Daily Updates from the Championship

by Capt. Dave Lear

You Never Know! Wins 2016 Grand Championship - Posted: Tuesday, July 19, 2016 8:32 AM
The Wharf; Orange Beach, Alabama:

You Never Know! settled the score once and for all at the 2016 Blue Marlin Grand Championship by grabbing the lion’s share of the $1,463,250 purse. After bringing in an 806.8-pound blue marlin to The Wharf Marina and Entertainment Complex early Saturday evening, the team earned the Grand Champion title and a check for $365,175. Josh Goodson was the angler who outlasted the winning fish, with Capt. Joey Birbeck manning the helm. Thomas Turner of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, owns the 72 F&S, based in Miramar, Florida.

“This has been a pretty special season,” Birbeck said at the Sunday awards breakfast, which was sponsored by Spectrum Resorts. “We caught some good fish and won some money. It seemed like we were drinking Bloody Marys every Sunday to celebrate. But this win is an all-time career highlight. I’ve been getting a ton of calls and texts which really means a lot, coming from my peers. They are as happy for us as if they had caught that fish themselves.”

Pour Intentions, 56 Viking based in Destin, Florida, was named the second-place Tournament Champion. Angler Andrew Smoker boated a blue marlin weighing 455.6 pounds and the boat also released two blues to earn 810 points and third place in the release division. Owner Sean Ely and his team took home $191,190 in tournament and optional entry prize money.

Sherry Polk, guided by Capt. Mike Roberto on the new 72 Viking Share-E, earned a $91,110 payout by capturing a 652.8-pound blue. That fish was good for third place and the Top Lady Angler title for Polk, who was cheered on by her husband Buell and a large contingent of fans welcoming her back.

Capt. Jeff Shoults and the Mollie team took the fourth and final spot on the 2016 leaderboard. Angler Ryan Long whipped a 666.4-pound blue after an 8-hour battle through a lightning storm. The 66 G&S is going home to Destin with $145,725 in tournament and optional cash.

JP Arceneaux, competing aboard Hatterascal, a 70 Hatteras run by Capt. Jeff Donahue, set a new tournament record after besting a 182.4-pound yellowfin. That fish was worth $53,550. Laurie Jones (Reel Addiction), Jane Solomon (One More), Jason Forrester (Conundrum), Billy Vanderhorn (Sweet Beaver) and Patrick Haley (Skin Deep) all won optional money for their yellowfin entries.

Angler Doyle Jefcoat, fishing on Southern Miss, a 61 Viking run by Adam Ladnier, boated the top wahoo of the week, a 74.6-pounder. That catch earned the team a check totaling $33,300. Wes Mincin on A Work of Art won some optional wahoo money with his 59-pounder, as did Lawrence Rowland (Cotton Patch), Tyler Henderson (Carib), Sean Curry (Gotta Believe) and Neal Foster (Intense).

James Piteo and Team Amnesia, a 39 Nor-Tech center console, won top honors and $97,911 with a 45.2-pound bull dolphin. Others winning a share of the dolphin optional pot include Brandon Favre Jr. (A Work of Art), Taylor Morissette (France) and Josh Herren (Sweet Beaver).

In the tight Catch & Release division, Conundrum, a 61 Viking based in Orange Beach and owned by Daniel Haeuser, was the top team with three blues and one white released. All three of Capt. Jimmy Crochet’s blues far exceeded the minimum length for qualifying fish, but the team elected to release them instead. Conundrum’s conservation ethic resulted in a $73,675 payout. Lisa Jo, owned by Michael Lovett and run by Logan Lovett, had good karma after winning the 61st tournament entry in the St. Jude Charity Auction. The Lisa Jo team released two blues and a white marlin to take second place. Pour Intentions edged out Done Deal based on time.

A total of 22 blue marlin, 23 white marlin and one sailfish were scored by the video release judges during the 2016 event. Houston Adams, fishing aboard Gulf Rascal run by Capt. Billy Borer, was named the Top Junior Angler for his white marlin release.

