Double B wins 53rd Big Rock
by Bruce Paul, Media Director
Double B captain Kenny Sexton, Manteo, captured the 53rd Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament in near wire-to-wire fashion last year when he grabbed a late first-day lead and held it through five more days of fishing.
Double B angler Travis Stephenson of Angier reeled in a 652.8-pound blue marlin to help his team collect $524,375 for the victory. Blue Water, captained by Gray Hall, Morehead City, finished second with a 580.6-pound blue marlin. Blue Water’s blue marlin was the inaugural tournament leader, capturing the Fabulous Fisherman’s prize of $284,750 as the first blue marlin to weigh more than 500 pounds. Landed by Blue Water angler Jeffrey Gregg of Boca Raton, Fla., the boat and crew also received second place prize money totaling $191,050.
The Big Rock’s third-place of $126,700 went to Sushi, a boat captained by Tim Day, Wilmington. Sushi angler Kevin Travis of Clearwater, Fla., reeled in a 467.4-pound blue marlin just before the Big Rock’s midpoint.
The 2011 event proved to be an unusual competition. Strong winds from the south knocked down the bite during the final three days of fishing. The Big Rock’s final day of fishing failed to be a factor for the first time in more than 20 years.
The competition ended with 27 blue marlin releases, 69 white marlin releases and five sailfish releases. While this was the smallest total number of releases (101) in five years, it was very close to the average number (104) for the past 11 years. The tournament release rate was 96%.
There was a time when nobody fished for billfish in these waters. Blue marlin fishing was thought to be something restricted to the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Fishermen who had harvested fish from North Carolina coastal waters for centuries had never caught a blue marlin. This was still the case in 1956.
But sailors from cargo ships that offloaded goods at the Morehead City port would tell residents they had seen blue marlin not too far from shore. While most dismissed this as “bar talk,” a few wishful thinkers hoped the stories were true.
These dreamers were members of Morehead City’s Fabulous Fishermen Club, a collection of local fishing enthusiasts who got together each morning at one of the waterfront cafes to share a story or two and a cup of coffee. They had all heard the sailor’s fish tales. They wondered how they could find out if it was true.
The year was 1957 and times were tough on the Morehead City waterfront. The post-war building boom that was changing much of America had not had much impact in this area. Morehead City was still a sleepy little port. Residents scratched out a living as best they could.
But club charter members Bob and Mary Simpson, Bill Strickland, Tom Potter and Dick Parker convinced local business leaders to put up a cash prize of a couple hundred dollars to encourage the area’s fledgling charter boat industry to head further offshore to find these elusive fish. Parker, who had fished for billfish in the Caribbean, knew what a boon this would be to the small charter boat fleet in that area.
The prize money that was raised did the trick. Boats ventured further offshore. Soon, captains and anglers began reporting their own blue marlin sightings. Still, throughout the summer of ’57, no blue marlins were caught.
The summer failures finally gave way to one huge autumn success. On Sept. 14, 1957, Raleigh angler Jimmy Croy, fishing aboard the Mary Z with Capt. K.W. “Bill” Olsen, landed a 143-pound blue marlin. This catch would forever change the face of fishing along the N.C. coast.
Olsen radioed back to port and word of the catch spread throughout the small town. When the Mary Z finally pulled into port, the boat and crew was greeted by a large gathering and blaring police sirens. An impromptu parade along the waterfront ensued. The main feature was a child’s red wagon filled with silver dollars that was presented to the lucky fishermen.
While no one knows exactly where Olsen and Croy made their historic catch, most think the two had reached the Gulf Stream, a warm-water current that bisects colder coastal waters 40-60 miles south of the Morehead City port. As the Gulf Stream drifts north along the N.C. coastline, it crosses a structure on the continental shelf called “Big Rock” from which the tournament takes its name.
The Big Rock – which is not a rock at all – is a series of ledges, peaks and plateaus that covers an area about 8-10 miles long by 1 mile in width. It’s a haven for small reef fish – the type of fish that attract the larger fish that blue marlin feast on. It’s a microcosm of the oceanic food chain just a short distance from the Morehead City waterfront.
While the Big Rock remained an underwater secret for much of the nation’s history, it’s now considered the premier spot for marlin fishing on the East Coast. But even though the Big Rock has provided more than $1 million to tournament winners for 14 straight years, it took 40 years of hard work by Big Rock board of directors and tournament organizers to reach that level of success.
Early Big Rock events could hardly be considered tournaments. There were few rules and the competition was restricted to the members of the Fabulous Fishermen Club. Some of the early prizes resembled booty from a scavenger hunt. A 1965 newspaper article that detailed the winner’s prizes listed one quart of varnish.
But these humble beginnings gave way to a huge growth in prize money that no one could have predicted. In ’74, the winning boat received just $800. Ten years later, the purse reached $70,000. Twelve years after that, the purse reached $743,000. For the last 14 years, the competition has topped $1 million and continues to grow with increased sponsorship and participation levels.
Throughout it all, the Big Rock’s biggest asset has been the collective leadership of the Big Rock board of directors. The men and women who serve on the board act as stewards of the tournament. They have been instrumental to its rise in prosperity and popularity. They established and have tweaked the rules every year to ensure the competition is fair to all entrants. They have led the way in the establishment of conservation standards that other tournaments later chose to model.
The Big Rock board made it a part of its charter to give back to the local community. It established a foundation that supports a multitude of charities. Since 1988, Big Rock charities have received $2,407,658.
Early on, the competition consisted of a handful of charter boat captains hoping to win a few dollars and the bragging rights that came with a Big Rock victory. Nowadays, hundreds of anglers participate, representing the best marlin fishermen in the world. Each one hopes to win the Big Rock – the “Super Bowl” of fishing.
And there are dozens of ways to win.
In 2003, J.F. and Jim Pedersen, a father-and-son team from Hollywood, S.C., captured the 45th Big Rock the day before Father’s Day. It was a timely moment for both and it gave the competition a Hollywood ending.
In 2004, Donald Lane of Atlantic Beach was captaining his own boat, Impulse, for the first time. He picked up a Big Rock victory and the $711,375 first prize, staking the young captain to many other billfish competitions.
In 2006, Goldsboro angler Wes Seegars fenced off the rest of the competition aboard Chainlink. He caught the last and biggest blue marlin of the 48th event, battling his blue marlin for seven hours aboard a vessel that had won the Big Rock before in ’94 when the boat was named the Salty Fare.
In 2008, the Artemis crew suffered through 46 minutes of “Big Rock overtime” before the final catch of the competition was set free. Much like the Double B in 2011, Artemis managed to hold on to an early tournament lead and walk away with the top prize.
While the Big Rock is wild and unpredictable, it always holds the promise of a big payday. It entices competitors to come back, year after year, and has grown well beyond any early expectation.
But there’s more to the competition than a huge pot of money. Billfish anglers want to be crowned Big Rock champions. They’ve set their sights on Morehead City and they can’t wait for the 54th Big Rock to begin. It’s a Gulfstream fishing tradition that has no equal. And it all started in 1957, with one lucky catch.