While the largest flotilla of lady anglers in the history of the Kelli Wagner Lady Angler (KWLA) Blue Marlin Tournament battled offshore Saturday, sign-ups for the 58th annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament pushed the purse over $1 million for the 19th consecutive year.
An outstanding weather forecast and improved offshore fishing conditions combined to generate another large turnout for both competitions. Last year, 96 boats battled in the one-day KWLA event while 149 boats fished the Big Rock’s six-day main event. This year, a record 125 boats battled in the 19th annual KWLA and an even larger turnout is expected for 58th Big Rock.
The Ashley Lauren won the 2016 KWLA after finishing in the runner-up spot last year. Anglers on the Ashley Lauren released two blue marlins to edge Sea Toy, which released a blue marlin and a white marlin.
After the 19th KWLA came to a close Saturday, Big Rock officials announced that 123 boats had signed up for the 58th Big Rock with more than a day left to register. The Saturday signups pushed the purse to $1,397,300, which means the 58th Big Rock winner – if entered in all levels – could receive $786,600 if the blue marlin also happens to win the Level VII Fabulous Fisherman’s prize for the first blue marlin brought to the scales weighing 500 pounds or more.
While fishing teams can fish any 4-of-6 days during the competition, most anglers fish the first day of the tournament to make sure they have a shot at the Level VII prize, which so far is worth $310,250. That prize will continue to increase with every additional Level VII registration.
An early lead has proven to be a great thing in recent years. Last year, Viking 62 reported the first hook-up en route to a wire-to-wire victory with a 460-pound blue marlin. Viking 62 won $560,500 from the Big Rock’s $1,632,650 purse.
In 2014, Inspiration captain Casey Wagner, Morehead City, and angler Bruce Brown of Nags Head caught a 754.3-pound blue marlin on the first day of fishing. Brown’s catch was the largest blue marlin caught during the Big Rock this century.
In 2012, Flybuoy won the 54th Big Rock in wire-to-wire fashion after an initial disappointment at the scales. Flybuoy owner Gary Davis missed out on the Fabulous Fisherman’s prize when his catch topped out at 499.3 pounds. But Davis – was all smiles at the end of the week when he received the first-place check that totaled $494,710.
In 2011, Blue Water captain Gray Hall of Morehead City fished the first day of that competition and claimed a $284,750 Fabulous Fisherman’s prize after angler, Jeffrey Gregg of Boca Raton, Fla., reeled in a 580.6-pounder. Two hours later, Double B captain Kenny Sexton of Manteo showed up at the scales with a 652.8-pound blue marlin that held the Big Rock lead through the rest of the competition.
Big Rock fishing teams must enter Level 1, but all other levels are optional. In the past, about half of the boats entered all levels.
Every Big Rock has had its share of special moments. In 2003, the Pipe Layer fishing team captured the 45th Big Rock 677-pound blue marlin that didn’t reach the scales until after 10 at night. The Pipe Layer’s catch capped a crazy day at the Big Rock weigh station where fans witnessed five changes to the blue marlin standings.
The 46th Big Rock was won by Impulse captain/owner Donald Lane Jr., who moved to Morehead City just a few days before the competition. Lane’s crew landed a 555-pound blue marlin at the tournament’s midpoint (Wednesday) and survived a late scare from a last-minute hook-up to hold on and 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 – the inaugural Big Rock lady angler winner – captured the 22nd Big Rock (1980) by reeling in a 390-pounder on the Jet Stream. Shearwater angler Susan MacRae (1986) and Chaser angler Kathy Keel (1993) are the other lady angler winners during the six-day Big Rock competition.
The 48th Big Rock turned out to be special for Chainlink as it fenced off the field to capture the 2006 event. Wes Seegars, Goldsboro, landed a 501.5-pounder after a seven-hour fight. Seegars’ catch came shortly 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 Friday with just one day left to fish. The younger Lewis – who is back to fish this year after a seven-year hiatus – went from traveling to Big Rock parties on a bicycle to riding to post-tournament celebrations in a limo.
The 50th Big Rock was special to most because it celebrated the tournament’s golden anniversary. Artemis, based out of Charleston, S.C. took top honors with a 640-pound blue marlin caught on that tournament’s opening day. Artemis – named after the Greek god of hunting – felt hunted all week but survived five days atop the leader board.
The 51st Big Rock in 2009 was special because two friends finished atop the standings. Figment captain Glynn Lofton of Swansboro held the Big Rock lead all week until Sea Creature captain Steve Coulter, Hatteras, showed up at the scales late Saturday with a larger blue marlin. The win gave Coulter, who captained Outlaw to victory in 1992, his second Big Rock championship.
Winning multiple Big Rock competitions is a rare feat, having only been accomplished by three captains in the past 50 years. Dr. Leroy Allen, who won Big Rock competitions in 1962 and 1983, passed away in 2012 but left a lasting legacy. Allen began fishing for blue marlins on boats with outboard motors, part of the Big Rock’s impetus to go back to the roots of this sport. Allen introduced many to the excitement of billfish competitions, including two-time Big Rock winner Adrian Holler, Newport, who won the Big Rock in 1995 and 2001.
Nobody knows what thrills will be generated by the 58th Big Rock. Billfish release division winners will battle down the home stretch for with more than $187,025 on the line. Great catches lead to great celebrations. It’s one reason Big Rock anglers look forward to this event year after year.