“What a fantastic week!” Tournament Director Scott Burt said. “The weather cooperated, we had some great fishing highlighted by You Never Know!’s big blue and a new record tuna. Best of all, we had the best teams in the Gulf showcasing their skills and we raised a significant amount of money for St. Jude to help some courageous kids. I’d like to thank everyone for fishing with us again this year, Pelagic High Performance Offshore Gear and all our wonderful sponsors for making it possible and my championship team for pulling it all off.”

You Never Know - Posted: Sunday, July 17, 2016 1:55 AM
The Wharf; Orange Beach, Alabama:

Boat names run the gamut from family members to business associations to nautical, fishy themes. And sometimes they are even prophetic, like Thomas Turner’s 72 F&S custom sportfisher.

His boat, You Never Know!, answered a rhetorical question plus another when the team came in early Saturday evening with the largest blue marlin of the 2016 Grand Championship. From the initial length measurement and the massive size of the tail, many in the crowd of thousands thought the fish would easily shatter the Alabama record of 845.8 pounds. But when Weigh Master Craig Martin set the scales, the actual weight registered only 806.8 pounds. That was good enough for the top honors of the week yet clearly a shock for the team. Josh Goodman was the angler who cranked in the big blue after a 3 hour 45 minute fight on 50-pound test line.

The fish was caught on Friday, yet Capt. Joey Birbeck and the team decided against coming to the scales Friday night. Because of the distance, they were unsure if they would make it in time. So instead, the fish was bagged and iced down. Could the boat have beat the 10 p.m. deadline? How much weight did it lose in the summer heat, even with the ice? We will never know.

Meanwhile, Mollie was enduring its own trials and tribulations at sea. Angler Ryan Long was forced to wind on his blue marlin for eight hours. The 68 G&S was struck by lightning twice, which knocked out the engines. The fish died, but the crew was finally able to boat it at 1:30 in the morning.

“Man, that was tough,” Long explained. “The first six hours were touch and go, but the last two hours were heck. Once that fish died, I had to pump it up and I was all by myself in the cockpit while that lightning was popping. My hands are gone tonight.” Mollie earned second place in the marlin division after finally landing the 666.4-pound blue.

A total of six blue marlin were weighed on Saturday. Hatterascal, Bloodsport, Plumb Crazy and Pour Intentions also brought in fish, although none were large enough to crack the leaderboard.

J.P. Arceneaux, a center on his football team, manhandled a new BMGC record yellowfin while fishing aboard Hatterascal, the factory 70 GT. The monster 182.4-pound fish ate a 20-pound live blackfin before it was subdued on 130-class tackle after a battle lasting 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Laurie Jones on Reel Addiction whipped the second-largest yellowfin for 2016. Her fish tipped the scales at 180.2 pounds. The skilled lady angler also briefly held third place in the tuna division before being bumped by Patrick Haley with his 173.0 entry caught aboard Skin Deep.

The battle for wahoo was fairly evenly matched. Southern Miss (Doyle Jefcoat) was first with a 74.8-pound ‘hoo, followed by Cotton Patch (Lawrence Rowland) with a 66.2-pound speedster and A Work of Art (Wes Mincin) with a 59-pound hooter.

James Piteo, competing aboard Amnesia, boated a 45.2-pound bull dolphin to earn top honors in the category. Josh Herren on Sweet Beaver scored a 32.0-pound dolphin with Turner Earhart on Salty Dog rounding out the field with a 30.4-pound entry.

You Never Know! was named the 2016 Blue Marlin Grand Champion and Breath Easy, which led from start to finish, earned the Gulf Coast Triple Crown Championship title. The cash payouts and trophies will be distributed at the awards breakfast Sunday morning.

