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Big Rock ShirtIt is hard to believe that there was a time not too long ago when nobody fished for billfish in waters off the North Carolina coast. Blue marlin fishing was thought to be something restricted to the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Fishermen had harvested fish from coastal waters for centuries and had never caught a blue marlin. This was still the case in 1956.

But sailors from cargo ships that came ashore at the Morehead City port would tell residents they had seen blue marlin not too far offshore. 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 gathered at one of the waterfront cafes to share a story or two over a cup of coffee. They had all heard the sailor’s fish tales. Some wondered how they could find out if it was true.

The year was 1957 and times were tough. 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 Bob and Mary Simpson, Bill Strickland, Tom Potter and Dick Parker – charter members of the Fabulous Fishermen Club – 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 waterfront’s charter boat business.

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.

These 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 North Carolina 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 pulled by Tony Seamon, Jr. This prize was pulled to the boat and 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 about 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 17 straight years, it took 40 years of hard work by the Big Rock board of directors and tournament organizers to reach this 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 a quart of varnish.

But humble beginnings gave way to 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 16 years, the competition has topped $1 million and continues to grow with increased sponsorship and participation.

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, the Big Rock has donated more than 3.5 million to tournament charities.

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. Currently, hundreds of anglers participate, representing the best marlin fishermen in the world.

The Big Rock has become the “Super Bowl” of fishing because of the way winner’s feel after capturing the event. 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.

In 2011, Double B captain Kenny Sexton, Manteo, captured the 53rd Big Rock in near wire-to-wire fashion when he grabbed a late first-day lead and held it through five more days of fishing. Sexton’s blueprint for victory turned out to be a roadmap for the Flybuoy crew who won wire-to-wire from the start in 2012.

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 to beyond any early expectation. It all started in 1957 with one lucky catch … a catch that the VIKING 62 crew can relate to for the rest of their lives.

The competition has for several years offered a huge purse, but that’s not the true drawing card of the competition. Billfish captains like Hooper want to be crowned Big Rock champions. They set their sights on the Big Rock competition year after year. It’s a Gulfstream fishing tradition that has no equal. And it always seems to hinge on one lucky catch.