While college basketball fans have a “Sweet 16” to get excited about, competitors in the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament are more thrilled about the number “15.”

That’s because a huge offshore bite and a perfect weather forecast have combined to push the purse for the 54th Big Rock over the $1 million mark for the 15th straight year. Less than 24 hours ago, the 15th annual Keli Wagner Lady Angler (KWLA) tournament took place as Big Rock registrations continued. The 15th KWLA set multiple records as anglers on 70 boats caught and released 15 blue marlins, 12 white marlins and 3 sailfish.

This offshore action helped spur a late registration rush Saturday and Sunday. By Monday morning, 120 boats were registered to compete in the 54th Big Rock and the purse reached $1,252,950. As the competition got under way, the 54th Big Rock winner – if entered in all levels – would be poised to receive $690,850.

Fishing teams must enter Level 1, but all other levels are optional. Nearly half the boats are entered in all levels, a percentage trend increase that’s developed in recent years.

Even though fishing teams have the option to select any 4-of-6 days to fish during the competition, most go offshore the first day. This trend held true Monday as 117-of-120 boats elected to fish opening day. All those offshore on Day No. 1 hope to capture the Level VI Fabulous Fisherman’s prize for being the first boat to weigh in a blue marlin weighing 500 pounds or more. This year, that special prize is worth $246,500.

Last year, Blue Water, captained by Gray Hall of Morehead City, claimed the Fabulous Fisherman’s prize with a 580.6-pounder reeled in by angler Jeffrey Gregg of Boca Raton, Fla. Two hours later, Double B arrived at the scales with a 652.8-pound blue marlin that held the Big Rock lead throughout the rest of the tournament. Double B captain Kenny Sexton, Manteo, and angler Travis Stephenson of Angier teamed to reel in a catch worth $524,375.

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 leader board.

The 46th Big Rock was won by 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 went from traveling to Big Rock parties on a bicycle to riding to post-tournament celebrations in a limo.

The 50th Big Rock was extra special to everyone involved because it celebrated the tournament’s golden anniversary. Artemis, based out of Charleston, S.C. took top honors with a 640-pound blue marlin. Artemis – named after the Greek god of hunting – felt hunted all week but survived five days atop the leader board and more than 100 hook-ups to win the special anniversary event.

The 51st Big Rock was special because of there was late drama between two friends who ended up finishing atop the standings. Figment captain Glynn Loftin 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 his second Big Rock victory. He captained the Outlaw to victory during the 34th Big Rock in 1992.

Winning multiple Big Rock competitions is a rare feat, having only been accomplished by three captains in the past 50 years. Unfortunately, one double champion passed away before this year’s competition. Dr. Leroy Allen, who won Big Rock competitions in 1962 and 1983, will be missed by all who knew him. He was a pioneer to the sport and had a passion for bill fishing that carries on in all those he introduced to the sport, including two-time Big Rock winner Adrian Holler, Newport, who won the Big Rock in 1995 and 2001.

This year, billfish catches will add new stories and new faces to the fishing tapestry called Big Rock. It’s a tradition that grows every year, with every big catch and every celebration. It’s what keeps competitors coming back, year after year.