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Sarasota fishers win big at Sarasota Slam

The crew of the Sick Leave reeled in a 103.2-pound grouper during the annual tournament.

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Captain Gabriel Lippert was having doubts about catching the Big One during the Sarasota Slam fishing tournament.

In his defense, there were some things working against him, along with owner Don Paxton and the rest of the crew onboard the Sick Leave fishing boat. Namely, two of their five engines were out of commission a short while into the trip.

They'd fished enough — spending 15 years on the water — to realize their odds of reeling in a competition-winning fish were poor.

The Sarasota-based crew — which included boat owner Don Paxton, first mate AJ Grande, second mate Dawson Day and Brandon Anderson — had given it their all but by the last day, Lippert conceded that morale was low. 

But they had an idea. 

Instead of pushing out even farther into open waters at a glacial pace of 10 mph, why not return early to a promising spot just 50 miles from home? They might not get the big catch, but they knew the trip could likely end on a high note.

It proved to be one of the smartest (and luckiest) decisions in Lippert and Paxton's time on the sea. 

By the tournament’s end, the Sick Leave crew had reeled in a massive 103.2-pound black grouper, making them the easy winners of the Sarasota Slam’s grouper category on Aug. 27.

Brandon Anderson, Don Paxton, Capt. Gabriel Lippert and Dawson Day. (Courtesy photo)
Brandon Anderson, Don Paxton, Capt. Gabriel Lippert and Dawson Day. (Courtesy photo)

It truly was the catch of a lifetime. 

“I still get chills talking about it,” Lippert said. "I've been captaining for 15 years now and have caught some nice black grouper in my lifetime, but never one in the triple digits."

"We hit the big one," Paxton said. 

The Sarasota Slam tournament — put on by the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association each year — brings dozens of boaters and captains together to compete for the top prize in an assortment of categories. Fishing boats set out for the open ocean on Thursday with many returning to Marina Jack to weigh their catches on Saturday.

Though they’d fished in Sarasota for years and years, it was Paxton and Lippert’s first time competing in the tournament. The pair and their crew were typically out in the Florida Keys during lobster season when the competition was put on. 

"We're all out there as friends, fishing and taking turns," Paxton said. "We do everything someone else isn't doing, setting up tackle, putting rods in, stringing bait. When someone catches a fish, we think it's the boat that caught it."

This year would be different when Lippert, Paxton and the crew had their schedules open to enter the tournament.

That didn't mean things would be easy, and the Sick Leave almost immediately ran into trouble. The boat, already down one engine from their time in the Keys, had another of its five engines break down about 30 miles into the adventure.

"If it's not one thing, it's another," Paxton said. "We're all boaters and are used to adverse conditions. We decided early that we were going to keep going and accepted it would be a slow tournament."

They originally planned to fish for swordfish but pivoted to other types when they decided to pick closer fishing spots close to home. It was a slower experience, but far from a bad one.

"We fished on our slow ride, we're hanging out and had some music blasting and cooked food on the grill," Paxton said. "It was a time to reflect."

AJ Grande with the big catch. (Courtesy photo)
AJ Grande with the big catch. (Courtesy photo)

It didn't hurt that the crew were good friends and had fished together for years. In first mate AJ Grande's case, he had starting fishing with his dad and Lippert since he was a young child. It was a pleasure for Lippert to fish with Grande 15 years later at a tournament in their home town.

"AJ's a captain now and he goes on trips with me," Lippert said. "It's a pleasure to have him on the boat."

The trip's relaxed energy picked up quick when they arrived at their fishing spot 50 miles from shore and Paxton hooked a black grouper. The crew quickly realized it would be a team effort to bring the fish in.

Some fishing encounters can take an hour to reel the fish, but the black grouper took an intense eight minutes to have Paxton reel in while Lippert and crew pulled up the line.

Paxton stresses that time was of the essence as groupers usually break away early on when hooked. 

"You have to get them off the bottom immediately, otherwise they're going under a rock and you're never getting them out," Paxton said. "You think it'd be an epic battle but when the grouper is two thirds of the way up, it floats."

Paxton and Lippert say they won't forget the energy that shot through the boat when the grouper start rising towards the surface and they realized just how big their catch was.

"We were (all) in tears, it was as emotional as it gets," Lippert said. "To reel up a fish of that quality, it was uncontrollable joy."

When they returned to Marina Jack for the official weigh in, they knew they had something good on their hands. They didn’t know just how good.

"Black groupers are rarely over 35 pounds, 65 is huge," Paxton said. "The fact we got a 100 pound black grouper, we knew we'd blow everyone away. That just does not happen, especially on a tournament day."

The crew posed with their catch and popped champagne for such a big day.

And how’d they spend their night after catching the big one? Lippert and crew went out to Clasico Italian Chophouse to celebrate a successful tournament. 

“The lesson from our trip became that you have to stay in the game to win,” Paxton said. 



Harry Sayer

Harry Sayer is the Black Tie editor for the Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida and previously worked Black Tie for the Observer newspaper in Winter Park and Maitland. You can catch him at one of Sarasota's fundraisers and shindigs.

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