Whether you spell your annual year-long kayak fishing contest AOTY or WCW, winning one of these things is a job for a marathon man.
“It’s kind of a relief. It’s pretty stressful once you get midway in the year when you’re leading or near the top. It makes you want to spend a lot of time on the water. The last week I was out eleven hours a day and still didn’t come up with a fish,” Greg Barnicoat said, as glad his months-long trial was finally over as he was proud of his achievement.
Northern California’s Masochist Marathon
Barnicoat won the fifth annual West Coast Whoppers year-long tournament hosted by Big Waters Edge, a Southern California online kayak fishing community. As with most of his predecessors, the monumental effort left Barnicoat a bit shell-shocked and leery of attempting to repeat as WCW champ. Put another way, it takes so much effort to get to the top of this mountain, many winners retire while they’re still at the top of the game.
For those who are just hearing about it, WCW is a points race based on an angler’s best catch each month. Only relative trophies count, and only Southern California’s three kayak glamour fish apply.
Think about what it takes. To win, you have to produce month after month, regardless of nasty weather or slow fishing. Remember, a kayak’s nowhere as comfy as a couch or even the most humble of boats. This is a wet, physically demanding sport.
I haven’t written about Barnicoat’s glittering prize haul because there isn’t one. WCW’s top competitors do it largely for bragging rights, for pride and fun. Barnicoat earned a share of a modest jackpot. Otherwise the most tangible reward is a small emblem that appears on his BWE internet posts. Many competitors sign up just to track their catches and for the monthly shot of motivation. Barnicoat was one of them. Then things changed.
"I had the only entry for January, had an entry for February, then came March," Barnicoat said. In that month he tallied a 51-lb white seabass and the biggest halibut of the contest, a 38-lb doormat. Those trophies pushed Barnicoat out to a big lead he never relinquished.
Barnicoat accomplished several impressive feats. He was the first LA county-based winner (La Jolla locals had dominated to this point), a member of the stalwart Baytubers group. He was the first to lead wire-to-wire. Most shockingly, he sheepishly admitted to only16 months in the sport. That last one is a doozy. Past winners boasted extensive experience along with the fiery drive to win, complementing opportunity – time on the water.
"I always say from the get-go, the person who wants it the most is going to win the tournament," WCW organizer Andrew Allen of OEX Sunset Beach said. Allen is prepping for the 2011 contest. It will start later this year, to give anglers a chance to relax before gearing up for another go.??Barnicoat was humble in victory. "Even with the lead I still didn’t think I was likely going to win the tournament. If Jasmin (the eventual second place finisher) had caught a good fish he could have beat me at the end. I would never have won it if it wasn’t for the coaching of John Gugliotta. In December of last year, when I caught my then-best 25-lb halibut, he coached me through it."
Northern California has its own flavor of crazy, the annual Angler of the Year contest hosted by the NorCal Kayak Anglers webpage. Although it is a species-based event that takes the top ten individual point scores from a list of 20 fish, it requires just as much grit and want-to to win. It’s often come down to kayak fishing in the snow. Anything to get a last minute edge.
2010 AOTY champ Allen Leepin sounds a lot like his southern counterpart when he admits to some nerves near the end of the year. Leepin edged out his nearest competitor by 16 points, winning 1704 to 1688. Point awards are based on fish length. To put that score into context, it roughly amounts to an extra inch of rockfish and another of trout.
Leepin notched an early lead with a 55-inch sturgeon, then followed it up with a day he ironically terms “the fiasco.” Not for him – for trophy fish. Paddling out of Half Moon Bay with his adult son and friends, he caught a limit of chunky white seabass and a big halibut in a mere 30 minutes. No one else hooked up. That’s one way to quickly distance yourself from the crowd.
For his efforts, Leepin won a Hobie Mirage Drive kayak of his choice and the ever-popular priceless bragging rights. In particular, over his son Patrick, the 2009 AOTY champion by a nose over a certain second place finisher. That was tough. “I have to see that kid all the time,” Leepin joked.
Leepin is no Johnny come lately. As early as the late 70s, he spent a lot of time fishing and diving from fiberglass dive boards – precursors to today’s fishing kayaks. “We just did it (fished the ocean) to kill time between dives. I was also using my 25 year old fiberglass board for steelhead fishing and on the rivers,” Leepin said. Let’s hear it for the old salt!
Leepin took some pains to explain why people fish the AOTY, even those who don’t expect to win.
“It gets us out more. That’s the whole point of AOTY,” Leepin said. To get anglers to fish out of their comfort zones, for species they otherwise wouldn’t try. “Otherwise I never would have gone for sturgeon, bass or crappie,” Leepin added.
NCKA has the 2011 version of AOTY up and running, although there are a few details yet to be determined such as the prize list. It scarcely matters. Competing in one of California’s two year-long kayak fishing contests is its own reward – although more than a few past winners would say it’s so hard-earned, a vacation is in order. • A PAIR OF WEST COAST WHOPPERS - WCW champ Greg Barnicoat with a barn door (left) stops to talk shop with Don Bell, the eventual third place finisher and fellow Baytuber who is having a pretty good day himself. You have to score big, and often, if you want to win this thing. PHOTO COURTESY JOHN GUGLIOTTA
• FIASCO FISH – AOTY winner Allen Leepin surged into the lead with a day for the books. This seabass was one of three, a 30 minute limit spiced with a big halibut. Even so, Leepin was looking over his shoulder right to the final gun. PHOTO COURTESY ALLEN LEEPIN