Two changes to third place during the fourth day of fishing provided plenty of excitement at the weigh station Thursday as the 56th annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament sequenced toward the final days of competition.

Chainlink captain Ralph Griffin, Morehead City, and his crew edged Carnivore’s catch (410.7 pounds) out of third place with a 412.7-pound blue marlin reeled in by angler Ben Seegars, Goldsboro. Chainlink’s two-pound nudge cost Carnivore’s fishing team $345,405.

But Chainlink – winner of the 2006 Big Rock – remained on the leader board less than three hours. Ava D captain Jerry Jackson of Havelock, arrived at the Big Rock weigh station with a 491.4-pound blue marlin caught by Gray Hardison of Bayboro to take over the third spot just after fishing ended for the day.

Ava D missed winning the Fabulous Fisherman’s prize of $306,000 by 8.6 pounds. This prize is awarded to the first boat entered in Level VII to catch and weigh a blue marlin that was a minimum of 500 pounds.

When Big Rock Weighmaster Randy Gregory announced the Ava D blue marlin came up 8.6-pounds short, the crew and the weigh station crowd groaned in unison, immediately realizing how close they came.

While the crew of the Ava D was groaning, the crews of Inspiration and Eye Catcher were somewhere else … smiling. Inspiration captain Casey Wagner, Morehead City, and angler Bruce Brown, Nags Head, hold the Big Rock lead with a 754.3 pound blue marlin landed Monday after a fight that lasted 4 hours and 35 minutes. Eye Catcher, a Wrightsville Beach-based boat captained by Burrows Smith, holds second place with a 606.9-pound blue marlin that rookie angler Randy Kelley of Wrightsville Beach reeled to the boat in 46 minutes.

While Jackson was disappointed his fish didn’t reach the 500-pound plateau, he was very pleased with the teamwork and the catch that puts his boat in position to win $345,405.

“There’s no question we had a great team today,” Jackson said. “There’s so much luck involved in this … you have to work together the whole time. That fish hit (the shotgun rod) and almost dumped the reel. It was getting close before we could get the rod down. We had to back up before we could pass the rod down … but after we did that we just took our time. Teamwork was the key.”

Hardison was so sore after the battle he struggled to sign the required paperwork at the weigh station.

“Gray has experience catching blue marlins for this team and it’s nice to know that when you get a bite he can handle the heat,” said Teddy Guthrie, Harkers Island, the mate of the Ava D. “That fish probably ran 500 yards, jumped a few times and put on a little show. We knew it was a close fish when we measured. Everything worked out … except the 500 pounds.”

Ninety six of the 120 boats in the competition fished Thursday and 33 boats are now fished out … including Chainlink and Ava D. Only 18 boats can fish both of the remaining days and 69 boats have one day of fishing left. Competitors tallied a five blue marlins releases and 11 white marlins releases Thursday as the bite let up a bit. To date, there have been five blue marlins landed and 116 billfish released.

Dancin’ Outlaw captain Thomas Wood, Harkers Island, added to his lead in the weekly release division with a white marlin release Thursday. The Dancin’ Outlaw, which released two blue marlins and two white marlins Monday, now has1175 release points and is in line to win $77,287 plus daily prizes.

Billfisher, captained by John Duffie, Ocean City, MD, continues to hold second place in the release division with two blue marlins and a white marlin release (925 points.) The Billfisher team is positioned to win $45,572 plus a $5,600 bonus for releasing the 56 billfish of the 56th Big Rock.

Inspiration will receive $306,137 from the 56th Big Rock’s $1,395,825 purse if it stays atop the leader board two more days. Neither the Inspiration nor the Eye Catcher elected to enter all levels of the competition and neither was eligible to receive the $306,000 prize for being the first to catch and bring to the scales a blue marlin that weighed a minimum of 500 pounds.

With the lure of $306,000 still out there, many boats will fish Friday even though Saturday fishing conditions look to be more optimal. It’s hard to predict which day will be best, but most feel that the $306,000 prize is just one lucky hookup away.