The Colorful History and Bright Future of the Custom Shootout

A Bahamas staple is set for many years of success

A fleet of sport-fishing boats cruising across the waters.
Racing back to the dock after a day of marlin fishing in the Abacos. Courtesy Debra Todd Photography

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After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Hipkneetized’s Steve Roy, HT Hook’s Harry Shufflebarger and Merritt’s Boat & Engine Works’ Roy Merritt approached Capt. Skip Smith about creating a tournament to raise money for the victims. The writing on the wall was fast-approaching, perhaps unknowingly, for the Bertram-Hatteras Shootout and the Bacardi Billfish Tournament—both tournaments dissolving in 2012—whose participation was dwindling even as the Great Recession loomed five years in the future. And, unfortunately, the Bahamas Billfish Championship wasn’t too far behind. It was as if a fissure was just beginning to open in fishing history; a niche was slowly making itself visible, one the Custom Shootout was destined to fill. Nothing would be like it, and it is probable nothing will be like it ever again. And so, the story begins.

Perhaps these four gentlemen, these experts who graced—and continue to grace—the industry for many years, could be considered the speculators of tournament fishing because what has transpired over the past two decades has been nothing short of revolutionary. In 2001, it was the need to celebrate American ingenuity, as well as an opportunity for fellowship to evolve and philanthropy to turn out. And it did, in true community fashion.

While the original Custom Shootout concept had the boatbuilders paying to have their builds enter the competition, Merritt politely objected, and the conception would now hinge on the owners paying their own way. After all, if they were able to purchase a multimillion-dollar custom boat, then they could afford a few days of friendly ­competition in the Bahamas for a good cause.

A man and woman post and smile for a picture at the Abaco Beach Resort & Boat Harbour Marina.
Smith (on left) relies on good friend and longtime Abaco Beach Resort & Boat Harbour Marina manager Kevie Thomas not only for tournament-related logistics, but for his Hurricane Dorian relief efforts as well. Courtesy Debra Todd Photography

As the custom-boat builders supported the overall idea, the particulars were hashed out to include an all-release format, and it was settled on Chub Cay in the southern Berry Islands of the Bahamas as the first Custom Shootout destination.

Chub is an iconic place, almost hauntingly so. Located just 125 miles from Florida, the “Billfish Capital of the Bahamas” legacy is, according to the 40-plus-year-old Chub Cay Club, “more than just a fisherman’s paradise.” Its sovereign ­border might be considered a developing nation to First World countries, but its connection to ­fishermen elevated it to world-class status because of its proximity to the Pocket—a dynamic piece of ­fishing real estate that is located in the northwest corner of the Tongue of the Ocean, subsumed in one of the Atlantic Ocean’s 11 deepwater trenches.

Watch: The Marlin team explores the fishery of the Andaman Sea off Myanmar in this episode of Bluewater Chronicles.

Chub to Harbour Island to Boat Harbour

Many of the greatest billfishermen cut their teeth in Chub, and many big fish have been pulled from these waters over the decades. Chub is special, ­especially in late winter and early spring, where it offers teams grand-slam opportunities when the weather gods align themselves—­southeast-to-east winds, and plenty of them. It’s no wonder that Chub was chosen to fill a ­much-needed ­tournament-venue gap.

“The first time you go to the Bahamas, whether it’s by boat or especially by plane, the sheer beauty of the water that surrounds the islands is breathtaking,” Smith says. “If you think of all the record catches, Ernest Hemingway, the lobsters, the conchs, you immediately feel the relaxed vibe that is island life.” And he’s right. It never seems that the Bahamas is rushing you to do anything. No one’s in a hurry to take your money, that’s for sure, but it does mark a welcome departure from the hustle and bustle of South Florida.
However, Chub just wasn’t ready for what was about to come that fateful January in 2002. Able to handle only 20 boats, the quaint hotel, restaurant and bar, although legendary, certainly couldn’t hold the 100-plus humans who were ready to descend on its amenities and wind down after a good day of competition.

