JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – They call it the El Cheapo for a good reason. At a mere $80 per boat, the annual Sheepshead tournament in Mayport is by far the cheapest and one of the largest purse fishing competitions in all of Florida.
The 17th annual El Cheapo Sheepshead Tournament kicked off early Saturday morning in traditional fashion. By dawn, the parking lot at the Mayport docks had already transformed into a boneyard of boat trailers.
Per Assistant Tournament Director Trina Polkey, 385 boats registered for the tournament this year. Polkey, who has been involved with Jacksonville Offshore Sport Fishing Club (JOSFC) for over a decade, has been heavily involved with the tournament for the past three years.
The JOSFC started hosting the El Cheapo Tournament in 2000. The club takes care of organizational aspects, like the collection of tournament fees and arranging sponsorships. Each year, the JOSFC takes a portion of the proceeds and puts them towards building artificial reefs offshore and supporting the Marine Science Education Center here in Jacksonville.
“And that’s not even listing all the things we support through the year,” Polkey said, speaking on behalf of the JOSFC. “Whenever there are issues with the SAFMC, we support people going to lobby for our rights to fish.”
Polkey said that the tournament averages around 400 boats each year. This year, that number was slightly down, but you wouldn’t know after talking to participants, like Carl “CJ” Carlin, who makes the trip from Lillian, Ala. to Jacksonville annually to join his son and daughter-in-law in this family oriented fishing tournament.
Carlin said he’s been participating in the El Cheapo for the past seven years. He considers the tournament as a “family reunion.”
“Nothing,” Carlin said, when asked if he caught a Sheepshead last year. “But it’s fun! It’s not the catching of the fish, it’s just going out and doing something together.”
Carlin’s misfortune last year should come as no surprise, though. The Sheepshead is a notoriously difficult fish to catch, due to their soft bite and fickle taste. The preferred bait to use when fishing for Sheepshead has been fiddler crabs in the past, but this year, oysters and shrimp seemed to be the two most popular choices.
“After you feel that second bump, if you don’t have it pulled by then, you’ve lost it,” said Ocean Waves Sunglasses representative Billy Wilkerson. “A lot of the guys don’t even know how to fish for a Sheepshead. There’s a skill to it.”
Billy and his son Travis Wilkerson have been participating in the tournament as a sponsor for many years. They said they’ve seen it continue to grow each year, and alongside it, the participants, who some of which, Billy coached and Travis played little league baseball with.
“The best part about this tournament is that everybody knows each other,” Wilkerson said. “The families start coming out here; the kids start coming out here and everybody just hangs out. It’s like a big party.”
The El Cheapo tournament is divided into four separate categories of anglers: general, juniors, ladies and kayak. The individual prize amounts vary based on category, but the total cash value of all prizes equal over $100,000. The grand prize this year in the general division was a new boat, motor and trailer, with 15th place being $150 cash.
According to El Cheapo Weighmaster John “Pork Chop” Porcella, despite a smaller number of registered boats, anglers this year seemed to have more luck when it came to hooking Sheepshead.
Porcella, a New York native, has been involved in the El Cheapo since it started, 17 years ago. His job as weighmaster includes riding around in the media boat during the tournament and asking participants to show what they’ve caught so far.
“We started out with originally probably 20 boats and now we are up to 400's,” Porcella said. “It’s the cheapest, largest tournament in all of Florida.”
Porcella’s prediction for this year’s winning Sheepshead was 10.7 pounds. He wasn’t even close.
The winner in the general angler division was a 14.3-pound Sheepshead caught by Chris Beasley. The hefty fish broke the previous El Cheapo record of 12.9-pounds, which had been held since 2009. Beasley’s fish was just shy of the current state record of 15.2-pounds.
“After years and years of fishing for them, you just have to be patient and have a variety of different baits,” said local radio personality Kirk Waltz, who coincidentally came in second place. “Just like us, they like fresh seafood. Put the right seafood in front of them and they’ll eat it.”