Competition and Conservation in Crystal River

By Carlton Reese | Photography By Ralph Demilio

A cloudless, azure sky upstaged only by the crisp moderate temperatures greeted the anglers on a chamber of commerce Saturday morning. On land, such a placid scene belied what the Gulf of Mexico had in store: double digit winds and choppy seas that bring regret to even the veteran mariner. The recent 7th Annual Plantation Redfish Classic in Crystal River would go on, anglers undaunted in their pursuit of a prize-winning haul.

For those casting toward the mangroves, only the tides and shallows would warrant any consternation. But for those headed to deeper water in search of grouper, the negotiation of swells and whitecaps would not be for the faint of heart.

“Those guys aren’t scared, that’s for sure,” said Kayla Livingston, one of three tournament directors along with Paul Cross and John Spann. Their event has quickly turned into one of the go-to tournaments for fishermen in Crystal River and the surrounding areas, including Levy and Marion counties.

The third weekend of October now belongs to the Plantation Redfish Classic and at the 2022 version, choppy waters couldn’t keep Garrett Norris’ team from hauling in the grouper division’s winning 23.5 pounder. As the 4 p.m. deadline approached, Norris steered his boat toward the weigh-in area, where Blake Schidler’s team was currently on top with an 18.22 pounder.

Murmurs could be heard throughout the gathering: “I wonder what he has?” and “Do they have enough time?”

Four large grouper were tossed into a bin, but the biggest was raced to the officials’ table where the moment of anticipation had arrived. The last fish of the day to be weighed would be the largest of the day. That drama capped a day of competition that has helped make this tournament the treasure it is.

Plantation Infographic“This isn’t just a fishing tournament, it’s an event,” said Cross, who believes the growing popularity of the tournament will result in bigger payouts at future events and possibly expansion into two days of competition.

Whatever the future holds, the present could not be much better, with 54 teams and 160 anglers and an ever-growing list of sponsors who are eager to be part of what is now a traditional happening at the Plantation Resort.

This year, $20,000 was raised that went directly to scholarships for area youths attending either college or vocational schools. In addition, the tournament raised $2,500 for the Florida Disaster Relief Fund to help victims of Hurricane Ian in the southwest part of the state. The main objective may be to raise money for worthy causes, but the competition and coinciding conservation efforts are hallmarks of the event. As a “live” fishing tournament, redfish must be living when they are brought to the weigh-in area and once winners are known, those fish are released back to the water where they will continue to spawn and maintain a thriving population. Such efforts are lost at many tournaments.

For Randy Hodges and Mitch Roe, keeping their biggest fish alive was the difference in winning and losing. The efforts made at catching their biggest red would only be surpassed by their efforts to keep that fish alive the rest of the day.

“Our (biggest) fish wanted to belly-up on us,” said Hodges, who recently retired from Duke Energy. “We kept moving him around, reviving him. Mitch put some G Juice in the live well… and he rejuvenated. We watched him for two or three hours and he was fine.”

The G Juice, a livewell treatment and fish care formula, was provided to all anglers by the Coastal Conservation Association and may be a big reason why over 40 redfish were returned back to the water alive and healthy. The formula enabled Hodges and Roe to hit a winning 13 pounds, taking the redfish division and the $3,000 cash prize.

Things started out slowly for the winners, but around 11:30 a.m. they decided to head to what Hodges calls Roe’s “Fourth-and-20” spot. That’s where fortunes turned and they landed the big one. 

“I call it Thanksgiving Creek and it paid off,” said Roe, a Citrus County employee who runs a charter on these waters and also has no problems giving up the GPS coordinates if he had them. “I couldn’t even tell you the GPS coordinates; just come on the boat and I’ll take you right there.”

For Hodges and Roe, they set their expectations low so the pressure of tournament angling would not overwhelm them. Fishing on a sponsorship from Pete’s Pier, their goal was simple: have some fun fishing and make a good showing for Pete’s Pier.

Plantation Infographic

“We decided together we were just going to come out and fish – we weren’t going to get all ramped up,” Roe said. The loosy-goosy attitude paid dividends.

“I did not (think we would win) because there are so many good fishermen in this tournament,” Hodges said. “I told Mitch we’d probably take eighth or ninth.”

Pre-fishing the day before the tournament, Hodges and Roe mapped out their spots, but had no luck with trout – the weather was a bit cooler the day before during their reconnaissance mission. As the tide started coming back in, the two switched their sights on redfish, using mud minnows, shrimp and cut mullet as bait. All three worked.

“That’s the beauty of this,” Roe said. “Redfish are my favorite fish to catch because they’re tough, they’re resilient, but they’re pretty predictable too. You catch them back in the mangroves – we were up in the bugs, the no-see-ums and everything else.”

Annoying bugs or not, Roe is quick to point out that this being a “live” event makes it special to him, as it does many of the other anglers here who call these waters home.

“Let’s say you come out and fish this tournament and it’s a ‘dead’ tournament, you’re throwing them things in the box, you come up here and all those fish are dead including that beautiful fish we brought in. That kind of hurts me,” Roe said. “I’m a very conservation-minded person; I try to talk people into ‘you’ve got enough for dinner, we don’t need to get our limit today.’ I’m not against (reaching a limit) and we’ll work to that if you want, but just think about it.”

The event is one of the few tournaments in the area that will pull a culling permit, which allows fishermen to put back smaller redfish to upgrade their fish when a bigger one is caught.

“We released over 40 healthy redfish and they all swam off – there’s not many tournaments that can say the fish will survive even after they swim off,” Livingston said. “These anglers take it seriously and they know what it takes to keep these fish healthy.”

Any fishing tournament is mainly about the day on the water, but the Plantation Redfish Classic is much more. With the Plantation Resort as the host venue, long vacation weekends are commonplace among competitors who bring their entire families. The Friday night captain’s meeting is catered with a party atmosphere and is only topped by the awards ceremony the following night.

Along with the winners picking up their wares, silent auctions and 50-50 raffles for high-quality fishing gear and more create a festive buzz. Not to mention the open bar and buffet of barbecue and fish and one has an evening to remember whether the fish were biting that day or not.

“To the anglers, an event like this and especially hosted at a venue like this, they’ll come and make a whole weekend of it,” Livingston said. “We had one that said they had so much fun last year that they came in on Thursday and made a long weekend out of it, leaving on Monday.”

“I think the biggest thing is getting the word out that this just isn’t a fishing tournament, it’s a fishing event,” Cross says. “Not every fishing tournament has an awards ceremony where we raise money for the CCA. We’ll continue to work on that.”

In just seven years and overcoming a year of COVID cancellations, the Plantation Redfish Classic has grown from a modest tournament with bold ambitions to one that is now a must-mark on all anglers’ calendars. A great resort, beautiful waterways, a healthy fishery and a big party will generally make it happen – and in Crystal River it certainly has.

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