A crew pulls a blue marlin boatside.
The Out Islands of the Bahamas continues to prove its worth when it comes to tournament ­billfishing. Courtesy Debra Todd Photography

As the tournament committee mulled over a move of venues, Harbour Island, while not ­optimal, was better-armed in both great dining and drinking options, as well as having plenty of lodging. For the next eight years, the Custom Shootout continued to grow. But when the Bertram-Hatteras Shootout finally folded, it was time to swoop in on the next thing the tournament could hope for: Marsh Harbour’s Abaco Beach Resort & Boat Harbour Marina.

“When you can hold 60 to 70 boats in one location, that is one of the secrets to success,” Smith says. “And when you can have access to an air-conditioned tent that holds hundreds of people, on-property lodging, and great food and drinks, it can’t be matched. The crews and owners can spend quality time together, and that camaraderie is what makes it even more special.”

Smith must be right. The Custom Shootout has managed to solidify its place in the tournament market, smack-dab in the middle of the Abacos, where his participants can fish, dine, reminisce and party to their hearts’ content. It’s a recipe that seems to be holding its own in the dog-eat-dog world of tournament fishing.

The tournament pretty much remained on cruise control for the next eight years, until September 1, 2019, when a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane named Dorian destroyed the Abacos in the worst natural disaster ever recorded in the ­history of the Bahamas.

An aerial view of a resort marina with boats docked.
From 2004 to 2011, the Custom Shootout called Harbour Island home. Courtesy Debra Todd Photography

While the fishing industry rallied to the aid of the Bahamians, Smith walked Abaco Beach Resort and its surrounding areas with manager Kevie Thomas to see the carnage for himself. “On my first visit after the storm, I thought there was no way the resort would be ready for our 2020 event. The docks were gone; only pilings stuck up out of the water. There were no doors on the hotel rooms, the cottages were gone, and boats were scattered around the resort,” he recalls. “When I returned a couple of months later, the hotel and the docks were repaired and ready, but it was like Disneyland in a war zone: Outside the gates, Marsh Harbour was a mess, and it was heartbreaking.”

Returning to the States and unwilling to take a loss, Smith immediately crafted an email to the CSO participants and his resources, and before he knew it, this mobilization raised $200,000 in no time. “We sent over meals and roofing materials for the Bahamians, and Kevie was in charge of getting the items directly to the people so that we did not lose any money to the big ­organizations” that were establishing several other aid ­campaigns of their own.

By springtime, Abaco Beach Resort had rebuilt the docks, replaced the tournament tent, and restored the power, but the coronavirus was standing by to put another wrench in the plan, and the event was canceled in 2020 due to travel ­restrictions in an attempt to slow the spread.

The Custom-Boat Angle

With the tournament now capped at 60 boats, the Custom Shootout waiting list is outrageously long. And with the latest boat boom, that list is hardly dwindling. Deciding just who advances to competition is not only based on which team is grandfathered in, but it also, fittingly, makes the builders exempt. “They are the ones who make this tournament special,” Smith says, and with up to a dozen of the finest builders in the US attending and making themselves available to their clients—owners and crews alike—it’s what sets this event apart from all the others.

A crew pulls a marlin boat side.
Bree angler Rick Chapman and his team release a nice Bahamas blue marlin—a fish worth 600 points in Smith’s Custom Shootout. Courtesy Debra Todd Photography

The Custom Shootout is set up as an invitation-only event, with the previous years’ participants getting the first of the coveted summonses. Should a team not be able to attend, then the waiting list is consulted. The longer the team has remained on the list, the more likely they will be invited the next time. That’s standard operating procedure for most invitationals, but it doesn’t seem to discourage new owners from seeking a place in line. Everyone who owns a custom boat wants to fish the Custom Shootout. It’s a rite of professional passage of sorts, because once the kites are put away, the talk in fishing circles usually revolves around it. It really makes no never mind if your custom ride is a month old or 50 years old; if you’re invited, you do your damnedest to be there. And if you happen to win, your name is cemented in Custom Shootout history—­rivaling those who’ve won some of the most prestigious tournaments in the world.

