Stars & Stripes Tournament – It’s All About the Kids

As an IGFA Representative, I was first introduced to the Stars and Stripes Tournament in 2015, and discovered it was a single-purposed, “It’s all about the kids” event, benefiting “Children’s NPO’s on both sides of the border. It boasted not one, but three exciting activity components: Sport-fishing, Golf, and Spa. Plus, there were extraordinary music concerts by well-known entertainers on a Baja beach or a remote Baja Canyon.

Since then, I’ve evolved from being a spectator to a team member as the Sport-fishing Director assisting my friend and founder, Dick “Dicko” Gebhard. Constantly fine-tuning the event, Dicko and his team continue to raise the bar during the five-day event, never losing sight of the “It’s all about the kids” theme.

At the 2019 event, the 23rd Annual Stars and Stripes Tournament, on Wednesday afternoon, July 26, the first wave of “Gold Teams” attendees, that had signed up for the (turnkey) deluxe package began arriving at the sprawling Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort on the beach overlooking the Sea of Cortez. They were greeted with icy cold margaritas and hugs as they checked in and made their way through registration. Old friendships were renewed, and new ones began.
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By early evening, all 37 “Gold Teams” were settled in comfortably and had begun gathering in the lobby waiting to be shuttled to a remote Baja Canyon, the “El Camino Real,” a mere 15-minute ride from the Hotel.

The canyon had been transformed into a unique “Baja Canyon Amphitheater” in the shadow of a towering rock cliff.

There, a unique cocktail hour was followed by a catered dinner prepared by the Hilton Staff. Then the Master of Ceremonies introduced the Knights of Stars and Stripes.

Before being entertained by Chris Janson, a self-taught multi-instrumental wizard who is a crowd-pleasing fixture on the historic Grand Ole Opry who straddles the divide between the country’s past and future.

On Thursday, as the “Gold Teams” settled in, hanging out around the pool, checking out the Spa or just kicking back, the 2019 Stars and Stripes golf experience began with a bang at the exclusive Chileno Bay Golf Club, where Gold sponsors were pampered with perfect playing conditions, live chef stations at two air-conditioned palapas on the course and a premier Mexican cuisine lunch following play. All the while, the remaining teams, and guests arrived throughout the afternoon, boosting the total to 600, another sell-out crowd.

Later that afternoon, the Ladies of the Knights introduced the 2019 Stars and Stripes Angel Flight Attendees at a “Meet and Greet” prior to the Silent Auction around the pool before dinner.

Shawn Parr welcomed the crowd poolside Thursday evening to the “Peace, Love and Margarita” themed dinner, acknowledging the vast display of silent auction items on display, as well as outlining the event’s schedule.

He introduced Gary Graham, That Baja Guy, the Sport-fishing Director, and congratulated him on the success of the joint venture with the International Game Fish Association’s (IGFA) Passport to Sportfishing program in Baja.

As a pledge for their 80th Anniversary, IGFA pledged to teach 100,000 kids around the world the basics of sportfishing. Graham led the partnering of Stars and Stripes, Sportfishing of California (SAC) along with IGFA all dedicated to assisting the Secretary of Fisheries Aquaculture and Agricultural Development of the Government of the State of Baja California Sur with a series of Kids’ Clinics during the next year throughout the state.

In the first month, the program had reached out to over 300 kids at various Government-sponsored fishing tournaments.

All the kids attending Stars and Stripes were presented with their own fishing rod, after which Graham conducted a casting clinic with them at the swimming pool.

Before the completion of the Silent Auction, the night’s entertainment was featured “Daring Greatly.”

The following morning, the eager fishing teams began lining up before the first shuttle arrived. By 6:30 a.m., most were on the beach impatiently waiting their turn to board their boat. Banter boasts, and bets reverberated up and down the line as teams headed toward the pier to board a panga to deliver them to their assigned sportfisher. Once all the teams were loaded, and the boats were lined up for the start, retired Sergeant First Class Dana Bowman, a former member of the Special Forces Soldiers as well as the U.S. Army’s elite parachute team, parachuted from the helicopter above with old Glory flapping behind him. Then Dicko perched precariously on the bow of the bobbing boat, fired the flare skyward signifying the start of the first day of fishing.

Flat calm sea conditions greeted the 48 teams. Although the weather lived up to Baja’s reputation, the fishing didn’t. This compelled the teams to depend on their “finding and catching” skills in order to place in one of the four categories – top billfish release, largest yellowfin, dorado, or wahoo when lines out was announced.

Aboard the “Yahoo,” team, “Greek to the Max” was eager for their special guest angler, Col. Gregory D. Gadson, to catch his first billfish. A retired Colonel in the United States Army and the former Garrison Commander of the U.S. Army, Fort Belvoir, also a double above-the-knee amputee, Gadson had served in the U.S. Army for more than 20 years as a field artillery officer and served on active duty for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Operation Joint Forge, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was also eager to catch his first billfish. However, as luck would have it, Friday was not to be his day, nor was it anyone else’s aboard.

