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Ghosts of Tournaments Past

Four of the greatest marlin tournaments of all time, remembered by those who fished them

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Sport-fishing boats on the water.
The Boy Scout tournament helped put St. Thomas on the world’s sport-fishing map. Richard Gibson

The water color offshore in the tropical Atlantic falls between rich cobalt blue and iridescent indigo. Wherever that water pushes over the right bottom topography, and at just the right temperature, plankton gathers, baitfish feed, tuna and dorado feast, and blue marlin gorge. With them, as inevitable as the relentless push of the Gulf Stream, come sport-fishing enthusiasts, resort marinas, and blue marlin tournaments.

And just as that fertile water fades, it is replaced by new in the circle of life. So too have many of the greatest fishing tournaments—the ones that are still regaled, still remembered, and greatly missed. Let’s take a look at four that are arguably the greatest blue marlin tournaments of all time—and ones that will likely never be fished again—through the eyes of the crews who fished them.

Watch: A belly-strip teaser is a great way to raise marlin and sailfish. Learn to rig one here.

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U.S. Virgin Islands Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament, St. Thomas, USVI

The North Equatorial Current drifts westward across the open Atlantic Ocean until the east-west 100-fathom curve turns abruptly just north of St. Thomas for just a dozen miles before continuing westward again. On this fabled crosscurrent North Drop, marlin come in large numbers, eager to feed during the full moons of summer.

In the mid-1960s, Laurance Rockefeller sponsored two charter boats to entertain guests with big-game fishing at his Little Dix Bay and Caneel Bay resorts in the Virgin Islands. Jimmy Loveland, who grew up fishing on his father Stu’s charter boat docked at Miami’s Pier 5, was among the first of those skippers.

A crew reeling in a large marlin.
The A1A tournament team goes in for the tag on a scrappy blue marlin on the North Drop during the Boy Scout, an event once dubbed “The Super Bowl of Big-Game Fishing.” Richard Gibson

Early points-per-pound tournaments showed that blue marlin were plentiful in the Virgin Islands—and large. Since the early ’60s, the North Drop has produced three IGFA Atlantic blue marlin all-tackle records: 814 pounds in July 1964, 845 pounds in July 1968, and 1,282 pounds in August 1977. Nearly every men’s and women’s line-class record has also been held at some point in the USVI. When Loveland acquired stewardship of one of those early tournaments in 1980, he changed the billfishing world forever.

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The Virgin Islands Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament—nicknamed the Boy Scout because of its support for the Virgin Islands Council of the Boy Scouts of America—became the first release tournament fishing for the Atlantic’s ­biggest billfish in one of the world’s best locales. “The tournament wasn’t based on the biggest blue marlin; it was based on the most. Luck couldn’t win it,” Loveland says. “It was about the best anglers and the best crews.”

“There weren’t many destinations fishing heavy tackle where you could get the consistent ­ravaging bites we see on the North Drop,” says Capt. Mike Lemon, who skippered the tournament’s top boat five times, and was captain for six top angler awards. “St. Thomas dominated world records; it was the blue marlin capital of the world.”

Black and white image of Milton "Sam" Jennings.
Milton “Sam” Jennings could very well be one of the greatest blue marlin anglers of all time. His name appears on the Boy Scout’s Top Angler Honor Roll three times in the contest’s 45-year history: 1995, 1997 and 1999. Richard Gibson

Under Loveland’s tenure, it was neither big fish nor the then-novel six-figure release payouts that made the Boy Scout great. “You were going against the biggest names in blue marlin fishing, guys I really looked up to: Red Bailey, Spike Herbert, Albert Johnston, Bill Harrison, OB O’Bryan, Bark Garnsey, Don Tyson, Sam Jennings, the Rockefellers, the Chouest and Valdez families,” Lemon says. “If you were the top angler or top captain, you were fishing against the best of the best, and that held a lot of weight.”

