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Taking the Challenge

“They’re supposed to take off into the wind,” Ryan McNeal yelled as the F-22 Raptors roared low overhead off the runway at Tyndall Air Force Base. This time last year, Master Sargent McNeal was Chief Air Controller in the Tyndall control tower. Retired from the Air Force and working in Miami now, there wasn’t a thing he could do to prevent the F-22s, F-16s, F-4s and, oddly, a pair of A-10 Warthogs, from periodically drowning out our conversation as he pre-fished the IFA championship directly under their uncharacteristic downwind flight path.

It’s not like the pilots could have missed the 20-knot north wind that had pummeled the Emerald Coast around Panama City, Florida for the last several days. While Category 4 Hurricane Matthew raked Florida’s east coast, the storm’s massive circulation was also busy changing strategies for the tournament’s competitors hundreds of miles to the west. The north wind, in combination with large amounts of floating seagrass, rendered normally productive south shorelines virtually unfishable.

Competitors in the catch-and-release 2-day IFA Finals are allowed to measure one redfish and one trout each day, the total number of inches determining the overall winner.

“With this wind, if you can measure 60 inches both days, you’ll win,” McNeal said as he explained his strategy of getting the trout early and then concentrating his efforts on finding a bull red beneath one of the nearby bridges. The wind left kayakers scrambling to find alternative grassflats to search for trout; the redfish portion took on a bucking bronco scenario as the wind pounded the favored venue around the Hathaway Bridge pilings.

“I’ll start out throwing topwaters for the trout,” McNeal explained. “I got some big explosions when I fished the area a few days ago, and I’ve left the spot alone since then, so hopefully the fish will still be there.” As for the redfish, “I’ll start out dropping jigs around the pilings, but I’ll go to a big LiveTarget Pinfish if the jigs don’t work.”

Even with a hurricane bearing down on the east coast, competitors converged from throughout the South to fish the IFA. Guys like Ryan McNeal hauled their kayaks 10 hours and then went through almost a week of long, exhausting days of pre-fishing to compete in tough conditions.

“I wanted to represent Panama City as best as I can,” McNeal said. “This is where I got my kayak-fishing start, and I wanted to show my appreciation for the trust they put in me.”

Spin the clock ahead, 5:50 a.m. Central Time. McNeal’s yellow Pro Angler 12 is off the truck and rigged and ready. Last minute tackle changes, then waiting impatiently for the 6:20 starting gun. The weather forecast on National Public Radio is less than encouraging: 20-25 knot winds, possibly gusting to 40. Waves around the bridge pilings could be menacing.

McNeal’s goal is to find a good trout quickly, and then hit the bridge in search of a bull red in the 40-inch-plus range. Whitecaps greet us as we emerge from a small, sheltered bayou. A rat redfish a quarter-inch short of legal eats valuable time off the clock, but it’s a fish. Yellow mouth open and gills flared, a solid trout in the 20-inch range shakes McNeal’s hook. He sticks to his game plan, settling for a 16.75-incher in order to be on the road by 8:45.

Updates to follow.