Christian Greico was fishing in the Major League Fishing Toyota Series tournament March 16 when he reeled in a tagged fish. He would end up in 10th place in that event but walked away with an even bigger prize — $5,000 for catching the “Jim Thomas” fish.
The top-prize bass is named for the founder of Friends of Lake Apopka. It actually is a female and was spawning when it was tagged, weighed and released in the water.
It received tag No. 91 to represent 1991, the year Thomas founded FOLA.
The Lake Apopka Fish Tag Challenge is a first-year event launched by FOLA and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission.
FOLA advocates for the continued efforts to restore Lake Apopka — the fourth-largest lake in Florida — to its once-pristine condition, and this challenge is to promote the fact that big game fish are again swimming throughout the lake.
A total of 500 largemouth bass, bluegill and black crappie have been tagged and released into the lake; they are now swimming around, waiting to be caught.
Greico, 22, fished the southwest side of the lake in the tournament.
“I went there figuring that’s where I would get the biggest fish in the tournament, and it just so happened that it was the $5,000 one,” said Greico, a Tampa resident who has been entering tournaments since he was in the seventh grade and has made a career out of fishing. “It was a fairly nice day, partly cloudy, 15 mph winds.”
Per tournament rules, contestants return to land with their five biggest bass.
“This particular fish, the Jim Thomas fish, was my fourth of the day,” Greico said. “I caught 10 to 12 fish that day and brought back five fish for 20 pounds.”
The Jim Thomas bass was full of eggs when it was tagged, weighing in at 12 pounds; however, by the time Greico caught the fish, the eggs had been released, taking its weight down to 9 pounds, 12 ounces.
“I got 10th place, but I did have the biggest fish of the tournament,” he said.
He also walked away $5,000 richer for being in the right place at the right time.
The contest runs now through May 31 and offers anglers the chance to catch a tagged fish and return the tag to the FWC for a prize of up to $1,000. Additional prizes are available for those who submit their catch to the TrophyCatch program.
The return of tags from fish caught in Lake Apopka will inform biologists about how fish populations are recovering, how different species are moving about the lake and how often anglers are returning to fish in Lake Apopka, which was regarded as Florida’s bass fishing capital before World War II.
The total purse of prizes in the Lake Apopka Fish Tag Challenge is more than $10,000.
The Jim Thomas fish is the only one with a specific prize amount attached to it, said tournament director Daniel Whitehouse. All others who catch a tagged fish will be part of a random drawing June 19 at Newton Park in Winter Garden.
“We have more than $5,000 in cash to distribute that day, along with some in-kind prizes,” Whitehouse said. “We should have more than 20 different prizes to draw that day, with amounts as high as $1,000.”
There is one $1,000 prize, six $500 prizes, 11 $100 prizes and two Yeti cooler prizes.
For contest rules and more information, visit fola.org.