Fifteen-year-old Key West angler Joe Merritt won the Southernmost Swordfish Tournament, a noon-to-midnight challenge that ended early on the morning of June 15.
At 4:15 p.m. June 14, Merritt released the first swordfish of the tournament, estimated to weigh 100 pounds, while fishing on the Perro Loco with Captain Greg Sherertz. The release ultimately earned Merritt the tournament victory and prizes including $1,000 in cash.
“We were about 25 miles out and we hooked it up around 3:50,” said Merritt, who caught the fish with squid in about 200 feet of water.
Despite his relatively young age, Merritt is no stranger to tournament fishing — or to the winners’ circle. He has previously earned master angler titles in both the peewee and junior divisions of the Key West Fishing Tournament, a multimonth challenge closely affiliated with the swordfish tournament. In 2003, when he was just 10 years old, he took top honors in the small fry division of the International Game Fish Association Junior Angler World Championship.
“I love fishing tournaments — I like the fight,” said Merritt, adding that he plans to begin occasional chartering at age 18 while he pursues his first love of tournament competition.
Second place in the Southernmost Swordfish Tournament and prizes including $500 in cash went to Mike Burleson of Key West, whose release came just 15 minutes after Merritt’s. While he and Merritt each earned 200 points, Merritt placed first based on the time of his release.
Burleson caught his fish, estimated at 70 to 80 pounds, while fishing with Captain Chris Lembo on the Incognito.
The Southernmost Swordfish Tournament is part of the annual Key West Fishing Tournament, which began in March and runs through Nov. 30. Open to the general public, the tournament targets more than 40 species of fish and includes divisions for men, women, junior anglers and youngsters under 10 years old.