"Are you kidding? I would love to fish in a National Billfish Tournament," I said. Just the thought of fishing "with the big boys", learning new techniques, fishing on a brand new yacht, and meeting some of the best Billfish anglers in the country, was enough reason to commit to this trip. Now add over $700,000 in cash and prizes and I was sure I made the right decision.
It all started with the above mentioned phone call from a Between the Banks Yacht sponsor, Mike Mayer. A customer who had recently purchased a new 40' Luhrs yacht, Bruce Constantine of Baton Rouge, wanted to fish the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic held in Biloxi this past week. He was putting up the $5000 entry fee and assembling a 6 man team that would fish on his boat the "Off the Hook". I assumed he meant the phone, or maybe the fish after he is caught. I would have to ask.
His boat captain Kerry Powell of New Orleans is a seasoned captain and had raised his share of Billfish on other boats. Bobby Major, a veteran cock pit man from Baton Rouge also had joined the team. Now Bruce added the expertise of previous Tournament Champion and Venice guide Kevin Frelich. Bruce, Mike and I were designated anglers. I was last in the rotation as filming the event from the camera's perspective was my primary duty.
It started with the Captain's meeting. Rules, schedule and questions were explained and answered by the Tournament Chairman Bobby Carter with Isle of Capri Resort, the Biloxi resort which hosted the event. Take off was Thursday at 5pm when most of the 85 six man teams and their Yachts would idle out of Point Cadet Marina and head for the fishing grounds. Lines in the water was set for 530 am Friday with fishing continuing till 600pm on Saturday and all fish had to be at the scales by 11 PM.
Our first stop was Cypress Cove Marina where we topped of the 500 gallon tank, grabbed
a quick bite and nap. We were back under way at midnight, heading east southeast out of South Pass to Ocean Star, a floater in Mississippi Canyon offshore about 30 miles. Bruce's computer predictions of currents, and Kevin's previous trips to this area, indicated that this area would be our starting point.
We arrived a couple of hours early and Kevin and Bobby prepared the spread while everyone else napped. I had slept on the way out so when Bruce came to wake me, I leaped out of bed, already dressed, ready for action. I opened the salon door to the cockpit and there were Bobby and Kevin, double checking knots, hook sharpness, drag, and surface Marlin baits. But where were the birds or daisy chains that had worked so well for me?
"Bird Attractors and Squid Daisy chains can produce a large quantity of fish but usually not the quality of fish you need to contend in a Tournament like this," Kevin suggested. "The categories are 1st-3rd places in Marlin, Tuna, Wahoo and Dolphin. You have to commit to pulling larger Marlin Baits like Woolly Boogers, Cajun Yaps, or other similar surface baits. Usually bigger Tuna and Wahoo along with Dolphin will hit these lures along with Marlin," he added. He also said that Tuna over 120 pounds, Wahoo in the 75 +pound class and 50 pound Dolphin would probably make the board so wasting time on smaller fish was not a smart move.
We pulled a five line spread in a staggered star pattern with the two closest lures each following two teasers. The teasers consisted of small, blue colored boat dock fenders with a large, silver, hook less spoon trailing behind the fender just a few feet. These teasers radically pulsed just under the surface and attract Marlin into the spread. Baby Dolls, Squid Commanders and Door Knobs were just a few of the names of the lures, with blue, pink, black, chartreuse and red being the hot colors. These baits would swim just under the surface creating a bubble trail, occasionally popping the surface for a second, then quickly diving back just under the surface.
Since you are fishing for big fish, trolling can become boring but our team remained busy. The captains rotated watches while Mike and I watched for fish jumping and Bobby monitored the spread. Tuna and an occasional jumping Marlin would renew our interest, but only a 20+ pound Bull Dolphin caught by Mike would take the bait and meet the gaff as the bigger fish in the area preferred to munch on the live Flying Fish and Chicken Dolphin working the scattered grass rip line and bluewater slicks.
By mid-afternoon Kevin and Kerry agreed it was time for a change in the color of the spread. Bobby and Kerry rigged Red and Black color patterns with an oddball thrown in, while Kevin headed for a surface slick where a big Tuna had Jumped. At 5pm Friday afternoon something big crashed the right outrigger line.
The drag was screaming as the crew scrambled to reel in the other lines while Bruce was strapped in. Once the lines were cleared, Kerry positioned the boat as Kevin studied the line and helped direct Kerry. We anxiously watched the surface, hoping to see a monster Marlin wreck the calm Gulf surface with a series of jumps, but this fish was heading deep, the sign of a big Tuna.
Bruce battled the fish, straining to pull the rod up and quickly reel the line back line as the rod tip lowered, keeping tension on the fish at all times. For every ten feet of line Bruce retrieved, the fish took 50. It was going to be a long battle. Thirty minutes later we showered an already sweat drenched Bruce with freshwater as the tug of war with the big fish waged on. It was a typical Tuna battle with the fish pointed perpendicular to the bottom and Bruce trying to wench his head up and eventually to the end of the fight. Fifteen minutes later a estimated 130 pound Yellowfin came through the Tuna door of the "Off the Hook" to a jubilant crew and exhausted Bruce. The big fish was "Off the Hook" and in the fish bag on ice. I now understood the boat name.
Throughout the day we had monitored sideband radio as the tournament committee kept inquiring anglers posted on fish reported caught. Several Billfish that did not meet the required tournament minimum length were tagged and released while an estimated 450+ pound Blue Marlin had been caught along with a rare Bluefin Tuna over 800+ pounds reported. The last time a Bluefin that size was reported caught was in the early 1970's by Captain and Mrs. Myron Fisher of Gallaino. Our 130 pound Yellowfin was more typical of Rodeo or Tournament contention. With possible second place Tuna, a $15,000 fish, in the boat, our confidence was skyrocketing.
Bobby had the lines out already and we began to troll again. I was next up in the rotation as the sun began to set and my heart began to pound, overwhelming me with excitement and anticipation as I fitted into the back harness and fighting belt. "Take that thing off," Bobby yelled. "Once you get it adjusted, take it off," he repeated. "It's bad luck," he assured. I quickly obliged willing to subscribe to any of Bobby's superstitions if it meant a strike.
I anxiously waited for the next strike in the mist a glorious, fiery, sunset over the cobalt blue, offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This first day of competition yielded lessons in bait selection and spread color. Teasing fish, surface slicks and most of all the patience in waiting for a big fish strike, were additional lessons to learn.
I starred at the blazing sunset praying for another strike, a strike that would come soon enough. That strike, day two of competition, and an exciting weigh-in finish are all found in next weeks column.