Cheapo winner, Tim Price, has one as well. Fortunately for Price, the fish didn’t make its escape permanent.

“I had my dad, Bob, my 15-year-old son, Chase, and my 9-year-old nephew, Garret, along with me,” Price recounted, “and we headed up to some deeper-water structure off of Fernandina that is known for producing some big sheepshead. Dad, Chase and I were using some fairly heavy spinning gear, but that was a bit too much for Garret to handle so Dad rigged him up with a little baitcaster that he could just drop over the side.”

One doesn’t need to be a fortune teller to guess what happened next.

“Garret got hammered by a real whopper,” Price continued. “It took him right down to his knees and he had more than he could handle. He got the fish up near the boat, but he really didn’t know quite what to do with it and it broke off.”

After catching a few more fish, including one over 10 pounds, Tim Price got a big hit.

“We got that fish up and into the net,” he said, “and I figured it was going to place real high. It was almost 12 pounds. But, as I was putting it into the cooler I noticed a short piece of fresh monofilament leader hanging out of its mouth, and when I looked I found the longshank hook that Dad had rigged up for Garret. That was the fish that had broken off Garret just a short time earlier, so I jokingly thanked Garret for wearing out that big fish enough for me to get it into the boat.”

That doesn’t speak well for the intellectual capacity of species Archosargus probatocephalus, but subsequent events indicate that young Garret may have a fine future in the financial or legal professions.

“He was proud of his role in catching that big fish, and he entertained everybody at the dock with the story,” Price noted. “As we were walking up to the weigh-in scales, however, we heard an announcement over the loudspeaker that because of the large turnout they were going to up the prize money by $100.”

“Without missing a beat,” Price laughed, “he turned to me and said ‘Uncle Timmy, $25 of that is mine for wearing out the fish.’ I guess I’m going to have to negotiate with him in advance next year.”

Earn Your Stripes at Mayport

The mouth of the St. Johns River is legendary for winter sheepshead action. Nearest boat ramp is the Duval County ramp at Mayport Village, on State Route A1A. It’s a well-maintained launch, suitable for boats of all sizes, and free. The ramp is headquarters for the 2008 El Cheapo Sheepshead Tournament, set for Feb. 23.

According to El Cheapo director Frank Joura, most boats anchor close to the rock jetties using a grapnel-style “jetty anchor,” rigged to break away if it gets stuck. Joura said at least two bait and tackle shops in the Mayport area carry these anchors, as well as sinkers, jigs and bait:

B&M Bait and Tackle, 2789 State Road A1A, (904) 249-3933. Located on the way to Mayport ramp. Sells live fiddler crabs, shrimp and mud minnows, as well as frozen clams and other seasonal baits.

Rick’s Bait and Tackle, 224 N. 20th Street, (904) 246-0717. An eighth of a mile from Beach Blvd. boat ramp on Intracoastal Waterway. Sells fiddlers, shrimp, mud minnows, fresh clams in season, and all sorts of frozen baits.

The jetties, anywhere from 3 to 30 feet deep, see the bulk of the fishing action. Wrecks and other structures out to 50 or 60 feet of water are another option, said Joura. Inshore structure—such as range markers and the Dames Point Bridge—also produce some big ’heads. Either way, fresh baits are presented on sliding sinker rigs or jigheads.

Minimum size in Florida state waters is 12 inches, measured from the tip of the snout to the farthest tip of the tail when the tail fins are pinched together. Bag limit is 15 per person.

For more details about the El Cheapo and other local events, visit the Jacksonville Offshore Sport Fishing Club Web site, www.jaxfish.comFS


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