That day, there were 22 billfish released, six dorado with the largest weighing in at 23.9-pounds caught by team “Big Boys 2”.
In the yellowfin tuna category, the largest was 7.5 pounds by “Hooked.” that also captured the largest wahoo weighing 23-pounds.

Meanwhile, that same morning, back at the “Hilton,” the Golf Teams were being loaded into the awaiting shuttles and whisked away for Tournament play at ocean-view Club Campestre.

That evening all the action moved to the beach in front of the Hilton. Stars & Stripes Tournament

The silent auction that night featured 249 items and Friday night featured 201 items. Some of which were: International and domestic travel, 12-night cruise, South Africa Hunting Safari, plus one of a kind items including trips to Ellen DeGeneres, Trevor Noah, Conan and more. VIP seating to concerts including Elton John and VIP seating to sporting events also.

“This was the widest selection of high-end items (each item retailed for at least $500) available at almost any charity auction in the world,” confided Larry Zucker of The Gavel Group.

Stars & Stripes TournamentAfter dinner, Dicko introduced Plasticos Founder and Medical Director, Dr. Larry Nichter, acknowledging and congratulating Dr. Nichter, for serving their 4th year as a Stars & Stripes’ honorary charity and on his 100th medical mission. Plasticos celebrated its 20th anniversary in Baja in 2019. Gebhard praised Dr. Nichter’s dedication and commitment to his patients both locally and around the world; his commitment has ensured the long-term success of Plasticos.

Standing, Dr. Larry Nichter thanked Dicko for his kind comments and then introduced Dr. Juan Chavez, General Surgeon, for Plasticos local liaison, along with Dr. Martin Antonio Alcazar Castañeda who has donated his operating facility at no charge for the team to use during their stay.

During this visit, 45 women and children received life-changing reconstructive surgery. Children’s repairs included burns and severe deformities including facial, fused fingers and toes, while all the women’s cases were post-mastectomy breast reconstruction. But it doesn’t end with the surgeries. Reshaping the lives of those requiring surgery one case at a time is only half the story; the other half is taking time to educate the local doctors and surgeons. The Plasticos team come prepared to teach the local doctors and their staff how to perform these surgeries themselves. Plasticos is able to perform small miracles every time they come to Mexico, and Stars & Stripes Foundation is proud to be a part of these miracles.

Next, Dicko introduced Col. Gregory D. Gadson, to the audience who had fished aboard his boat, “Yahoo,” that day. Stars & Stripes TournamentUnfortunately, they had not seen any fish, but he was looking forward to the next day.

Then, Gadson briefly described his biggest challenge in Iraq to the audience – the day an IED attack led to the loss of his legs. He added that he is not allowing his devastating injuries to define his life. Instead, he is living his life as a portrait of courage in the face of great adversity. Gadson learned that hard work and determination are key factors in overcoming life-altering setbacks that for most might have been a defining moment. Still, he refused to be defined by the proverbial “hail of bullets.” That comment moved the audience to a standing ovation as he closed.

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The Ladies of the Knights reviewed a few of the many charities served by Stars and Stripe’s successes over the past 10 years.

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This was followed by a live auction of a variety of big-ticket items conducted by Shawn Parr and assisted by Knight Al (Reverend) Baldwin raising more than $300,000 for the various kids’ charities represented by Stars and Stripes.

Then “The Downtown Band” took the stage; sand dance floor in front of the stage was packed with party-goers ready to rock to the thundering band. The bass reverberated in rhythm with crashing surf less than a football field away.

Stars & Stripes TournamentSeven AM came early for teams after the raucous late-night dancing. However, the determined teams were not to be denied. As they eagerly awaited the now-familiar routine of first, the Dana Bowman Jump followed by the pop of the flare gun and the easy-to-spot flare streaking across the horizon; day two began with teams hoping to maintain their position while looking for more fish to catch up.

They found fair action during the two-day event, including 47 billfish, 15 dorado, 15 yellowfin tuna, and one wahoo.

The previous day Gadson hadn’t even seen a fish! This day he sat in his wheelchair staring at brightlyStars & Stripes Tournament colored lures swimming behind the boat, popping and gurgling, dipping down and breaking the surface. The drone of the twin diesel and the gentle rocking of the 42-foot “Yahoo” as it idled along at eight knots was mesmerizing — making it difficult for Gadson to stay focused as one, then several hours drug by.

When the tell-tale sickle-like tail appeared, it startled him. It was followed by the clatter of the clicker as line flew through the guides; then the huge sailfish tail-walked across the wake before diving beneath the surface accelerating as it did.

Finally, the angry sailfish settled down, after which the give and take battle began in earnest. The minutes seem like hours to Gadson as he met the challenge and soon had the fish alongside the boat. After removing the hook, the mate struggled to lift the fish into Gadson’s lap for an ultimate selfie of Gadson and his colorful prize before it was returned to the Sea from which it came.

The ride back to the dock at Chileno Bay was filed with congratulations and high 5’s for both the crew and the angler. Not only was this Gadson’s first billfish, as it turned out, it was also the only sailfish caught during the two days.

