When the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic kicks off this summer, it will celebrate 25 years of promoting the state’s offshore fishery to visitors from near and far. And like a proud father, Bobby Carter will be watching it all and assuredly enjoying every moment. Along with Marlin co-founder Bill McClellan, it was Carter’s idea to bring a world-class tournament to the state, with the first event taking place in 1997. Last year, the Classic featured a total cash purse of more than $1.8 million for the 101 participating teams, making it among the largest offshore tournaments in the United States.
Q: Did you grow up on the Gulf Coast?
A: Yep, I was born in New Orleans and went to college at the University of Southern Mississippi, where I graduated with a liberal arts degree. After graduation, some friends and I took a year off and traveled all around the Bahamas on a 55-foot wooden lugger—we left from Gulfport, Mississippi, turned left, and stayed gone long enough for our tourist visas to expire—twice.
Q: Did you catch your first marlin there?
A: No, we were actually hoping one wouldn’t bite on that boat. We had some great times traveling though, just fishing and diving. I caught my first blue marlin back home in a local club tournament around 1980—it weighed 376 pounds and won the tournament. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Q: How did you get in the gaming business?
A: I was working for Texaco during the oil boom in the Gulf, but when the state of Mississippi legalized gaming in 1990, I knew it would be huge. That’s when I went to work for the Isle of Capri Casino and Resort in Biloxi as a dealer, eventually becoming the director of community development—I was responsible for finding ways to bring people to the casino. We sponsored a tournament that was hosted by the Mississippi Big Game Fishing Club, and that’s how I met Bill McClellan.
Q: What happened next?
A: Bill invited me to a tournament in Orange Beach, Alabama, and I saw there was a lot of money changing hands, so I asked him, “What about doing something like this in Biloxi?” He said, “Sure, why not?”
Q: Breaking the state record also helped put you on the map as well, right?
A: Absolutely. At the time, the Mississippi record for blue marlin was only 485 pounds, so I found an insurance policy that would pay $100,000 for the first team who caught the record blue marlin during the tournament. For the local club tournament, they had only about 10 boats every year, with a $500 entry fee, but Bill and I said we were going to have a $2,500 entry, and everyone thought we were crazy. We got mailing lists from all the fishing clubs in the Gulf, sent out flyers with the state-record promotion, and figured if we had 20 boats, then we were successful. The checks started pouring in, and we had 60 boats the first year. Turns out that fishermen love to gamble and gamblers love to fish, so we also invited the casino’s high rollers and put them on tournament boats—they all loved it.
Q: There was a pretty crazy finish that year too.
A: The first fish to the dock was a 631-pounder caught by Shannon Faulkner on a boat called Never Content, but the second fish that came in looked way bigger. It was caught by the team on Miss Orleans and weighed 917 pounds, but it had gotten sucked under the boat while it was on the flying gaff and had some deep prop marks in it. We were using IGFA rules for the tournament at the time, so we met with the attorney and the Department of Natural Resources after the event—they certified Shannon’s fish as the first one to break the record, so he won the $100,000 bonus. Fifteen minutes later, they certified the second fish as the new record because the state didn’t have to abide by IGFA rules. It stood until 2002, when Barry Carr broke it with his 1,054-pound fish in the Classic.
Hurricane Katrina delivered a knockout blow to the upper Gulf in 2005—how did the tournament survive?
The marina was wiped out and wasn’t rebuilt for four or five years. We were able to get back to fishing, with boats leaving from multiple ports; they just had to weigh back in Biloxi. I had met the late Kaye Pearson in the Bahamas because we operated a casino there as well; Kaye turned out to be a huge help. Every year for three years in a row after the storm, he would send a team of people from Show Management along with the portable generators and equipment that they used to run the Miami International Boat Show each year. They lit the docks for a week during the tournament so we could have power for the boats. It was great to have that kind of support—Kaye was a good friend.
Q: Swordfish is a species that’s made a strong rebound in the Gulf. How did that record fall?
A: Four years ago, we felt that the fishery was strong enough to add it to the tournament, especially since the state record was only 85 pounds at the time. So we secured another insurance policy, sent out the flyers, and boats came from all over. Sounds familiar, right? This time it had to be the heaviest that broke the record, which was good, because we weighed 25 fish that were over the mark to beat.\
Q: What do you see for the future of the Classic?
A: Catch-and-release for blue marlin started as an afterthought, but it’s really evolved over the years. We’re proud to say that we have the highest minimum length for blue marlin in Gulf tournaments at 110 inches, and it might go up again in the future as well.
Q: You’ve had a steady team over the years. What has been the key?
A: I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people over the years, some of them since Day One. They love it because they’re passionate about it. People like my wife, DeVeaux, Bert Merritt and Jack Teschel, Chris, Andrew and Marie McClellan, Laurie and Danny Pitallo, Jim Franks, Jimmy Taylor, Rusty David, Darrell McCall, Krissy Hall, Steve Peake and a lot more. My son, Robbie, has taken over the social media and marketing—it’s been great to see him become involved. I’m fortunate that we’ve been able to bring awareness to the fishery we have, and that we have a great team that’s allowed us to do it. I always say that I “retired” 26 years ago.
This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of Marlin.