The Christening - Posted: Saturday, July 16, 2016 1:10 AM
The Wharf; Orange Beach, Alabama:

The traditional way of christening a new boat or ship is to break a bottle of champagne across the bow. But things are done a little differently here in the deep South. So it was only fitting for Buell and Sherry Polk to break in their new 72 Viking in a way that embraces their true passion—by boating a big blue marlin. With Sherry in the fighting chair and veteran skipper Mike Roberto at the helm, Share-E did just that Friday, jumping to an early lead with a 652.8-pound blue after a three-hour fight.

“Sherry baited that fish with a live blackfin tuna and it didn’t even know it was hooked for the first five minutes. Then it went crazy and really put on a show,” Roberto explained. “It was a tough fight, especially after the line wrapped around the tail, but Sherry toughed it out and got it done. She’ll have some bruises tomorrow. She really is a great angler who just happens to be a woman.

“I also gotta give some props to Galati Yacht Sales for all their help with the boat,” Roberto added. “We couldn’t have done it without them. We took delivery about a week ago and ran several hundred miles to get it here. We worked out a few kinks, bit some fingernails, pulled hair and even cussed a bit before we finally got it ready. And now, here we are.”

But the night of firsts wasn’t quite over. Shortly after the scales opened at 7 p.m. Gunslinger, a 65 Blackwell based in Slidell, Louisiana, brought their own contender to the docks. That 561.2-pound blue was the first marlin ever caught by Ron Fritze of Birmingham, Alabama and it was fooled by a blue and silver chugger lure trolled in open water 70 miles south of Orange Beach. Gunslinger also released three white marlin in addition to the weight fish.

Avid bass fisherman Phillip Henderson also scored his first marlin while competing aboard Wild Hooker, a 68 Blackwell owned by Allen Stewart. That billfish, which lit up the red LED lights at 560.4 pounds, was also fooled by a live bait. The fight lasted one hour and 20 minutes.

Former BMGC Champion Dirt Pit, a 55 Hatteras based in Union, Mississippi, brought in the last marlin Friday evening shortly before the scales closed at 10 p.m. Cramer Pierce was the angler on that 450-pound entry.

The 61 boats competing in this 5th annual event have less than 24 hours to change the current leaderboard. All boats must be back in by 7 p.m. and must return via Mobile Pass and Sailboat Bay. The drama factor is already going into overdrive, however. You Never Know! boated a marlin measuring 128 inches on Friday but chose not to come in early due to the hot bite. That fish could potentially break the Alabama state record of 845.8 pounds set a couple years earlier here at the Grand Championship.

The festivities—with free admission—get started at 5 p.m. Saturday at The Wharf with live streaming on the web, live television coverage and thousands of enthusiastic spectators. With at least one big blue and scores of tuna, wahoo and dolphin expected in, anything can happen. And who knows? There might even be another christening or two.

Max Yield - Posted: Friday, July 15, 2016 9:44 AM
The Wharf, Orange Beach, Alabama:

There’s no denying the fact that big-game fishing is a blood sport. Baits are sacrificed and game fish are gaffed and hauled aboard on a daily basis. The spotlight shines brightest whenever the focus turns to blue marlin, however. These animals are long-lived (up to 30 years) and at the top of the food chain. They also represent the ultimate prize in a sport that traces its roots to Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway and other early stars.

During a high-profile event like the Blue Marlin Grand Championship, the few blue marlin that are brought to the scales get plenty of publicity, yet those handful are dwarfed by the overwhelming numbers set free after the fight. And with the prize money in the release divisions reaching six-figure levels, the kill ratio across the board continues trending downward. Born2Run, a 63 Hatteras GT based in Pensacola, Florida, epitomizes the dramatic shift towards conservation.

“Catch and release is not the foremost goal for us,” says Born2Run owner Dana Foster. “But catching blue marlin is and sometimes you have to be lucky to get the really big fish to bite. So we release the smaller ones 99 percent of the time, tag as many as we can and make sure they’re in good condition when we do let ‘em go.” Myles Colley is Born2Run’s experienced skipper.

