The Toy Rod Catfish Tournament – A Model for Others
A guest editorial by Tammy Wilson
Once a year, a secret society of anglers convene on the banks of the St. John’s River in Florida with a single mission in mind – to be crowned champion of the Annual Toy Rod Catfish Tournament and stand in their boat hoisting the trophy high whilst the competition circles them holding signs expressing what losers they are. Once a year, someone’s dreams come true.
They gather each year with cash and toy donations… a small entry fee into the most fun fishing tournament to be found. All of that goes to the local non-profit group that benefits kids of the winners’ choosing. The winners get the coveted catfish trophy and a get out of the loser parade free card. And we can’t forget the bragging rights… so many bragging rights. The smack talk goes on all year long.
The anglers come from all backgrounds and show up in every type of boat. Kayak guides, flats guides, redfish tournament guys, fly anglers, army rangers, city workers, firemen, guys who edit catfish magazines… a truly diverse group of people, all getting together with a single common passion.
They all share the need to have some fun and to not take themselves so seriously. They come in flats boats, pontoon boats, bay boats, kayaks, john boats and gheenoes. Some have even sat on the bank and fished. Boats of every shape and size decked out in Barbie rods. It’s a sight to behold.
The rules are simple. No more than four rods per boat. Two adult anglers and as many kids as you can cram on there, but no more than four rods per boat. Oh, did we mention that these rods have to be toy rods? We’ve seen Spiderman, Barbie, Spongebob, Frozen, Disney Princess, Superman… they’ve all shown up in the contest. You can change the line (and we do, most of us fish braid on them) and that’s it.
Everyone must have a loser sign, just in case they lose. We leave at 8 and come back at noon and the team with the largest total of inches for their bag is the winner. It’s that simple. The most important rule is to have fun – and fun we have.
Though there is smack talking all year and all day long, bait gets shared, spots crashed, boats tied together, beers floated down river, some of the best excuses for not catching fish you’d ever want to hear and some classic stories too. It’s the only tournament I know of where twice someone has had a rod snatched overboard by a fish only to be retrieved within minutes, both with the fish still attached. Anglers go lifetimes without that ever happening, but it’s happened in two of the three years of the tournament.
Nobody really ever goes more than a mile in either direction of the dock. Texts and calls back and forth happen all day. Music is played. Catfish are caught. Well, some people catch them anyways. Others just enjoy being losers, apparently.
The same team has won all three years. While some say it’s rigged, the winners seem to think it’s because they can have fun and still be serious. We have secret bait (that everyone knows about), we have secret spots (that everyone knows about) and we have a secret strategy. We fish the tournament like we are fishing a tournament. There’s always at least one bait in the water. If we haven’t gotten a bite in five minutes, we’re moving to another spot. Bait is always ready to go and we jam out to good tunes. I think the catfish really like 70s rock myself.
After we measure fish, and crown the winners, we all get back in our boats and head over to the area in front of the crowded fish camp. The winning boat gets in the middle and then the other boats parade around them, loser signs held high and bowing to the winners. That’s the prize. That’s it. That’s what you get for winning. That, and a damn fine fish fry. Everyone wins in that dept.
We all bring a little something that when added together makes a very fine meal. The guys fillet the day’s catch and Tom Van Horn and myself end up cooking. I think the winners should have to cook every year, since we have done it every time so far. We’re hoping for new winners next year! Beer battered fried catfish, breaded fried catfish, cole slaw, fries, hushpuppies and cupcakes. That’s the meal. And there isn’t a finer meal to be had. Miss Lynn Marie said it right, ”Fresh air and friendship makes food taste so good.” She’s right.
The kids play, families show up, we talk and laugh and joke and there are never hurt feelings, never sadness about losing, and a date is then picked for the following year. For some, it’s the only day of the year they will see each other. Regardless, for that one day, they are friends, comrades and proud to call each other friends.
But the winning doesn’t stop there. Show up at a women’s and children’s homeless shelter two weeks before Christmas with 200 bucks and a duffle bag full of toys. You know who wins then? Everyone. Walk through your work with that same giant duffle bag of toys the following year so that everyone can see you and fill up the toy donation box for the South Brevard Sharing Center that has been sitting empty for weeks and you’ll know what winning is once again. Stick your receipt from them for the cash donation you made from entry fees and a little more to make an even number on the cubicle wall. Watch the emails pour in. Then watch the toys pour in. Everyone wins. Again.
It’s quite possibly the simplest tournament around. It’s definitely the most fun, and though you’d think it was easy, the toy rods really make and keep things interesting and most definitely what makes it the most fun.
It’s easy to put together. It is inexpensive to put together. Everyone brings everything they need. Everyone pitches in something for the post tournament breaking of bread together and everyone leaves knowing they had a great time with amazing people and that somewhere, locally, some kids are going to have a little bit better of a holiday season because of it.
If you think this is something you’d like to put together in your area, I highly recommend it. It was born over a crappie fishing day on the boat and cemented over beers at the fish camp afterwards. December 3, 2017 we will once again go to battle with our dear friends. Feel free to join us down here in central Florida or create your own in your area.
Don’t hesitate to holler at me if you have questions about getting one going. Surely somewhere near you, there’s a shelter for the homeless or battered and abused women or kids that could use your help. If not, have people bring canned food instead and stock up the shelves of the local food pantry.
Originally the donated toy was an incentive to add 6 inches to the total of the fish you caught. But, since everyone brings a toy now, we don’t even count the extra 6 inches anymore, because everyone gets it. It could be done just as easily with canned foods or winter coats or blankets for our friends up north.
I’m honored to be the three-time champion of my most favorite tournament of them all throughout the year. Hopefully next year, we’ll be passing that trophy along to someone else. I can’t wait to see what Tom adds to it this year, because even the trophy has rules. The winner has to add something to the trophy each year before presenting it to the next winning team.
Again, come join us or make your own event. You won’t be sorry. And, you can’t possibly be anything but happy for a day if you’re fishing a tournament with Barbie rods.