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The rules—written to give individual anglers equal opportunity—drew ­controversy. Anglers were mandated to rotate through the rod positions, and the participants criticized the rule that required them to fish with 50-pound line in the notoriously shark-filled waters. Loveland also prescribed limits on how mates teased in ­marlin. “As fishing techniques ­developed, so did the rules, and then the objection was that there were too many rules,” Loveland says. But whether it was in spite of those rules, or because of them, the Boy Scout offered stellar fishing against the sport’s superstars, and it likely would have ­continued, until commerce rules came into play.

The North Drop had always been in ­international waters until, in 1982, the United Nations prescribed, worldwide, a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone protecting each nation’s fishing waters. That line skewed northwest from St. Thomas, cleaving the North Drop into British Virgin Islands waters by just a few miles. Over the years, the BVI added permit requirements, until fishing the North Drop eventually required boats to clear customs in the BVI before doing so, ­ultimately killing the ­tournament. The last Boy Scout was held in 2017.

A man sitting in a fighting chair as onlookers watch him compete.
The Canal Olympics were held the day before the tournament, and included games such as fighting a skiff from a chair bolted to the dock, and walking a towing-hawser tightrope stretched over the marina basin between the A and B docks Courtesy IGFA

Poco Bueno Fishing Tournament, Port O’Connor, Texas

Where Caribbean currents push west of Cuba and up toward Alabama, eddies spun off that Loop Current sweep blue marlin water westward off Louisiana until, just 50 miles southeast of Port O’Connor, the 100-fathom curve comes closest to shore before turning abruptly southward.

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“The deepwater rigs weren’t there yet. It was pretty much wide-open fishing,” says Capt. Bill Harrison, who fished the Poco in the early 1970s. Even with just 50-mile runs, boats left before dusk and returned after dark. “We had a compass and a watch—no loran, no GPS. You looked for an edge, a color change, something that looked good, and you worked it.” Unlike the outstanding fishing that drew Harrison and others to St. Thomas, it was Texas itself that was most alluring. “Everyone just went out of their way to make you feel at home,” Harrison remembers. “Everything was big, flashy, loud—people were just wanting to have fun.” Camaraderie and good times ensued.

The Canal Olympics, held the day before ­fishing began, were particularly memorable. “There was the ‘yellow-headed green marlin’ game,” says Capt. Kirk Elliott, who, at 9 years old, rigged mullet and mackerel on his father’s 31 Bertram in the first Poco Bueno back in 1969. Elliott won the tournament as a mate in 1987, not long after his father passed away, and again as a captain in 2016, with his own son as a mate. “It was a 25-gallon green plastic drum, half full of cement, with a big shackle on top. I’d guess it weighed around 100 pounds,” he recalls. “They’d drop it in the water, and you had to leader it up and gaff it.” The crew quickest to land it on the dock won. Other events included a towing hawser stretched as a tightrope between the A and B dock pilings, a flats boat reeled in from a fighting chair on the dock, folding aluminum chairs thrown like shot put, and mops raced around barrels like toy rodeo horses. There was no shortage of antics, but it was the Texas-size calcuttas that drew boats to Port O’Connor.

A group of people on the docks.
Port O’Connor’s Poco Bueno has a special place in the hearts of many who fished the 49-year-old event. Courtesy IGFA

“It was the richest tournament of the time,” Harrison says. “San Juan, the Bahamas—no other tournament came close to the money that was in the Poco.” Total pots neared $1 million, in part because it was the last major tournament to auction calcutta entries to the highest bidder, not necessarily to the boat owner. Top contenders fetched tens of thousands of dollars, and intentionally bidding up your buddy’s entry an extra $10,000 was just part of the fun when oil money flowed freely.

“What drew the big turnout of 100 boats or more was the appeal that you could get into the tournament for cheap,” says Capt. Kevin Deerman, who fished the Poco Bueno most years beginning in 1986. “Everyone had an equal chance; anyone could troll lures around and catch one big fish, pay just the $2,000 minimum bid to get into the ­calcutta, and walk away with a lot of money.”

