Twelve years and 13 tournaments later, PaddlePalooza XIII proves kayak tournaments in South Louisiana are the real deal.
In early 2005, a group of fledgling paddle fishermen found themselves connected by the allure of the Louisiana marsh and the solitary thrill of battling speckled trout, redfish and flounder from self-powered craft.
Many of these guys and girls had never met. They came together through the power of the Internet and the creation of a “Louisiana-Cajun Country” topic on a kayak fishing forum in early 2005.
Thrilled to learn there were others out there with the same affliction, it didn’t take long for them to start plotting group trips and even a tournament.
Interest quickly grew, and seeds were sown for the first event with the suggested name of “Yakapalooza.”
Well, forums were no different back then, and someone quickly pointed out that the name was pretty exclusive and showed no love to those paddling pirogues and canoes for their fishing adventures.
With a little discussion, “PaddlePalooza” was set in motion.
The mishmash group went all-in and planned the first event. No Louisiana fishing tournament could be held without food, fun and prizes, so 25 participants coughed up $5 for a winner-take-all format, and one of the guys fed the group redfish blackened on a piece of iron.
All had fun. So much fun in fact, that they held another one later that same year.
Fast forward more than a decade and some of these same guys are still at it.
From that initial group, the Bayou Coast Kayak Fishing Club was formed, and PaddlePalooza continues as Louisiana’s oldest kayak-fishing tournament.
This year saw nearly 285 participants and, all told, the combination of kayaks, cash, charitable donations and raffle prizes given out were worth over $15,000.
Top prizes go to those catching the heaviest total combined weight “Cajun slam” consisting of a speckled trout, redfish and flounder.
Tournament strategy for pursuing a slam varies widely.
Many prefer to target trout first, specifically hoping for an early morning topwater bite. Once they catch a nice trout, redfish is usually the next target.
Flounder are always the wildcard, and there are countless stories of participants spending the final hours of the tournament chasing the elusive flat fish — sometimes successfully, oftentimes not.
Of course, things don’t always go as planned, and catching all three in any order is always acceptable.
The club uses a custom computer program that ranks entries and automatically places them into the category/place where they will win the highest value prize. Contestants are allowed to place in only one category.
Taking top honors was Casey Brunning, whose three-fish Cajun slam weighed in at 12.47 pounds, consisting of an 8.13-pound red, a 2.54-pound trout and a 1.8-pound flounder.
Brunning took home a nice trophy and a Hobie Pro Angler 14 valued at $3,300.
The final leaderboard was littered with many of the usual suspects, including some of those original PP I participants. However, many newcomers proved that winning kayak tournaments requires a mix of skills and luck.
In years past, flounder proved to be the most-difficult fish to catch and made completing the Cajun Slam quite difficult.
At PP XI, only six slams were weighed in due to flounder not getting with the program. However, this year was a record, with many anglers coming to the scales with all three fish.
Nearly 50 slams hit the scales.
The top three prizes for the Cajun slam winners were a Hobie Pro Angler 14, a Hobie Outback and a Backpacker $1,000 gift card, respectively.
Fourth through 10th slam winners received a cash prize.
Under tournament rules, three-fish slams trump two-fish combinations, no matter the total weight.
Kyle Templet won the “leopard red” category for catching a redfish with 13 spots.
Brandon Barton crushed the spotted sea trout division with a fat girl weighing 5.67 pounds. David Guidry topped the redfish category with an 8.29-pound bronze bruiser, while Perry Watts scored with a big 2.4-pound flounder.
“After three years of fishing PaddlePalooza and never landing a flounder, this year was a dream come true,” Brunning said.
No stranger to the podium, Brunning has won big red twice before at PaddlePalooza, and his wife Jennifer has won once.
“When I caught my first flounder around 10 a.m., you would have thought I had won the lottery,” Brunning said. “I’m sure folks in the next parish could hear me celebrating.”
Although only 12 inches, the flatfish completed the coveted slam. However, Brunning went on to catch two additional flounder, each one successively heavier.
While in the weigh-in line, Brunning heard stories of all the big trout caught and how so many participants had found flounder.
His hopes were fading.
“When my name was called, it was a sound I never imagined,” Brunning said. “The 2016 Paddle Palooza XIII Champion — what a cool sound and pretty neat feeling.”
Carrying on the tradition of food and fun, several volunteer fish cleaners filleted scores of fish, and the club made a donation on their behalf to benefit the Heroes on the Water program, a non-profit organization that helps wounded warriors relax, rehabilitate and reintegrate through kayak fishing and the outdoors.
Additional charitable donations were made to support Wish to Fish Louisiana and the Louisiana Sportsmens Coalition.
The former organization works to get kids off the streets, out of the house, away from the TV and video games and into the great outdoors.
LSC is a new group uniting sportsmen in the fight over the gating of waterways and increasing access to Louisiana waters for fishing.
For more information on PaddlePalooza and other kayak tournaments, go to: www.bckfc.org.