After 40 years of competing in the Destin Fishing Rodeo, Capt. Kelly Windes still has what it takes to reel in the “Captain of the Year” award.
Saturday evening, Windes, of the Sunrise, was presented the Charter Boat Captain’s Award after accumulating 129 points for his catches during this year’s rodeo.
Anglers aboard his boat pulled in the first and second place amberjack weighing 87.4 and 85 pounds, also first and second place ladies amberjack weighing in at 64.2 and 58.6 pounds. Windes also brought in the first place snowy grouper in the reef division, weighing 17.2 pounds and the largest king mackerel, 21.6 pounds, and grouper, 38.8 pounds, on an extended voyage, plus many dailies throughout the month.
However, this isn’t Windes’ first rodeo — or his first time to be named captain of the year of the area’s longest tradition.
“I’ve often wondered” just how many times, Windes said. “I’ve been fortunate and I’ve had some luck. I’ve won quite a few and it’s been a ton of fun.”
Windes was recently elected to the Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners and appointed early by the governor to fill the vacant seat left by Commissioner James Campbell.
“I still look forward to getting up and going fishing, and I’m 66 years old,” Windes said. “And I really wish I could do it for another 10 years, but I know it’s not in the cards. I’ve got some more serious obligations with the county, and I take them serious. I’m going to fish just as hard for this county as I did for myself.”
With his new position with the county, Windes says he’s going to have to cut back on fishing.
“I’ve been licensed for 45 years or so, and I just got it renewed two years ago. I’ve got three more years before I renew it again … and I will,” he said emphatically. “I’m just going to slack up; I’m not quitting.”
Days gone by
Windes still recalls his first boat that was built in Perdido Beach, a 44-foot wood hull. He got it the first week in November so he missed the October rodeo that year.
“Two things happen when you build a boat — they cost more money than you think and they are late,” Windes said.
But he was ready to go for the 1972 rodeo and the only prize he won that year was for a sailfish.
“That got me fired up and I started building reefs in deeper water trying to make some bigger fish,” Windes said. “I started upping my tackle and getting my game up a little better.”
And in 1980 he won with a big snapper, a 36-pounder.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said.
Prior to 1980, Windes’ Uncle Irby had been the perennial snapper winner.
“I remember at one stretch, I caught it three out of four years,” Windes said. “Then Uncle Irby told me ‘I was one of those damn young whippersnappers.’ It was a transition. He was easing out and I was easing in.”
In 1981 he built his first Sunrise, a 47-footer which is now the Daybreak run by Capt. Eric Thrasher.
“That really gave me an advantage, because it was faster than the other boats,” he said. “You could go further, it held more fuel, just a sure enough fishing boat. It was top of the line.”
In 1986 he built a new Sunrise that he now captains, a 53-footer. The tuna fishing offshore picked up and “I wanted to get in on that.” So he upped his game again with bigger motors and fuel.
“My daughter says I’ve hit middle age now. For a middle aged man, this boat is more comfortable,” Windes said.
When he first started fishing, Windes said they didn’t have enclosed bridges and they were out in the sun and wind.
“Now we’ve got air conditioning, music and TV … it’s just a whole new world. Now you can fish right on in to your middle ages,” he laughingly said.
Although catching the big snapper used to be his thing, Windes says his favorite now is the yellowfin tuna.
“They are big, a 100 pounds plus a lot of the time,” he said. “They’re spectacular, they’re wonderful to eat and they are really a sport fish.”
Windes said it’s a longer trip, but it is so productive, noting a tuna’s yield is 70 percent meat.
“So if you catch a 100-pound tuna, you’ve got 70-pounds of meat that will feed 140 people restaurant portions. So you can feed a multitude without saying any holy words over it.”
Winning the rodeo has been “a source of pride” for Windes, who likes to hone his competitive edge. It’s also been a great advertising tool for his group of boats at Fishing Fleet Marina.
“To tell you the truth in Destin, there are six or eight fisherman in this town that are among the very best in the state of Florida,” he said. “We have some tremendously good talented, hard working fishermen here — that’s why it’s so satisfying if you can win because you’ve beaten some real competition.”
And the folks come back year after year to fish on the Sunrise.
“For 15 to 18 years I was booked a year in advance for the rodeo for 31 days,” he said. “Very seldom could you make all those days because of weather, but I had a standing rodeo clientele for all those years. That’s one of the reasons I was so successful. They wanted to go for the gusto. They wanted to gamble. They wanted to go for the big one.”
This year, Windes fished only 20 days, probably the least of any rodeo.
“If you fish the right places and have any luck, you can still win in 20 days; we proved that this year,” he said.
Now Windes will focus on “bigger fish to fry” in the halls of county government.
“I’ve had my day; you can’t stay there forever.”