On Marlin's 30th anniversary, we look back at seven of the most popular and influential big-game events in the billfishing universe.
October 11, 2011
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International Billfish Tournament of Club Nautico de San Juan
Having just celebrated its 58th year as the world’s oldest continuous blue marlin tournament, the Club Nautico de San Juan International remains one of the most successful contests in the Americas. With a prolific Atlantic blue marlin fishery second only to Venezuela, the San Juan tournament was the first to break the 100-catch mark during the 1983 event. Continuing to break records, anglers caught 137 blue marlin in 1987, tagging and releasing 45. The next year, 103 boats bettered that mark, releasing all 190 fish they caught, a watershed event that marked the first modified-release format by a major fishing competition. Essentially becoming a release event, San Juan’s legacy is beyond compare. With influential committee members like Ralph Christensen and Agie Vicente (also founding members of The Billfish Foundation), the tournament bucked local fish-on-the-dock trends to set the standard. The tournament also has been one of TBF’s biggest fundraisers, contributing tens of thousands of dollars for research and programs such as the Adopt-A-Billfish archival tagging program.
Poco Bueno Invitational Fishing Tournament
Winning the Poco Bueno has been a badge of honor for anglers and crews since its inception in 1969. One of the most sought-after big-game tournament titles for the more than 100 boats that fish it annually, Poco invented the Calcutta auction and was the first tournament to offer six-figure payouts. Conceived of and run by the late Walter Fondren III for almost 40 years, the tournament was a way for Fondren to focus attention on his favorite getaway, Port O’Connor, Texas, while engaging friends in high-stakes fishing competition. Later, it was a fundraising vehicle for Fondren’s fledgling Gulf Coast Conservation Association, now the Coastal Conservation Association, which managed the tournament for more than a decade. Now back in the hands of the Fondrens, with Walter Fondren IV as its director, among the few changes in recent years are jackpot payouts for wahoo, dolphin and tuna that have made this blue marlin, redfish and sea trout contest a $1.5 million event. The clan, which includes Walter Fondren’s wife Fran and children Walter IV, Francy, Leland, Rob, Marie and Bentley, and their brood of 18, handles everything from registration to the awards ceremonies. For them, Poco remains just a Texas-size get-together. To the big-game fishing world, however, it’s the prototype for modern big-game fishing tournaments that has managed to survive more than 40 years as a private event without sponsors.
U.S. Virgin Islands Boy Scout Tournament
In the annals of big-game fishing, there is nothing quite like the Boy Scout or U.S. Virgin Islands Open Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament. What started out as a friendly competition to spread the word about the Virgin Islands’ great late-summer full-moon bite in 1972 has evolved into one of the most competitive marlin events on the planet; it’s what tournament chairman Jimmy Loveland likes to call the Super Bowl of marlin contests. With the best of the best fishing, participants annually catch-and-release more than 100 300-pound-class fish under the most stringent rules in the business. A one-rod-per-angler maximum 50-pound-tackle tournament where anglers rotate on the hour, the rules go beyond International Game Fish Association guidelines. Rules are what distinguish the Boy Scout from other billfish events. Essentially a release contest for the past 25 years or so, Loveland and his Boy Scout committee were instrumental in creating the qualified observer program for big-money billfish release events such as theirs.
According to tournament founder Dick Weber of South Jersey Yacht Sales, the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 was born out of necessity 20 years ago during another very difficult recession that was compounded by the luxury tax. “With boat sales tanking, we had to do something to energize New Jersey’s boating industry, so we came up with this idea to put on the ‘mother of all marlin tournaments.’ Based on 125 boats, we guaranteed a $500,000 cash prize, a record then for the East Coast,” Weber says. It got everyone’s attention. “Instead of 125 boats, we got 150.” With close to $2 million in cash for a maximum of 150 boats, the event remains one of the richest. “Every year, nine to 10 boats in our event walk away with a six-figure check,” Weber explains. Although Poco Bueno and the White Marlin Open were models, the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 forged its own way by inviting marine research scientist Dr. John Graves from William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science to use the venue as a petri dish. The result is a groundbreaking genetics study that, in addition to collecting the usual length, weight and girth measurements, has included the DNA of every fish killed in the event. In 2006, the data collection led to Graves quantifying roundscale spearfish and hatchet marlin as a single species.
Ocean City White Marlin Open
Having just fished its 38th edition, what sets the White Marlin Open apart from other big-game tournaments is that it was one of the first to guarantee its cash purse. Launched in 1973 when most billfish tournaments were trophy-only “gentlemen’s competitions” with the side bets handed out in brown paper bags, the WMO brought the money into the open. Bringing the tournament from concept to fruition was a gamble for Jim Motsko, a 20-something entrepreneur working his way through college mating on Ocean City charter boats. In spite of it all, 57 boats turned out, resulting in an $8,000 loss. Three years later, they were in the black and never looked back. Hosting 449 boats in 2005, the White Marlin Open set a record as the largest marlin tournament ever held. This year, some 250 boats shared about $2 million in prize money — a far cry from the first year’s $20,000 payout. “What sets us apart is that this is a tournament where the biggest fish [white marlin] wins the most cash,” Motsko explains. “Luck is as important as skill, which is why someone like Carlos Bentos can single-handedly as captain, mate and angler win it all in Old Man of the Sea fashion. Like Doug Remsberg of Walkersville, Maryland, who won $1.5 million on his first-ever offshore trip found out, winning this tournament is like winning the lottery.”
Bahamas Billfish Championship
The Bahamas Billfish Championship has weathered everything from the ’70s fuel crisis and up-and-down fishing to numerous recessions, and it has thrived these past 37 years, thanks to rule changes that keep it relevant. With a steering committee of participating anglers as well as tournament coordinator Al Behrendt, the tournament has gone from a points-per-pound to a points-per-release concept that has only heightened the competition. As evidenced by this year’s record-setting 1,119-pound blue marlin catch by David Albury during the fifth Treasure Coast Championship leg, there is still a place for big fish, but increasingly the BBC is a release event. “In the beginning, anglers pulled natural baits and giant teasers to catch any and all blue marlin they could find,” Behrendt says. “Yet with the imposition of minimum sizes for billfish, they soon were targeting big fish using heavy tackle and artificials to cover more ground more quickly.” Then in 2002, the BBC employed time- and date-stamped digital images to verify releases and upped the ante from 50 to 400 points for a released blue marlin. With anglers now comfortable with the concept, in 2005 the committee made a blue marlin release worth 600 points. Essentially, a team could win the BBC by freeing every fish it caught.
Bisbee’s Black & Blue
Things have come a long way since Bob Bisbee hosted the West Coast’s first blue and black marlin tournament in November 1982. Held on the tip of the Baja Peninsula at Cabo San Lucas, only a half-dozen boats ponied up $500 to fish it, plus another $2,000 for the Calcutta. Since that auspicious beginning, the tournament has awarded more than $51 million in cash and prizes. Flocking to Cabo before the dot-com bust of 2002, a record 263 boats competed for the world’s richest purse. In 2006, when Team Bad Company walked away with the biggest check in Bisbee history ($3.9 million), 190 boats fished the event. This year, the Black & Blue joined other tournaments around the world requiring the use of circle hooks with bait.