That changed, however, as teams began to focus on fishing live bait near the oil platforms. The Poco’s official tournament winnings originally came from weighed fish, so when the ­tournament stipulated a minimum blue marlin size and added a tagged-fish category—with a trophy named for Kirk Elliott’s father, Jack—release side pots siphoned money away from weigh-in calcuttas. “It got to where you knew you might release three or four blue marlin and win a big payout, instead of looking for that one big fish,” Deerman says.

When bad weather canceled the tournament in 2014, the calcutta cash was returned, but entry fees were retained to cover catering and venue costs, leaving a bad taste in some participants’ mouths. And when the tournament fenced off the weigh-in, it quelled the renowned Texas ­hospitality. In 2019, low participation canceled the Poco Bueno indefinitely.

A fleet of sport-fishing boats on the water.
Participants depart Bimini on tournament day at the Bacardi Billfish Tournament, the iconic boat names conjuring up memories of the good old days and the good times remembered. Richard Gibson

Bacardi Billfish Tournament, Bimini and Port Lucaya, Bahamas

The Gulf Stream begins its swift northward ­journey from the tip of Florida, and when the current caresses Bimini’s shores, the blue marlin ­fishing heats up. In 1935, when 47 miles from Florida was a long run, this tiny pair of islets was the Holy Grail for big billfish in the Atlantic. Legends such as Kip Farrington, Ernest Hemingway, Michael Lerner, Tommy Gifford, the Merritt brothers and the Rybovich sons pioneered blue marlin fishing here, with their exploits recorded in photographs on the Compleat Angler’s museumlike pine walls. And when Sam Jennings’ first Bahamas grander—a 1,060.5-pounder—was taken in 1979, Bimini’s allure was amplified.

“It was the first blue marlin tournament of the year,” says Capt. Jason “Tiny” Walcott, who fished the Bacardi from 1993 through 2007. “As soon as winter ended, everyone got fired up for the Bacardi.” Some big fish were weighed in Bimini, but in most tournament years, few boats would even see a blue marlin, and March seas were notoriously rough. “It was always a rowdy drink-fest,” Walcott says with a laugh. “I never saw so many boats stay at the dock because of hangovers.”

A sport-fishing angler, Larry Cullins, dressed as a clown.
Larry Cullins’ clown ­persona not only entertained tournament-goers, but he also fashioned a part-time career out of it, delighting children and making appearances for more than 20 years. He passed away in 1995. Courtesy IGFA

Beginning with the first tournament in 1980, director Raul Miranda fostered a particularly sociable atmosphere. Staff dressed in costumes to distribute fresh fruit and free rum, and Bacardi cocktail and hors d’oeuvre contests included entries from every boat. Larry Cullins, also known as the “Town Clown,” entertained both tournament-­goers and locals alike. Lay-day ­softball games pitted Bimini’s town teams against tournament anglers and crew, and Junkanoo parades were the norm.

When Bacardi sold the Big Game Club in 2000, the tournament found a new home at Port Lucaya in Freeport on Grand Bahama. “When everyone realized it was during spring break in Lucaya, it blew up,” says Capt. Howard Haines, who led Port Lucaya Marina developer Kaye Pearson’s Showpiece to two tournament wins. Free-flowing booze, along with coeds encouraged by huge cash-prize wet T-shirt contests, fueled epic parties on the marina’s center dock. The transition-year fleet of just 11 boats in 2001 rebounded, and the following year approached Bimini’s tournament high of 98 boats.

As cellphone cameras and social media became commonplace, the revelry didn’t fit the buttoned-down image most wanted to project, essentially squelching the party. Stories of massive brown-paper-bag payouts in other tournaments in the early 2000s didn’t sit well with the IRS either, increasing US Customs’ scrutiny of boats returning to Florida. The last Bacardi tournament was held in 2012.

