By Bruce Paul and Carlee Sharpe
When billfish competitors begin to register for the 63rd annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, they take their first step toward winning part of a cash purse that’s exceeded $1 million for the past twenty one years.
That’s quite a change from the original Big Rock prize: a child’s red wagon filled with silver dollars.
In order to understand this transformation, you need to travel back in time to the spring of 1957. Back then, no one was certain that billfish existed in the waters off the North Carolina coast. Commercial fishermen in those days seldom ventured beyond sight of the coastline. Their families had worked coastal waters for generations. No one had ever seen these fish. But sailors who worked the commercial freighters that traveled in and out of the Morehead City port insisted they’d seen blue marlin not too far offshore.
Most locals dismissed this as “bar talk’’ since the deck hands didn’t know where they were at the time of the sightings. Since blue-marlin skeletons never washed up on the beach, these reports were believed to be idle chatter.
Still . . . the rumors persisted.
Finally the day came when members of the Fabulous Fishermen Club decided to settle the issue once and for all. The Fabulous Fishermen — a loose-knit organization of Morehead City fishing enthusiasts — got together with several local merchants and announced they would pay a cash prize to the first person who could catch a blue marlin in the waters just off the Crystal Coast.
That cash prize did the trick. Intended to promote deep-sea fishing and to help support the area’s infant charter boat industry, it encouraged anglers and captains to head further offshore. Fishermen sighted blue marlin throughout that summer. Despite the sightings, no one was able to land the beautiful, elusive fish.
Those summer failures gave way to an autumn success. On September 14, 1957, Raleigh angler Jimmy Croy, fishing aboard the Mary Z with Capt. K.W. “Bill’’ Olsen, landed a 143-pound blue marlin. This special catch forever changed the face of Crystal Coast fishing.
SOUND THE SIRENS
A STRONG FOCUS ON CONSERVATION
Billfish preservation has been a major concern for Big Rock tournament officials and competitors for more than a decade. Twenty-one years ago, the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament’s board of directors raised the minimum weight limit to land a blue marlin to 400 pounds. The 400-pound weight limit was at the time, 200 pounds above regulations set by the federal government.
Tournament rules adopted in 1997 required Big Rock anglers to release all blue marlin that did not weigh more than 400 pounds or measure at least 110 inches in length. Anglers who bring blue marlin to the scales that do not meet these minimums are penalized 400 pounds on any subsequent blue marlin weighed during the remainder of the tournament. Marine biologists take charge of blue marlin brought to the weigh station so they can study and research this important species. Representatives from the NC State University Center for Marine Science and Technology (CMAST) collect samples at the weigh station of all gamefish and blue marlin weighed in. Proceeds from every Big Rock tournament are donated to support organizations that are dedicated to help pelagic species flourish.
The Big Rock is a prestigious marlin tournament that’s attracted competitors from around the world. During the past three years, anglers from 22 states and three international teams have participated in the six-day offshore competition. Winning the Big Rock has become the focus of many top billfish competitors.
While many people consider blue-marlin fishing a “man’s” sport, it is the ladies who have dominated the headlines. In 1993, Kathy Keel of Edenton landed a 759-pound blue marlin to win the 35th annual Big Rock. She held the all-time Big Rock record until June 15, 2000 when Ron Wallschlager of Kiawah Island, S.C. reeled in an 831-pounder to win the 42nd Big Rock. That record was shattered in 2019 when Todd Dickerson of Fenwick Island, DE weighed in a 914-pound monster on the last day of the 61st Annual Tournament. To this day, Kathy’s catch remains one of the top three fish to ever hit Big Rock’s scales.
In 2005, Gigi Wagoner of Fredrick, MD, became the fourth woman to win the Big Rock. Fishing aboard the Ocean City-based charter boat Size Matters, Wagoner reeled in a 529-pounder.
Anglers like Keel and Wagoner were the inspiration behind the 1998 creation of a one-day ladies only tournament that serves to introduce women to sports fishing. In 2019, the twenty-second annual Keli Wagoner Lady Angler (KWLA) Tournament drew a record 167 boats. Nearly 500 competitors battled for prize money in gamefish and billfish release divisions. Since its inception, the KWLA event has raised more than $374,415 for charity.
A BIG ROCK TRADITION: OUTSTANDING CYBERCAST COVERAGE
Big Rock fans have enjoyed outstanding tournament coverage ever since the competition became an online event. Fans of the competition follow the offshore action on the tournament’s website, social media, and app.
Competition updates are provided just seconds after a hookup is reported to tournament headquarters. You can even listen to the radio live via the Big Rock website. Big Rock board member, Randy Ramsey mans the radio from the early morning hours ‘till the last fish has hit the scales daily. One of the spectator’s favorite traditions is the blessing of the fleet Randy gives every morning, inspired by Captain Omie Tillet.
Throughout the tournament, staff members work long hours to provide live weigh-in coverage and up-to-the-minute reports about offshore action. Weigh-ins and exclusive interviews are captured by Big Rock TV, started in 2008 to commemorate the 50th Annual Tournament. Big Rock TV has now become an international sensation with over 2 Million viewers in 71+ countries during the 2020 tournament.