“We like to have fun out there and we all work hard to stay consistent,” Foster adds. “There’s good money in the release categories now, so when we do win some it just adds to the fun.”

From 2015 until the start of the Grand Championship, Foster and his skilled team have caught an impressive 49 blue marlin, with only one fish from that total hitting the deck. During the recent Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic, a Gulf Coast Triple Crown qualifying event, Born2Run earned $241,400 in prize money after Foster caught four blues to earn top release honors.

During the tournaments, officials and the competing boats help spread the word whenever a big fish is boated. That knowledge curtails unnecessary mortality.

“If we know a big fish is on ice, we’ll definitely release those borderline marlin we may have gaffed because the release money these days is just too big of an incentive,” says Capt. Jason Hallmark on Rise Up, a 54 Viking and the ECBC champion team. The boat’s release points put it over the top in the final standings.

Even the marlin that do make it to the scales never go to waste. BMGC Weigh Master Craig Martin, a former long-time employee of the National Marine Fisheries Service and The Billfish Foundation, collects scientific samples after the fish are weighed. The otoliths (ear bones), core plugs and internal organs are used to determine age and growth genetics, population dynamics and health factors that effect the overall marlin population. The meat from the fish also goes to a good cause.

Mike McKinley and his daughter Marina formed the non-profit One Meal charity (www.onemealmobile.com) in 2009 to help feed the homeless in Mobile, Alabama. Four years ago he began working with the region’s fishing tournaments to collect fish after they had been weighed. The donated fish are stored in a custom ice chest until McKinley can cut individual filets for meals. Once his freezer is full, he shares any leftover meat with other local ministries. For the final disposition, McKinley gives the carcasses to the Mobile Zoo to augment the diet of the big cats and bears.

“The average 500-pound blue marlin will produce 400 to 450 meals,” McKinley explains. “We serve up to 750 meals a month to the homeless every Sunday at 4 p.m. rain or shine at the Baptist Church on St. Louis Street in Mobile. We only have a handful of volunteers and few donations, so the fish we get from the tournaments really go a long way.”

So as you watch while those big marlin are hoisted aloft at The Wharf scales this weekend, keep in mind that’s only the first phase. Every single one, from the thrilling fight offshore, to the extensive local economic impact, to enhancing scientific knowledge, to feeding someone down on their luck, provides a maximum yield.   

Lucky Charms - Posted: Thursday, July 14, 2016 7:38 AM
The Wharf; Orange Beach, Alabama:

Contestants in the 2016 Grand Championship are envious of Leon Edwards’ good vibes. The owner of Lucky 2 and the inaugural recipient of the Gulf Legends Award has countless monster fish to his credit, including a 1,046 “grander” blue, the largest marlin ever caught in Florida. So as the field of 61 boats get ready to motor off in hopes of duplicating that feat, many are breaking out their lucky charms. We caught up with several to learn what they’ll be doing to draw that winning bill into the spread.

“The crew’s kids give us one of their favorite toys to take offshore, usually the figurine of the week. This time we’ve got the Storm Trooper helmet one of them painted. The toys always keep us safe, but I’m not so sure they bring us any special fishing luck,” says “Soda” Noling on Conundrum, a local 61 Viking. Stevie, a mate aboard Freak Nasty, a 92 Viking from nearby Ono Island, takes a more adult approach.

“We always take a bottle of Fireball when we’re fishing a tournament,” he says. “Jägermeister will work in a pinch.” When queried about whether the team does shots before lines in, he said, with a wink, that they just drink all day long. Capt. Blake Singleton and his team have some other quirky rituals.

Cheese Puffs are always on board and the crew says a prayer before they put lines in the water. For the evening meal the first night out, they dine on cheeseburgers from Shaggy’s Restaurant. The name of their Pass Christian 60 Sculley, by the way, is Cheeseburger.

Neil Gryder, the mate on Black Tip, sprinkles a little holy water off the transom of the 61 Buddy Davis. He also carries a couple special lucky lures, even if he doesn’t plan to use them. When asked for the specific names of the lures, he had a curt reply.

