Festival is off the Hook!

- August 16, 2021 -

WORDS: Amy Treis
PICTURES: Whitney Patton

It is often said that fire and water are the Yin and Yang of the existing world. They create the requisite nature of rising and falling, ebbing and flowing, and remaining stoic and wilting. If you ask East Manatee Firefighter Erik Nicholson, he will say that fire and water are essential elements that have contributed to his success and passions in life.

Since becoming a volunteer firefighter 20 years ago and rising to the rank of Lieutenant, Erik has seen first-hand what fires, vehicle accidents, addictions, and negligence can do to families. His compassionate spirit led him to begin a fishing tournament in 2006 that would benefit a small charity called the Children’s Burn Foundation of Florida.

This non-profit is committed to enhancing the lives of young burn survivors. Their goal is to offer an opportunity for children to engage in activities and build quality friendships with other children who have experienced similar trials and tribulations. Through the support of local fire service organizations, hospitals, and businesses, their hope is they can inspire and motivate children and their families to succeed in society.

The fire aspect is well-known to Erik through his profession, and the water aspect fills his world in many personal ways. He is a father of two sons, and their joyful time together is spent on the water, whether that be boating, swimming, or fishing. As a result of these shared water passions, Erik found a way to support his charity through the annual fishing tournament, sweetly titled, The Fire Charity Fishing Tournament, which this year took place between June 11-13 at the beautiful Riverside Park in Palmetto.

Since its humble beginnings, the tournament has been quite successful, becoming what Erik proudly states as a “festival.” Prior to the recent event, two months back, over $140,000 had been raised and given to the Children’s Burn Foundation. Even though last year was on a smaller in-person scale due to the impact of the pandemic, he decided to host two live streams of the tournament. “The live streams were wildly successful with people from all over the world tuning in,” Erik proudly states. They ended up raising around $10,000 for the charity because the turnout of fishermen and women was so exemplary.

If you say children and burn in the same sentence, that immediately summons attention and a desire to help, which is why Erik appreciates and respects the hearts of all the people who make the tournament possible. Even his two sons took part behind the scenes by stuffing buckets, folding shirts, and preparing items for the volunteers. As Erik said:  “They know one day the fire charity tournament will be passed down to them.” Such pride in his own family and the kindness of strangers makes everything worth it.

One of my favorite quotes from Harry Potter is, “Help would always be given at Hogwarts, to those who deserve it.” Help has been graced upon Erik in many ways for his Fishing Tournament. He has a relentless and dedicated committee of 35 selfless souls that invigorate the spirit of the charity.

The loyalty of his 2021 sponsors, such as Yellowfin, Smith & Hopen, BMMI, and Water Walker Investments, allowed Erik to add extra value and fun to this year’s festival. He was thankful to the City of Palmetto for allowing the use of Riverside Park. This venue provided space for the addition of vendors, food trucks, bounce houses, live entertainment, fire trucks, boats, axe throwing, and tiki carvings!

Anglers of all ages savored the event, whether fishing off the old Green Bridge fishing pier for the younger competitors or setting sail towards the inshore and deep shore fishing grounds. The younger generation of fishers admired the vessels with their multitude of rods displayed Up high in all their grandeur.

They also relished in their attempt to win prizes and trophies for their catches. Triumphant and smiling in their t-shirts and with bellies full of lunch, they savored the First Responder display with fireboats and joyfully glimpsed the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter out of St. Petersburg. The uniqueness of this festival is one that instilled a sense of excitement whether you were a participant or a curious attendee.

The Grand Finale of the festival was on Sunday for the final weigh-in. Imagine the anticipation of spending all day Saturday and Sunday vying for the biggest and most lucrative fish in the sea. With a fire in their hearts, the anglers spoke their mighty words and whispered their siren song to the fish in the water below.

The lure of cash prizes and other awards was a backdrop to the goal of reeling in the fish of their dreams. While the anglers seemed jolly and composed on the outside, their hearts were still focused on the Children’s Burn Center Foundation of Florida and what their donation meant to these families. That is the true spirit behind the tournament, and Erik was extremely pleased that these fishers had this value in mind.

In prior years, the fishers challenged State and world record fish. They triumphantly reeled in fish, such as Swordfish, Grouper, Snapper, Cobia, and Tuna. One astounding capture was a Warsaw Grouper that weighed almost 300 pounds. Erik smiled: “You know you can turn on the news and see so many things going wrong. When you see the joy in these kids’ eyes holding the first fish they ever caught, holding the first trophy they ever won, or touching a swordfish in awe, then the magic happens.” Erik is humbled and honored that the community came together for such a great cause.

Many ideas begin in the mind of one. But much like a seed in the ground, it grows and flourishes in time, much like the way Erik’s fishing tournament to benefit burn victims blossomed into a festival for more to appreciate. The beauty of being truly passionate about a cause is the willingness of others to aid in the succession of that cause. Even though there will undoubtedly be winners in the fishing divisions, the true beneficiaries will be the Children’s Burn Center Foundation of Florida, the children and families that it serves, and the community spirit that brought it all to fruition.

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