My journey in the Inshore Fishing Association Kayak Tour has had its ups and downs. My first tournament on the tour in 2013 I placed tenth. At the time, I was really excited to finish in the top ten. That was my goal from there on out. It wouldn’t be until the following year at the same tournament that I was able to crack the top ten again, with a ninth place finish.

My goal changed to finish in the top three, but I really wanted to win. Later that year at the 2014 Championship, I thought my time had come. I had a great day one and was just out of first place by an inch. I felt good about duplicating my performance on day two and I did. I had the exact same aggregate of inches and felt confident that I would end up in the top three. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed when I found out my Hobie teammate Benton Parrot had come back to beat me by just over an inch. That second place finish only fueled my desire to win.

In 2016, the Kayak Tour Championship finally left Louisiana in favor of my neck of the woods, Panama City, Florida. It made the year special to me. I was elated because I was able to prepare and plan in my home waters, which finally brought home court advantage into play.

This year I invested more hours pre-fishing in several different locations, which included areas in and around Panama City as well as my home waters. This was huge for my confidence leading up to the tournament. Having my Hobie Top Gun teammate Brandon Barton to cover more water while scouting was also a great advantage.

My game plan was to fish my local water. The weather forecast for day one called for 15- to 20-mph winds and 20- to 25-mph winds on day two, so I needed protected waters for my trout and an area that was holding a large school of bull reds. Luckily, I had both of these in Pensacola.

Article image - Journey to Victory

In IFA Kayak Tour tournaments, the goal is to catch, photograph and release one each of the largest possible trout and redfish each day, compiling an aggregate score in inches. I started day one of the tournament fishing a protected bank that had been holding 20- to 24-inch trout. When I arrived at my first spot, the fish were nowhere to be found. After spending an hour covering all the water that had been holding the fish, I decided to race off to another area a mile away. About 30 minutes into fishing the new area, I was starting to lose hope. On what would’ve been my second to last cast I hooked a trout and felt that familiar head shake. After netting and measuring the fish it was time to get back to the truck & relocate for my red fish.

Having multiple back up spots and a plan for when the conditions change are crucial elements to success.

The conditions were deteriorating quickly and time was running out. The wind was blowing a sustained 20 mph, which made jigging the structure very difficult. Luckily, I marked a school of redfish on my Lowrance, made a cast with my Live Target pinfish and immediately hooked up. I netted the fish, measured it and heard Brandon yell. He had found another school of fish and was hooked up. I pedaled over to see if I could upgrade, but all the fish were about the same size and it was time to go.

Article image - Journey to Victory

I was pretty disappointed on the way back to the weigh in, but kept thinking at least I have a decent aggregate. When we arrived at the weigh in, five other anglers having larger fish validated my concerns. I was focused and determined to catch bigger fish on day two.

On day two, the wind was blowing even harder and the trout were gone. I fished nearly three miles from my launch without a legal trout and started to panic. I had an 18.5-inch redfish and desperately needed a legal trout so I could focus on upgrading my red. At my second launch, I had to cross a stretch of open water on the wind blown bank of the bay. I surfed two-foot plus rollers in my Mirage Outback to a body of protected water.

When I arrived, the water was stained and I immediately started second-guessing my decision, but instead trusted my intuition. Luckily on my third cast, I hooked into a nice trout that head-shook and tail-walked the whole way back to the kayak. I frantically netted and measured the fish and raced back to the launch to relocate. At this point the wind was blowing 20- to 25-mph and I had two hours left to fish.

The first hour and a half went by fast with no fish to the net. With 30 minutes to go, I pedaled as fast as the conditions would allow to the area I had found the school of bulls the day before and on my second cast hooked and landed a beautiful 37-inch bull. I was overcome with joy! I quickly measured, revived and released the fish and headed back to my launch.

One thing I have learned is to NEVER give up. Often times, that game changing moment in life or that tournament winning fish is caught in the last hour when you may least expect it.

Once back at the weigh in, I anxiously awaited the arrival of the other anglers. One by one they came in without a two-fish aggregate. As each angler weighed in, I realized my dream was coming true and that I was about to win my first IFA Championship.

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Winning the IFA Championship will always be a highlight of my fishing career. I am still overwhelmed with emotion knowing everything it took to lead up to that moment. I am grateful for the support of my family, teammates & Hobie Fishing. Bringing home a new Hobie Pro Angler, Micro Power Pole, and a big check was great, but nothing can compare to holding up that trophy and joining so many anglers I respect as an IFA Champion.

Check back weekly for new videos and stories by the 2016 Hobie Fishing Top Guns.

Article image - Matthew Vann Wins 2016 IFA Kayak Tour Championship