The winning also spills over into some nice ­recognition for the builders. The championship team simultaneously represents the builder in the competition to acquire the Manufacturer’s Cup, an accolade that is valued not only by the builder himself, but is also a testament to the quality and craftsmanship each maker can bring home to its team of employees, affirming the fact that all of their hard work pays off in spades. It’s the only award of its kind; it’s based on tournament finishes alone; and to date, Spencer Yachts has produced the most Cup wins with eight, followed by Tribute Performance Boats with three, and Rybovich and Garlington with two wins each.

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Nowhere else will you find the assembling of ­custom-boat builders all in one place like you would at the Custom Shootout—all ready to talk shop, listen to their clients, talk to potential clients, interact with the participants, and to go fishing, just like normal people. The impact these builders have made in the boating and fishing industry over the decades is real, but we are also reminded here that they are human—and approachable. And they have just as much fun as everyone else, even if they are special guests come tournament time.

A Spencer Yachts sport-fishing boat cruises along the water.
Capt. Mark McDevitt runs in the 60-foot Spencer Electric Bill after anglers Matthew Cox, John Michael Eargle, Mike Ebert, Douglas Jennings and Chad Sanders scored a total of 3,200 points to win the 2022 Custom Shootout. © Scott Kerrigan /

Philanthropy and the Future

The Custom Shootout is a true 501(c)(3) ­charitable organization, according to Smith, that has raised over $1 million in assistance to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, the fallen heroes of 9/11, and the Hurricane Katrina Red Cross Relief Fund, as well as many others, including its own endeavor to help the residents of Marsh Harbour get back up on their feet after the Hurricane Dorian catastrophe.

“We started out with the 9/11 victims, the Red Cross, leukemia and lymphoma,” Smith says, “but we shifted focus when Steve Roy’s wife, Sheryl, passed away, and we still support the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to this day.” The BCRF is, according to its website, “dedicated to ending breast cancer by advancing the world’s most promising research” and “is the largest private funder of breast cancer research—and metastatic breast cancer research—worldwide and is the highest rated breast cancer organization in the [US].” With yearly cases approaching 260,000 in the US alone, this foundation seems like the worthiest of causes.

The Custom Shootout is committed to supporting organizations in need of immediate recuperative funds and ongoing research, and leans heavily on the generosity of its participants and team members to aid in that dedication. While the funds raised by the tournament might be appropriated on a year-by-year basis depending on where the committee feels the monies might be best allocated, it still maintains that any charity that is credible and stands for the better good is deserving, especially when it comes to issues that directly affect the people of the Bahamas, ­hurricane victims, veterans, and loved ones.

A man celebrates near an award at the Custom Shootout.
Builder Paul Spencer chalks up another win for Spencer Yachts. Courtesy Debra Todd Photography

On the 20th anniversary of the Custom Shootout, Smith is hesitant to share the inner secrets of how he plans to keep it on track for the next 20 years, but he does both credit and curse the early-summer Bahamian weather and unpredictable fishing. So, what lies ahead for the Custom Shootout? More of the same, I suspect. Smith is in no way thinking of retiring anytime soon. His tournament has survived natural disasters, high fuel prices, a pandemic, bad weather and slow fishing, but challenges such as these just keep him moving forward.

“With all the support we get from our sponsors and the participants, this event should go on forever. We had some of the best fishing ever last year, and that alone helps immensely,” Smith says. “I’ll just keep telling old fish stories until I can’t do it any longer. I have been very blessed to be able to do what I have done, both on The Hooker and with Skip’s Tournaments, and especially the Custom Shootout. As long as you are happy with what you are doing, consider yourself a lucky person.” And lucky he is indeed.