In the early years, the Big Rock could barely be considered a tournament. There were no rules of consequence, and only a few boats participated. When prizes became part of the affair, the total booty looked like the results of a scavenger hunt.
In 1965, a listing of the prizes included one quart of varnish.
Limitations were few. Generally speaking, a member of the Fabulous Fishermen Club — a collection of Morehead City fishing enthusiasts — won the Big Rock if he docked the first blue of the season. This catch had to happen before a November 1 cutoff date. Tournament growth was slow. In 1958, George Bedsworth, captain of the Dolphin, pocketed a $325 prize. It would take years for the tournament to grow into the giant that is now known as the Big Rock.
In 1960 and 1961, “Fab Fishermen’’ didn’t even recognize previous efforts. The 1960 event — won by angler Carroll Williams of Petersburg, Virginia, aboard the Bunny Too captained by Arthur Lewis of Morehead City — featured a special Pfleuger Trophy provided by world-renown taxidermist Al Pfleuger of Miami, FL. Pfleuger would continue to mount the winning Big Rock fish for the next several years.
The 1963 edition of the tournament, and the one that immediately followed, sought to find out who could boat the most blue marlin. The ‘63 tournament concluded with 64 blue marlin brought to the scales.
This huge number of blue marlin makes it hard to imagine that less than six years before, no one had ever caught a blue marlin off the Carteret County coast. In fact, Croy’s catch on the Mary Z was something that came about quite by accident.
The only reason the Mary Z was out in 50 fathoms of water that day was because Olsen was giving the Mary Z its first test in ocean waters. Olsen had just finished building the craft for Bryan Rock and Sand Co. of Raleigh, NC. He took Croy as his “party’’ that day . . . to show him the warm offshore waters located in the Gulf Stream.
Once there, Croy had the experience of a lifetime. After a 38-minute battle, the area’s first blue marlin was landed.
Olsen had jokingly bragged he would catch the first marlin only days before this test run. He celebrated the catch late into the night with several of his Fabulous Fishermen Club friends. But nobody in the raucous group had any idea what was about to come.
From humble beginnings — a simple challenge to catch the first blue marlin — the event grew into an annual contest. Year after year, the event became more structured as new rules were added. The “Fabulous Fishermen’s Blue Marlin Tournament’’ was renamed the “Big Rock’’ in 1972 because that was the spot in the Gulf Stream where everyone went to fish.
After a dozen years, entries in the tournament began to grow. The handful of boats during the early years led to 35 boats in 1970. The tournament topped 111 boats in 1979 and 205 boats in 2020. The Big Rock currently averages 200 boats and nearly 1,600 competitors.
Cash prizes grew by leaps and bounds. In 1974, the winning boat received just $800. Ten years later, the purse nearly reached $70,000. Big Rock fans were thrilled when the 1988 purse topped $90,800. In today’s tournament, the total purse has averaged $2,621,830 in the last five years, with 2020’s record breaking purse of $3,352,475. That total is dwarfed by the $6 Million the Big Rock Foundation has donated to local charities.
Entry fees have changed dramatically as well. A $25 tournament charge was all that was required early on. As late as 1973, inclusion in the tourney cost $75.
But as the prize money grew, so did entry fees. To enter Level I, Level II and Level III in the 1993 tournament, anglers needed to pay $2,200 to tournament officials. The entry fee (for all levels) in 2020 was $27,500 — which exceeds the combined total purses of the first 15 Big Rocks.
INTO THE FUTURE
Who could predict the amazing growth of the Big Rock Tournament during the first 62 years of its existence? The people who viewed the first celebration had no hint of what was to come. What developments will carry the tourney into the next century?
Perhaps the event will span two weeks, as it did in its infancy. Perhaps special instruments will be invented that have the ability to measure the size of a blue marlin through radio telemetry so that boating these fish becomes a thing of the past. Only time will tell.
Maybe the time will come when all boats will be outfitted with special cameras. Big Rock headquarters on the Morehead City waterfront already has the capability to communicate with its offshore competitors. Cameras would verify catches and relay fishing action back to shore. The same cameras that right now put NASCAR fans into the driver’s seat of a race car could soon transport fishing enthusiasts offshore. That would bring Big Rock fishing into the homes of millions of fans.
Perhaps international divisions will be formed to pit U.S. teams against anglers from other countries. Last year, a team from Puerto Rico nearly finished in the money. The competition has a tremendous potential to grow and has become one of the top billfish competitions in the world.
Since some people already call the Big Rock the “Super Bowl of fishing,’’ perhaps others will begin to call that late January football game the “Big Rock’’ of football. Whatever happens, it’s been a wild and wonderful journey. And it all began a little more than 62 years ago when Jimmy Croy and Bill Olsen hooked a very special 143-pound fish.
“The Big Rock is an area of hard bottom situated approx. 35 miles southeast of Morehead City. The structure’s location along the continental shelf in 180 to 500 ft. of water is unique since it is generally in the gulf stream current. The Big Rock’s location along with the dramatic upwellings of structure provides an outstanding fishing location.”