‘Ding’ Tarpon Tournament Nets $165K

provided to The Santiva Chronicle

Despite unprecedented obstacles, early estimates for the 11th annual “Ding” Darling & Doc Ford’s Tarpon Tournament on May 19 show earnings of about $165,000 from tournament sponsorships and donations to support water-quality research and conservation at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.

The “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge (DDWS) organizes the annual tournament with Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille. Typically, the captain’s meeting and Silver King Awards ceremony take place at the Doc Ford’s Fort Myers Beach location, but as it was destroyed by Hurricane Ian in September, the events moved to the Sanibel flagship restaurant.

Doc Ford owners worked closely with DDWS staff to make sure the tournament would take place again in 2023 in spite of challenges and logistics.

First place winners Team TowBoat US scored a check for $25,050. Pictured: DDWS’ April Boehnen, Mike Price, Chris Magnano, Jessica Potts, captain Kyle Potts, and Josh Constantine

The 2023 tournament paid out a total of $55,665 in prizes to five winning teams out of 53 registered teams. Anglers photo-recorded 40 tarpon catches this year. The first-place prize of $25,050 went to Team TowBoat US, including captain Kyle Potts, Mike Price, Jessica Potts, Chris Magnano, and Josh Constantine. The team caught and released a total of seven fish.

“Congratulations to Kyle! He now wears the coveted pink tarpon jacket,” said Joe Harrity, partner at Doc Ford’s. The Harrity family introduced the jacket in 2017 as an added incentive for taking first place in the tournament. “It’s kind of like the green Masters tournament jacket in golf. The winning captain gets the honor of wearing the pink tarpon jacket each year.”

Second-place Team Spartan Stix, led by captain Cory McGuire, caught six fish and won $13,915. In third place, captain Jason Moore’s Team The Wreck Guys caught three (the first at 10 a.m.) and took home $8,350. Fourth-place winners Team Sea Reaper Sportfishing, with captain Chris Argiro, won $5,565 with three fish (the first caught later at 12:47 a.m.); fifth-place winners Team Bay Marine, with captain Kyle Petrick, took home $2,785 for two fish.

The tournament also handed out awards for female angler to Kristin Aley with Team K2TB, senior angler to Gary Biltgen with Team Chasin Poon, and amateur team to Team EZ Livin’ with Captain Preston Towle, Jack Swedberg, Carson Towle, and Trevor Zamniak.

“Because all boat registration fees go into the awards purse, sponsorship partners are extremely important to this tournament,” said Birgie Miller, executive director of DDWS. “They make it possible to raise vital financial support for the conservation mission of DDWS and the refuge.”

To date, the tarpon tournament has raised $1,180,000 for refuge water research, wildlife research, and education. It has awarded $376,790 to tournament winning teams during its 11-year history. The first-of-its-kind tournament to benefit conservation and award 100 percent of its fees to winners, the competition began to support local professional fishing guides and connect with anglers to educate and make them part of conservation efforts.

“We can’t thank Doc Ford’s enough for their incredible show of support these past 11 years,” said DDWS Development Officer April Boehnen, who organized and led the 2023 tournament. “They’ve already committed for the 12th annual tourney, which will take place in May 2024, the date to be announced soon.”

“We are so grateful for this fundraiser, because not only does it add much-needed dollars to the ever-shrinking refuge budget after a tough seven months of hurricane recovery, it also supports our conservation mission,” said “Ding” Darling Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland. “Plus, it is an opportunity to remind anglers, both professional and amateur, about the importance of ethical and responsible fishing.”

For more information on the tournament and this year’s winners, visit dingdarlingtarpontourney.org.

Tournament sponsors for 2023 include: Title Sponsor: Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille; Champion Sponsors: The Szymanczyk Family, Gretchen Banks, The Law Office of Christopher G. Hill; Premiere Sponsor: Bass Pro Shops, The Historic Bait Box; Presenting Sponsors: David & Judy Baum, Captiva Divas, Bill & Laurie Harkey, Two Lane Lager; Platinum Sponsors: Diversified Yacht Services, Captain Shawn Kelly Fishing Charters, CustomTeesNow, HighTower, Organized Chaos, Sanibel Captiva Community Bank, Whitney’s Bait & Tackle, Gold Sponsors: Anisa Stewart Jewelry, Bay Marine, Congress Jewelers, Fort Myers Marine, Jensen’s Marina & Cottages, Mabry Brothers, Milestone Auctions, Capt. Matt Mitchell Fishing Charters, On Island, RS Walsh Landscaping, Trophy Case of Fort Myers, YETI; Silver Sponsors: Captiva Cruises, Law Office of Janet Strickland, Peter & Barb Rogers/Hey Mon Sanibel.

As a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, DDWS works to support J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge’s mission of conservation, wildlife and habitat protection, research, and public education through charitable donations and Refuge Nature Shop proceeds. To support DDWS and the refuge with a tax-deductible gift, visit dingdarlingsociety.org or contact Birgie Miller Gresham at 239-292-0566 or director@dingdarlingsociety.org.

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