MOREHEAD CITY — The “waiting game” portion of the 53rd annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament ended late Saturday as tournament officials watched registrants push the purse over $1 million for the 14th straight year.
By 8 p.m. Sunday, 135 boats were registered to compete and the Big Rock purse reached $1,464,925.
“It always feels great to go past $1 million,” said Crystal Hesmer, who has seen the mark eclipsed in each of her 14 years as Big Rock tournament director. “The first year was special because Dick Parker, one of the event founders, was alive to celebrate that day with us. I have a silver dollar from the bank bag that held the very first purse of $250. It reminds me how far this tournament has come.”
The winner of the 53rd Big Rock – if entered in all levels – could receive $809,125. By comparison, the Belmont Stakes paid out $600,000 Saturday to the owners of long-shot winner Ruler On Ice.
The U.S Open Golf Tournament set to start Thursday at Congressional Golf Club, Bethesda, MD, is the only sporting event in the nation next week that offers a bigger payout than the Big Rock. But that wasn’t always the case. In 2001, Sea Striker captain Adrian Holler pocketed $910,000 as a solo winner in the Level III division. That topped the $900,000 that Retief Goosen received for winning the 101st U.S. Open Championship.
U.S. Golf officials raised their top prize the very next year.
Every Big Rock has its share of special moments. In 2003, the 45th Big Rock was dedicated to longtime Dale Ward, who succumbed to cancer just months before. Pipe Layer ended up capturing the title that year with a 677-pound catch that didn’t reach the scales until 10 p.m. That capped a crazy day of fishing that saw five changes to the blue marlin leader board in an eight-hour span.
The 46th Big Rock was won by Donald Lane Jr., who had moved to Morehead City just a few days before the competition. Lane’s crew landed a 555-pound blue marlin at the midpoint day of the tournament (Wednesday) and survived a scare from a last-minute hook-up to win.
Gigi Wagoner of Frederick, MD, captured the 47th Big Rock, and became just the fourth lady angler to reel in a Big Rock winner. Margaret Adams was the inaugural Big Rock lady angler winner in 1980 when she reeled in a 390-pounder on the Jet Stream. Susan MacRae (1986) aboard Shearwater and Kathy Keel (1993) on the Chaser are the other female winners.
In 2006, Chainlink fenced in the field at the 48th Big Rock with a 501.5-pounder landed by Wes Seegars after a seven-hour fight. Seegars’ catch came after Hurricane Alberto churned through the area, scrambling the water and making it tough to catch billfish.
The 49th Big Rock was particularly special because the father-son team of Tommy and Montukie Lewis were crowned champions on Father’s Day. The younger Lewis reeled in a 613-pound blue marlin aboard Bak Bar with his father at the helm to take the lead late Friday. He went from going to Big Rock parties on a bicycle to riding to post-tournament celebrations in a limo.
The 50th Big Rock was extra special because it represented the golden anniversary of the event. The Artemis, based out of Charleston, S.C. took top honors with a 640-pound blue marlin. Artemis – named after the Greek god of hinting – felt hunted all week but survived five days atop the leader board and more than 100 hook-ups to win the special anniversary event.
This year, the first boat to the Big Rock scales with a blue marlin that weighs at least 500 pounds will win $284,750 in the Level “Winner Take All” category. That total could increase as registrations are allowed to continue until 9 a.m. Monday.
Competitors in the 53rd Big Rock are allowed to fish four of the six fishing days and must notify officials of the days they do not intend to fish. The competition kicks off Monday morning at 9 a.m. after a blessing of the fleet and the official announcement that lines are allowed in the water.