Few destinations in the world can match the amenities and allure of Biloxi, Mississippi. Outstanding sport fishing for nearly every popular saltwater species and a host of entertainment options make this one of the most popular vacation spots in the Southern United States.
Situated in the heart of America’s Deep South, coastal Mississippi really came to the forefront in the years following World War II as the tourism industry gained momentum. Returning servicemen now had the opportunity, as well as the disposable income, to travel away from home on vacations. And despite its relatively small coastline, Mississippi soon found itself competing with Florida for those tourists. One of the main draws of the region remains in place to this very day: an abundance of game fish, tasty shrimp and succulent oysters. If you want fish — and you eat seafood — then you’d be hard-pressed to find a better spot.
Another boom hit Biloxi in the early 1990s, when Mississippi legalized gambling. At first, it was thought that gambling would be limited to cruising paddle-wheelers — more of a sight-seeing tourist attraction than anything else — but it quickly grew into a multibillion-dollar industry. The floating (as prescribed by law) casinos turned into enormous resorts, with many major properties dotting the coastline from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi. Nowadays, the floating restriction is long gone, and the casinos offer up 24-hour gaming, Vegas-style shows, fine dining, spas and much more.
Sport fishing has always played an integral part in the development of the area; however, anglers primarily focused on the inshore and nearshore species: trout and redfish in the sounds and red snapper, cobia and amberjack on the rigs. Anglers would catch the occasional marlin close to shore, but the run to deeper water and the more traditional billfishing grounds was a long one, usually in excess of 75 miles one way. Boats actively targeting blues and big yellowfin tuna usually left port on multiday trips, steaming through the night in order to put lines in by first light.
|The Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic tournament, held in Biloxi, represents one of the richest events along the Gulf Coast and draws top-notch crews from throughout the region. (Alaric Lambert)|
In 1997, the late Bill McLellan (Marlin magazine’s co-founder) and Bobby Carter were fishing a tournament in Orange Beach, Alabama, and having drinks on the boat with their teammate Danny Pitalo. As the drinks flowed, they began tossing around the idea of hosting a world-class tournament in their home port of Biloxi. They felt that it would be a great way to showcase the area’s offshore action and bring some attention to a fishery that few really understood at the time.
Later that same year, the first annual Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic hosted 60 teams. Known for its large cash prizes, the Gulf Coast Classic quickly grew to be one of the top events on the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the big money and big fish, participants also liked the long fishing hours (they left port on a Thursday afternoon and did not return until the Saturday evening weigh-in deadline). And because everyone gathered in the same marina, the pre- and post-event camaraderie and celebrations continued virtually nonstop. Notable years include 1999, when Bob Strue set the Mississippi state record for bluefin tuna at 837 pounds, and 2002, when Barry Carr landed the Gulf of Mexico record blue marlin — a 1,054-pound behemoth. Unfortunately, tournament co-founder Bill McLellan passed away that same year, losing his battle with cancer but ultimately leaving behind a rich legacy for thousands to enjoy.