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Grand Champion team, from left: Gary Fitzner, Mark Flemming, captain Chris Cinelli and Patrick Griffin.

John Hickey/Buffalo News

Fishing /By Will Elliott

Anglers raise money for research

The eighth annual Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s BassEye Celebrity Challenge provided another year of challenge variations for both a catch count and species selection.

This popular CFF fundraising contest brings together boater teams, which include an experienced area charter captain, a celebrity, and one or two additional guest anglers.

The goal is to catch as many bass measuring at least 14 inches and as many walleye stretching at least 18 inches during a six-hour stint of fishing the open waters of Lake Erie or the upper Niagara River safe areas above the falls.

Most entrants fail when attempting to put together a catch count that includes both fish species that exceed the minimum length requirements.

Weather conditions during recent CFF challenges had often been windy, with wave heights that forced boaters to come into NFTA Buffalo Small Boat Harbor early or find sheltered areas of the upper Niagara River or canal system hot spots. Not this year.

A light chop allowed captains of larger and smaller vessels easy access out to Seneca Shoals, Myers Reef and points around or past Sturgeon Point with relative ease that morning.

All 33 boaters were over chosen starting spots well before 8:30 a. m. on Friday. Our crew, Capt. Mark Kessler of Fishgrappler Charters, CFF Redbone and BassEye founder Gary Ellis, and I got off to a great start. Kessler chose to work the inside of Myers Reef, and his decision ended up with some nice smallmouths well above the 14-inch mark.

We had exclusive drift access to the inside structures of Myers Reef for more than an hour; at least eight BassEye boaters were working the outer drop-off of Myers during the first two hours of competition. Kessler’s skill at finding fish made things much easier for Ellis and me; our finishing outcome brought some pleasant surprises-especially for Ellis.

The top two winning Grand Champion Teams made it a family affair. Captain Chris Cinelli piloted a three-man team down river. That trio, Patrick “PJ” Griffin, Gary Fitzner and Mark Fleming, first worked for walleyes around Strawberry Island. “We then headed up to the ‘Fish Market’ at the head of the river and began sticking nice bass in 8-12 feet of water off Donnelly’s Wall,” Cinelli said after the awards presentations. On the point scale, this winning team garnered 2,150.

Brother Joe Cinelli, heading the runner-up team, began on the outside of Myers Reef for walleyes and later hit Seneca Shoals for bass. Mike Sullivan, Rob Martino, and Craig Holler got into enough of both species to post a total of 1,900 points.

Captain Jim Rores, of Big Greek Charters, guided Greg Zaepfer of Williamsville to the top slot as Grand Champion Angler. His single total of 900 points included two walleye and 11 bass. Rores, worked 42-foot depths off Myers Reef for most of Zaepfer’s winning fish.

The Most Outstanding Catch might have qualified as a New York State record entry. Capt. Mark “Sparky” McGranahan measured Tom Heary’s sheepshead and reported its length to BassEye statisticians as 36 inches.

All other award recipients in team and individual categories can be viewed on the CFF Web site, basseye. org.

For years I had admired the organizing skills of Gary Ellis, an Iowa farm boy who moved to Florida, found all kinds of fun ways to fish and eventually founded the original Redbone series, a saltwater contest in which entrants try for redfish and bone fish.

“The BassEye came along as a natural progression,” he said.

Daughter Nicole was first diagnosed with cystic fibrosis more than two decades ago. His work as a businessman and Florida fishing guide kicked into a higher gear with care and treatments his daughter needed and his growing desire to help medical researchers advance studies to improve treatment and ultimately find a cure for the numbers of stains/types of CF isolated for study and improved treatment.

Along the way, Ellis sought celebrity figures to help these fundraising fish tourneys. He spoke of Phil Harris, Ted Williams, and Curt Gowdy as if they were late family members.

“Gowdy was chairman/host of 18 Redbones over the years,” he said. “He had Wyoming roots and mine were close in Iowa, so we got along well right from the start.”

The CFF BassEye generates these kinds of lifelong memories of friends of celebrities from Harris, Williams, and Gowdy in the past and football’s Jim Kelly and hockey’s Larry Playfair, present all day Friday for this year’s gathering.

Ellis and I didn’t make the board with any prize points, but he finished with his first true BassEye entry. “No doughnuts this year,” he said of his five nice bass and one 22-inch walleye.

With equal pride, he estimated this year’s event could gather $100,000 in CFF donations. Check out the BassEye Web site and perhaps join the donors that are fishing and working for a cure.