Aerial photo of Walker's Cay.
In its heyday, Walker’s Cay was one of the most recognizable marinas from the air. Forest Johnson Photography & Film

The Bertram-Hatteras Shootout, North Abaco, Bahamas

As the Gulf Stream flows north past the Little Bahama Bank, huge eddies push blue water ­southeast across the pinnacles and ledges from Walker’s Cay all along the Abacos, drawing in blue marlin from both the east and west sides of the Bahamas.

But it wasn’t the convergence of boats and ­billfish that made the Bertram-Hatteras Shootout spectacular. The two then-largest ­boatbuilders were chasing marine-magazine ink, and those publications wanted to land the huge advertising dollars that accompanied it. Top editors seldom attended fishing tournaments, but they showed up at every Shootout. “The Greatest Tournament Show on Earth” and “The Mardi Gras of Big-Game Fishing” were among the superlatives the mags (including this one) pitched to their readers.

The Shootout began in Bimini in 1981, and ran again in Chub Cay in 1982, but when the tournament took over the entire island of Walker’s Cay, filling its 66-slip marina to capacity, it became an unparalleled sales tool. New boats were sold with the promise of a slip at the coveted Shootout, and attendees often traded up to the newest model right on the docks. Bertram and Hatteras factory techs, along with Detroit Diesel and Caterpillar engine mechanics, offered prompt, white-glove customer service.

“Everything was first-class; they spared no expense,” says Capt. Jeffrey Schatman, who won the tournament in 1995. World War II bombers flew low over the marina to wake up participants, and entertainers were flown in by the planeload. “The parties were top-notch, and the food was better than any other tournament. It was the event of the year, and everyone wanted to fish it.”

A group of people, including Harrison Hutchings, at an auction at the Bertram-Hatteras Shootout.
Harrison “Hutch” Hutchings drives up the money at the Bertram-Hatteras Shootout in the early ’80s. Courtesy IGFA

Spectacle aside, the Shootout’s auctioned ­calcutta drove half-million-dollar purses that drew top competitors. It was also the first Bahamas tournament to institute a minimum size to weigh fish—88 inches in 1987—and added cash for the most billfish released. Both minimum-length and release-category payouts increased over the years, particularly after the tournament moved farther down the Abacos to Marsh Harbour’s new 180-slip Boat Harbour Marina.

By the mid-2000s, the Shootout became an ­all-release format. Few would argue the ­conservation success, but eliminating points-per-­pound removed the palpable anticipation felt when, right down to the last minute of the last day, any boat could still hook the tournament-­winning fish. “Anybody can put five lures in the water and get the right bite and catch the biggest fish,” Schatman says. “But tournament fishing is a crew sport now—and release tournaments are all about the team. I love it, but the average guy finds it hard to compete in this format. Two or three mates and three or four anglers, sometimes hired guns, are fishing 30-pound tackle to catch whites and small blues because that’s how you have to fish to win.”

While the release format may have affected tournament participation, the down economy in 2008 was particularly difficult. Declining boat sales and diminished advertising dollars deprived the Shootout of the unique economic incentives that originally made it great. Bertram’s ­lingering collapse in the early 2010s (before its current reincarnation) struck the final blow. The last Bertram-Hatteras Shootout left the dock in 2012, never to return, despite today’s resurgence of Walker’s Cay.

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While blue marlin tournaments are ­inevitable, the forces driving them have changed. “When I started fishing tournaments, everyone stayed in hotels because the boats were smaller,” Harrison says. “It forced people onto the dock. You met people, made new friends; everyone was so eager to talk, to share, to buy each other a drink. You don’t get that anymore.”

It’s unfortunate when you think about it. The boats, now outfitted with satellite TV and high-speed internet, detract from those days of old and the social aspects that colored each of these events. But times do change, and so does the culture. At least we have reminders of the good old days when fuel was affordable, the winnings were rich, and the fun times were plenty.

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Marlin.

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