“There’s no way I’m telling what they are. Not a chance,” he said with a laugh.

Some superstitious teams are equally cautious about what isn’t on board in an effort to ward off bad luck. Boats like Bloodsport, a 38 Luhrs based in Orange Beach, shun bananas in the long-held belief that they are bad juju. Others, however, don’t mind the elongated fruit at all.

“My boss hates bananas on the boat,” says veteran skipper Billy Borer on Gulf Rascal, a 68 Hatteras GT home-ported in nearby Pensacola. “They don’t bother me a bit. I once made a strip bait out of a banana peel and caught a bonito just to disprove the theory they’re bad luck.” Borer has encountered other unusual tournament behavior, however.

“I used to fish with a lady angler who would light incense and walk around the cockpit and engine room, waving smoke and reciting chants. I’m not sure if that ever really made a difference or not. She certainly thought it did. I believe you make your own luck and this weekend I’m hoping to do just that.”

Phoenix - Posted: Wednesday, July 13, 2016 9:49 AM
The Wharf, Orange Beach, Alabama:

In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a long-lived bird that is reborn from the ashes of its predecessor. In the Gulf sport-fishing realm, a comparable bird has also hatched and the fledgling is soaring to new heights.

For 25 years the Bay Point Invitational Billfish Tournament attracted the top big-game boats in the Southeast. The stakes were high and the competition fierce. Teams coveted the limited number of entries and the entire production was carefully staged for maximum exposure and entertainment, topped by media coverage and the Miss Billfish contest. Bay Point reached its zenith in 2009, however, only to crash and burn the following year.

Fast forward two years and a collaboration between the former Bay Point tournament director Scott Burt and Rocky Jones, an avid angler and owner of Reel Addiction, was born. The result—the Blue Marlin Grand Championship—begins its fifth season this week and Jones is deservedly proud of the highly successful event.

“This tournament is definitely beyond my wildest expectations,” Jones said at the Casino Night CrewFest, sponsored by Galati Yacht Sales and Viking Yachts, Tuesday evening at The Wharf, the host facility. Jones shares co-director responsibilities with Burt for the Blue Marlin Grand Championship. “It’s a combination of things,” he added. “The caliber of the teams, one of the biggest payouts on the Gulf circuit and this awesome venue has really made the Grand Championship a special event. And it’s only getting better each year. The teams are getting more skilled and knowledgeable, the tackle is getting better, plus the speed and range of the boats is increasing. The techniques for catching blue marlin have changed dramatically over the last three to four years.”

Based on previous tournaments and the level of competition, Jones predicts it will take a marlin exceeding 700 pounds to win this week. He also expects a yellowfin tuna weighing more than 190 pounds, a wahoo topping the century mark and a 45-pound-plus dolphin to win the top categories in the marlin and game fish divisions. Boats can also accrue points for releasing smaller billfish.

Capt. Ron Woodruff is the skipper of A Work of Art, a new 92-foot Viking owned by Art Favre and a previous tournament champion. He agrees the competition among boats is getting more intense.

“These big boats now have the speed and range to run 250 miles to the Green Canyon and fish,” he explains. “But there are a good number of outboard-powered boats rigged with triple 300s that can cover a lot of water too. There are no more sacred cows. Every day, nearly every rig in the Gulf is getting fished and the pressure is really getting intense.

“Live bating has really changed the game tremendously,” he adds. “With live bait bigger fish are being caught and more fish overall are being caught. In order to be successful, you have to be prepared to live bait and that requires a lot of patience. I grew up trolling so it’s been a little harder for me to swap over. But some big fish caught trolling this summer have come to the scales too. I still love to put out a spread of Softheads and I’ve got some Yaps that I’ve dusted off and added to the mix. The old classics never go out of style.”

Neither do well-executed tournaments with talented teams and a million dollars or more on the line, all set in an exciting venue. From the ashes…