By the end of the final day, the teams had found enough action to make it interesting. During the two-day event, the teams had caught and released 48 billfish and weighed in 15 dorado, 15 yellowfin tuna, and one wahoo.
The highest release boat was the “Tilly 1- Sanchez/McKnight” with five marlin tagged (and released) with Gray Fish Tags. The largest gamefish of the event was a yellowfin tuna caught aboard the “Caliente” weighing 30.5-pounds. Winners were awarded trophies, cash or donated items from the impressive list of sponsors of the two-day fishing event.

The 2019 Stars and Stripes golf experience continued Saturday at the luxurious and well-groomed Cabo Del Sol. On both days there was an array of daily contests and formats from the scramble to team or couple shamble, allowing golfers endless opportunities to win great prizes from Under Armor. Golf elements enhance each year with efforts to appeal to new sponsors and supporters, all guided by the leadership of Orange County Golf Events.

There was also a beach day at Chileno Bay at the Gebhard house for 125 guests that included kayaking, paddle boarding, or just hanging out in the pool while being entertained by “Daring Greatly.” Plus, there was a specially prepared homemade Mexican Lunch.

The Saturday night dinner on the beach was the grand finale. Everyone was encouraged to wear white, and at the top of the stairs, there were tables laden with red, white, and blue Stars and Stripe’s accessories to spice up the outfits chosen.

Stars & Stripes TournamentSpecial local guests included: Lic. Andres Cordova Urrutia, Secretario, SEPADA, Gonzalo Alamea Camacho, Pesca Deportiva, SEPADA, Lic. Luis Antonio Garcia Rodriguez, Director, FONMAR, Clicerio Mercado. Tournament Organizers along with their wives.

The evening festivities began with the fishing awards presented by Dicko Gebhard and his team to all the winning teams.

Then Golf Awards followed presented by Joe Sperazza, Jr., Chairman of the Stars and Stripes’ Golf program.

Stars & Stripes Tournament1st Place – Gross
From left to right: Kirk Van Matre, Phil Arciero, Andy Buerk, Zach Van Matre

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1st Place – Net
From left to right: James Davenport, Adam Horowitz, William Marsh, Rob Fitzgerald

Shawn Parr began the evening program with  — a chance of a lifetime to sing the closing song of the evening with Bret Michaels and his band. After a back and forth spirited bidding session, the winner was Tim Smith the winning bid of a signed guitar.

A few of the charities were then featured in a special video prepared for the evening.

Next came the “Cut Out Fish” pledge drive that has grown in popularity over the years. Many cutouts of fish in various colors were scattered on all the tables. Each of the fish cutouts had different values ranging from $100 to the “skies the limit.” Children with bait nets collected the cut-out fish and returned them to the team who posted them on the large bulletin board.

Stars & Stripes TournamentThe ultimate motivational speaker on overcoming adversity, mastering change and reaching your dreams, PFC Dana Bowman, US Army, (Ret.), and his family have been long-time supporters of the annual Stars & Stripes Tournament.  In appreciation of his partnership with Stars & Stripes in helping to improve the lives of many deserving young people and their families, Bowman volunteered to auction a few of his solid-silver one-ounce Limited-Edition “Dana Bowman Challenge Coins” exclusively to the Tournament attendees.

When MC Shawn Parr invited all the Knights on-stage, the large audience instinctively quieted.

Stars & Stripes TournamentDicko, surrounded by the Knights, slowly overturned the oversized check, and as his voice cracked with emotion, he announced the net amount earned during the 2019 Stars and Stripes Tournament.  “THREE MILLION, SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS,” observing that it was a new record for the 23-year-old event.  As the cheers rippled through the crowd, the knights collectively expressed their appreciation for everyone’s support again this year.
Stars & Stripes TournamentThe celebration then shifted to high gear as Bret Michaels and his band took the stage, and their music enveloped the jubilant crowd and the sand dance floor filled to the max.

As promised, the successful bidder Tim Smith was invited to be on stage during the final set.  “Singing the closing song of the evening with Bret Michaels was an unforgettable experience of a lifetime,” Smith confided later.

Stars & Stripes TournamentThis was followed by an impressive fireworks show that lit up the surf and sand in front of the hotel beach.

The team gathered early Sunday morning. The van was loaded with coolers filled with carefully packaged and wrapped fillets of all the dorado, yellowfin tuna and wahoo that had been caught by the 48 teams and cleaned and packaged by the hotel staff. The van was filled with volunteers and staff, and it stopped at several orphanages and kitchens throughout the Barrios of Los Cabos. There they were enthusiastically welcomed by parents and children eager to receive the fresh fish.

More than 600 supporters came together for the 23rd Annual Stars & Stripes Tournament in Cabo San Lucas, BCS, Mexico to help raise more than $3.7M for six nonprofits pioneering change for youth in Southern California and BCS, Mexico. Since 1997, the four-day fishing & golf tournament and music festival have raised over $33M for worthy youth charities – more than any other tournament benefiting children’s charities in the United States and Baja Sur.

Read more stories and reports from around Baja in Gary Graham’s Baja Bytes!

That Baja Guy-Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. From light tackle and fly up to offshore marlin fishing, Gary has experienced all facets of this fishery. He's set several fly-fishing world record...