In a decade and a half, this event has grown to epic summer status in the Bayou State.
This Memorial Day weekend, like last year’s and the year before that, casual visitors to Louisiana’s coast will wonder, “Who let the dogs out?” Besides being the traditional start of summer, Memorial Day weekend is the start of the hundred-days-plus annual Statewide Tournament and Anglers Rodeo. Many coastal anglers now look forward to the tournament as an established rite of spring.
What began as a pregnant-with-potential, fledgling fundraiser for the Louisiana Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) in 1995 is now the mother of all fishing tournaments. The prizes for the tournament’s 2008 winners were dazzling, up to 22 new rigged boats and trailers, four $5,000 tackle packages, a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a new Chevy Silverado pick-up truck.
Louisiana’s STAR was an idea borrowed by Louisiana CCA from its sister organization in Texas, where it was an acronym for State of Texas Angling Rodeo. The Texas STAR is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
While no doubt the winners of prizes for catching tagged redfish, and winning mangrove snapper, cobia, dorado (dolphin), king mackerel, flounder and largemouth bass are excited about the competition, there is no question about what the most STAR buzz is about. It’s about speckled trout, the queen of marsh fishes, those silver, slippery things that keep grown men awake at night.
The structure of the STAR provides lots of opportunity for action in the speckled trout division. In 2008, the state was divided into three zones — west, central and east. Then, competition within each zone is divided into two periods, the first half of summer and the second half.
This arrangement produced six speckled trout winners, each of whom received a brand-new boat, motor and trailer. The angler with the largest speck of the year received a larger, more expensive rig than did the other five. Tournament participants commonly call this “the big boat.”
The STAR is an unusual tournament for two reasons. First is its length, much longer than the typical one- to three-day rodeo or tournament.
Second is the type of competition produced by its structure. Occasional weekend anglers win more often than do dedicated anglers who focus on big trout. In 2008, five of the six winners described themselves as people who just like to fish and were not fishing with the goal of winning the competition when they caught their winning fish.
Dylan Gondron, a self-employed carpenter from Erath who won the big boat last year with a 9.40-pound speck, his first year in STAR, describes himself as not being a tournament fisherman, but rather as a guy who “just likes to fish.” Present with his daughter to receive his boat, he said, “Take a kid fishing; that’s my thing.” Hardly the words of a tournament competitor, most of whom seldom waste time on a kid in a boat.
Gondron’s sentiments are echoed by Justin Duncan, a 19-year old Xavier student from New Orleans.
“I don’t fish to win the tournament,” he said. “I just love the sport of it, being out there fishing. I fish a lot, so I said, why not join?”
Duncan won his boat with a 7.4-pounder the first period of the east zone.
Three other 2008 Speckled Trout Division winners expressed similar views. Chet Schwing of New Iberia mainly joined because the tournament is for a good cause. Schwing won with a 7.32-pound fish.
Sulphur resident John Adams beat his competition with an 8.85-pound beast that hammered his Zara Super Spook in Calcasieu Lake. He admits to making that particular trip specifically to try to catch big fish, but says that he never fishes with the intent of winning the tournament.
Harold Licatino, who hails from Nederland, Texas, and caught his winning 8.3-pound speck from the Sabine Lake jetties, joined STAR out of casual interest, and he got lucky. He said he never makes fishing trips to win the STAR.
Alone among the 2008 STAR winners’ casual approach is Chuck Miramon, who without equivocation, said, “I absolutely make trips to try to win the STAR.”
He and his regular partner Rudy Hall, both of Mandeville, block out dates with the right moon phase and tides to comb Venice waters for big trout like his 7.3-pound winner.
Miramon’s drive to win the STAR every time he goes out puts him in select company. Some previous STAR winners of now almost legendary status exhibit the same intensity.
“In fishing, when I sign up for a rodeo, in my mind I am betting that I can beat you,” said Terry St. Cyr of Lafayette. “I will do everything legally in my power to beat you.”
St. Cyr signs up for STAR every year. In 2005, he won the big boat. He came in second in his zone twice, in 2002 and 2007.
Bootsie Toups of Marrero calls it “one big 101-day tournament,” and between Memorial Day and Labor Day, he fishes every weekend and every other day possible. He placed second in STAR for three years before winning in 2003.
Lafayette’s David Billeaud religiously follows the STAR postings daily on the CCA website. After winning the big boat in 2007, he impatiently marked time through 2008 to be eligible to compete again in 2009. STAR winners are disqualified from winning again for one year after a win.
Charlie Lieux of Ascension Parish shows the same ferocious focus in fishing the STAR.
“I have the mindset that I can’t be beat,” he said. “Do I get beat? Absolutely! Do I like it? No!
“But I shake the winner’s hand, and I say ‘next time.’”
Lieux has won two boats in STAR.
In 2004, he caught a tagged redfish and won his first boat. In 2006, he won the second boat with a first-place finish in the central zone of the trout division.
Much of the success of STAR is due to the three tournament directors it has had. Current director Sam Barbera, no slouch at catching big specks himself, describes the STAR as “my identity and my passion.”
Tournament director since 2000, his goal is to make the STAR reflect the face of CCA.
“I want to make the tournament more appealing to participants and potential participants,” he said. “I want it to appeal to big trout junkies, to kids, to bucket fishermen and to those who own 70-foot offshore sport fishers.”
Barbera, who prides himself in his public accessibility, says that the “funnest” part of his job is speaking at elementary schools.
“Kids are our future,” he explains, “and if angler numbers continue to drop, the sport fishing industry will go away. Kids may be doing something else not as wholesome as fishing too.
“STAR has been good for fishermen, and STAR has been good for CCA.”
In Louisiana CCA, membership has increased 421 percent since 1994, the year before the tournament started, to 2008.
The STAR has also been good for tournament sponsors, says Phil Faulkner, owner of Nautic Star Boats in Armory, Miss.
“CCA does a tremendous job of enhancing the future of speckled trout and redfish, and the STAR creates excitement about fishing,” he said. “Anything we can do for the tournament we see more as an investment than a donation.”
And that’s exactly the way STAR die-hards approach the event.
Miramon said he doesn’t ever want fishermen on his boat who aren’t registered.