Twenty Years of Custom Shootout History in the Bahamas

2002, Chub Cay

  • First Place: HT Hook
  • Second Place: Jack O’ Hearts
  • Third Place: Arc Strike
  • Top Angler: Harry Shufflebarger
  • Top Captain: Robbie Moore

2003, Chub Cay

  • First Place: Salem Wolf
  • Second Place: Miss Allied
  • Third Place: China Girl
  • Top Angler: Roger Hammond
  • Top Captain: Jake Triay

2004, Harbour Island

  • First Place: Rosemary
  • Second Place: Miss Allied
  • Third Place: Double Dog
  • Top Angler: Terry Sherman
  • Top Captain: Ed Nicolace

2005, Harbour Island

  • First Place: Black Out
  • Second Place: NuCO2
  • Third Place: Frantastic
  • Top Angler: Jim Black
  • Top Captain: Kevin Llorente

2006, Harbour Island

  • First Place: Wave Paver
  • Second Place: Cutnail
  • Third Place: Blank Check
  • Top Angler: Jr. Davis
  • Top Captain: Jeff Babuschak

2007, Harbour Island

  • First Place: Alican
  • Second Place: Jack O’ Hearts
  • Third Place: Meant 2 Be
  • Top Angler: Scott Frohman
  • Top Captain: Doug Heaton

2008, Harbour Island

  • First Place: Que Mas
  • Second Place: MIMI
  • Third Place: Reel Joy
  • Top Angler: Paul Spencer
  • Top Captain: Travis Butters

2009, Harbour Island

  • First Place: HT Hook
  • Second Place: Owl’s Nest
  • Third Place: Sandman
  • Top Angler: Al Eldridge
  • Top Captain: Stetson Turney

2010, Harbour Island

  • First Place: Sandman
  • Second Place: Brier Patch
  • Third Place: Svengali
  • Top Angler: Lester Petracca
  • Top Captain: Neil Orange

2011, Harbour Island

  • First Place: Chasin
  • Second Place: Double Dog
  • Third Place: Ravaganza
  • Top Angler: Don McKinney
  • Top Captain: Bennett Griffin

2012, Boat Harbour

  • First Place: Wave Paver
  • Second Place: Plane Simple
  • Third Place: Bear Trap
  • Top Angler: Jr. Davis
  • Top Captain: Russell Sinclair and Jason Parker

2013, Boat Harbour

  • First Place: Reel Pushy
  • Second Place: Jichi
  • Third Place: Arc Strike
  • Top Angler: Wally Whitley
  • Top Captain: Chris Workmon

2014, Boat Harbour

  • First Place: Plane Simple
  • Second Place: Escapade
  • Third Place: Uno Mas
  • Top Angler: Jim Jensen
  • Top Captain: Jimmy Werling

2015, Boat Harbour

  • First Place: Vintage
  • Second Place: Reel Pushy
  • Third Place: Sweet Thing
  • Top Angler: Tony Huerta
  • Top Captain: Kevin Paul

2016, Boat Harbour

  • First Place: Lo Que Sea
  • Second Place: Two Cats
  • Third Place: Bear Trap
  • Top Angler: Tony Huerta
  • Top Captain: Kevin Paul

2017, Boat Harbour

  • First Place: Grand Slam
  • Second Place: Gina Lisa
  • Third Place: Bear Trap
  • Top Angler: Jr. Davis
  • Top Captain: David Grubbs

2018, Boat Harbour

  • First Place: Plane Simple
  • Second Place: Builder’s Choice
  • Third Place: Wave Paver
  • Top Angler: Jerry Conell
  • Top Captain: Jimmy Werling

2019, Boat Harbour

  • First Place: Electric Bill
  • Second Place: Bear Trap
  • Third Place: Three Times L
  • Top Angler: John Stout
  • Top Captain: Jerry Owens

2021, Boat Harbour

  • First Place: Marlin Darlin
  • Second Place: El Cazador
  • Third Place: Wave Paver
  • Top Angler: Frank Vilasante
  • Top Captain: Chris Kaulen

2022, Boat Harbour

  • First Place: Electric Bill
  • Second Place: Pescaria
  • Third Place: Lunatico
  • Top Angler: Manny Pereira
  • Top Captain: Mark McDevitt

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