Big Rock Heroes linked to past champions

When the Big Rock Board of Directors created the “Big Rock Big Hero” program, they wanted to honor the men and women who sacrifice to serve America. Interested active duty servicemen were nominated to participate and six were chosen to take part this year. The move harkens back to a time when two active duty servicemen were invited to participate and helped win the competition.

Back in 1961, long before a $2,560,925 Big Rock purse was ever imagined, people were celebrating the 17th anniversary of D-Day in their own quiet way. Lt. Col. Walt Turner, Havelock, had just shared a few drinks with some friends and was about to retire for the night when the phone rang. It was 10 p.m.

“Master Sgt. Jack Duckett called and asked if I’d like to go marlin fishing in the morning,” said Turner. “I asked him, `How early in the morning?’ and he told me I had to leave about midnight. I met him down at the (Atlantic Beach) causeway and we started out around 1 a.m. In those days, it took a long time to get out to the Gulf Stream.”

It was a simpler time … long before satellite-navigation systems and infrared-imaging of the Gulf Stream currents. Boats were lucky to make eight knots. Not all boats had radios and those that did had short-wave sets. People didn’t even know about the underwater structure that would later be called the “Big Rock.” It wouldn’t be charted until later when special depth-finding equipment was invented. Turner remembered it well.

“The tournament was called the Fabulous Fisherman’s Blue Marlin Tournament back then and Duckett had an invite to go out on the Tom n’ Jerry charter boat,” Turner said. “Duckett had a business that replaced canvas covers for boats and he had just finished a job for Tom Talton (owner of the Tom n’ Jerry.) Tom was pleased with the canvas work and invited Duckett to go fishing. I was going along for the ride.”

But Turner – who had never been blue marlin fishing before – was in the fighting chair when a blue marlin started chasing the bait.

“We got out there about 7 a.m. and, I guess around 8:30 or 9 a.m., we saw a fish,” he said. “When it hit, I flipped the reel to the free-spool position and let it run for a while. Then I set a loose drag before locking down on the fish.”

Suddenly the fish exploded out of the water, about 75 feet behind the boat.

“It was as big as a barn door, and it looked red,” said Turner, who was almost pulled out of the chair. “We found out why later, after about a 50-minute fight. That blue marlin had swallowed the bait so deep it was hooked down in its stomach. The mate had to reach a yard inside its throat to get the hook out.”

Turner, who at the time was recovering from a heart attack, shared time in the fighting chair with Duckett to bring the 139-inch marlin to gaff.

“We finally got a rope around its tail and hauled it in the boat with a `gin pole’,” Turner said. There were no other fish reported (over the radio) that day, so we knew we were in good shape as we headed back to the dock.”

Back in Havelock, Edna Turner, Walt’s wife, was going about her duties as a paid employee of the Red Cross at MCAS Cherry Point. Someone at the base had a short-wave radio and told her of her husband’s good fortune.

“But when they told me, I didn’t believe it,” she said. “I thought they must have caught a big cobia or something. Not a blue marlin. Walt had never caught one of those before.”

Or since.

“Oh, I went out a couple more times after that, but that was the only time I caught one,” admitted Turner. “They asked me when we got it to the scales if I wanted it mounted. Well, it cost about $100 an inch, but that wasn’t the only problem. I would have had to build a new room in the house just to put it in. But it was a gorgeous fish.”

About 100 fishing fans were on hand at 5 p.m. when the Tom n’ Jerry finally made its way to the official scales next to the old Capt. Bill’s Restaurant on the Morehead City Waterfront. The blue marlin weighed in at 474 pounds and earned Turner and Duckett fine trophies.

But what about the money?

“We got the trophies … that was it,” said Turner with a laugh. “The boat owner got a small cash prize … $250, I think. But I’m not sure about that. I was just thrilled to get a trophy.”

And the title of Big Rock champion.

This week, six Big Rock Big Hero participants get to experience the excitement that Turner and Duckett felt 57 years ago. The Big Rock Heroes have been on contestant boats every day and all have seen billfish or gamefish fights.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Bobby Whitehead experienced a long blue marlin fight on the Accordingly IV.”

“I started out in the back of the boat and (the blue marlin) was rooster tailing,” Whitehead said. “It was awesome. When we hooked it, everyone ran to their places. Besides my wife and kids, this was the best experience.”

Turner and Duckett would agree. Their last-minute invite led to something very special. Both would be pleased that Big Rock Big Heroes now get to share their Big Rock experience. There’s nothing quite like wonderful offshore moments that are remembered forever.