The Bayou Coast Kayak Fishing Club’s (BCKFC) Paddlepalooza is among the oldest major annual kayak fishing tournaments, dating back to 2005. Last May, 250 competitors fished the southern saltwater slam’s 16th edition.
The long-running tournament and festival started from humble roots. The event predates the founding of the sponsoring BCKFC by two years. In a familiar story, the club’s founding members first met on an Internet message board. BCKFC began on John Shein’s pioneering KayakFishingStuff.com board in the Cajun Country forum.
Todd Lewis, a retired game warden, has served as weighmaster at every Paddlepalooza. “I can’t remember who came up with the idea for the tournament,” he admits. The objective is to catch the heaviest Cajun slam: a redfish, speckled trout and flounder. In accordance with Louisiana regulations, the red must be under 27 inches, the trout more than 12, and flounder over 11 inches.
Lewis does recall the inaugural event. “We held the first Paddlepalooza at Port Fourchon with 20 to 30 people. Everyone threw $5 into a hat, winner take all.”
Brendan Bayard, one of BCKFC’s first fathers, remembers differently. “That’s not exactly how it happened,” he laughs. Bayard says the entry fee wasn’t collected until the weigh-in. “We had a fatal flaw,” he guffaws, “If you didn’t catch any fish you didn’t get into the tournament.” The format is a little different today.
Bayard credits Paddlepalooza’s unique focus on catching three different species of fish. “Some days are good for sea trout and other days are good for redfish,” he explains. To win Paddlepalooza, an angler has to develop a strategy to catch all three species, each with a distinct personality. “You have to have the discipline to switch from one species to another even when the fishing is good.”
Since the first Paddlepalooza, the tournament has been carefully officiated. Retired fish cop Todd Lewis adds an air of authority to the weigh-in. And, the winners are subjected to a lie detector test. “That’s the game, these days,” Lewis exhales and adds, “Strict adherence to the rules and policies has paid off, and I mean super strict.” He’s even had to disqualify his best friend.
The club had so much fun at the first tournament, they decided to have a second ‘palooza in the fall of 2005.
The autumn event has been renamed Fall n’ Tide and is still going strong today.
Fun and camaraderie have always been Paddlepalooza centerpieces. Fellowship flows from the epic meals the anglers share. Lewis tells us the feed bag goes on the first night. “At the captain’s meeting, a group of gentlemen we refer to as the Golden Girls, cook a big pot of pastalaya.”
The next day, a massive fish fry makes use of fresh redfish, trout and flounder caught during the tournament. “We release to the grease,” quips Lewis. BCKFC has accumulated a trailer full of cooking gear to feed the army of anglers. Lewis chuckles, “This is south Louisiana, we’re going to eat.”
Bayard says another tradition is socializing until early morning. “I was famous for staying up to 3 a.m., then getting up at 5 a.m. to go fishing.”
Partying has a purpose at Paddlepalooza. “We share information to open a library of possible fishing spots,” Bayard says.
After a day exploring the marshes of Grand Isle, Louisiana, the anglers return to another huge party at the awards ceremony. In addition to awarding prizes to Cajun Slam winners, the crowd takes delight in the special awards.
First, the inevitable and unenviable Turtle Hat crowned to an angler who falls overboard. Then the unique Dogris award. In Cajun country, a Dogris, or scaup, is an extremely dumb duck. Years ago, Todd Lewis found a barnacle-covered coot decoy in the marsh. Now the decoy is awarded to an angler who makes a notable mistake during the event. “He has to strap it to his deck for the tournament,” Lewis laughs.
On a serious note, the raffle is so big, the club spreads out the largess over two days. A portion of the raffle sales go to charities involved with fishing, the rest goes to the club’s operating fund.
After a decade and a half, BCKFC has 500 members and stages seven events. “I can’t choose which tournaments to fish,” Bayard exclaims.
After so many years, Bayard and Lewis say there’s no end in sight for Paddlepalooza. “After all these years, this club is my social life,” Lewis admits. Bayard agrees. “We’re proud the club has lasted this long and the next generation has stepped in.” He points to fresh faces and new tournament superstars. “It’s cool to see young people elevate their game.”
The club has been around so long, Bayard and Lewis have seen members come and go and come back. Lewis explains, “We lose a lot of people to marriage and babies.” The bond is so strong, many former members return to the club. “I’ve been around long enough to watch members return with their kids.”
Winner, winner, sea trout dinner | Featured photo: Brendan Bayard