Daily Updates from the Championship

by Capt. Dave Lear

Home Cookin’ - Posted: Sunday, July 19, 2020 1:47 PM

Photos by Jenni Guerry Photography

Maybe it's a steady diet of fresh Gulf seafood, fried okra, cheese grits and Satsuma oranges. That certainly couldn't hurt. But more likely it can be attributed to local knowledge, honed skills and savvy instincts that seven of the top ten 2020 Blue Marlin Grand Championship teams call this sunny slice of sugar sand beaches home. Either way, the Orange Beach chamber of commerce is salivating over the promotional aspects of the region's sport-fishing as the 71 teams entered split $1.63 million in overall prize money.

Pearl was named the Grand Champion at a champagne-sprayed ceremony at The Wharf scales Saturday night. The 48-foot Viking, based in Orange Beach, is owned by Andy Yarborough. He, and angler Aaron Prosser, Capt. Bo Keough, angler Edgar McKee and mates Hunter Green and Kolby Thorton, captured the top blue marlin for the tournament. The 120-inch long fish weighed 642.4 pounds and was caught on a live bonita near the Blind Faith rig in the central Gulf of Mexico. With first-place Grand Championship and optional entry prize money, Pearl earned $441,150. The win also secured the team the top trophy for the 2020 Gulf Coast Triple Crown Championship.

"It was a very special moment for Pearl to win the Blue Marlin Grand Championship, and the Triple Crown Series," Yarborough said afterwards. "Just like all the great teams that grind and compete week after week all season long, it's been a dream of ours to hoist these two trophies. Successful marlin fishing is such a team effort, and it's the camaraderie, fellowship, sportsmanship, and pride you take in watching your friends and fellow competitors experience high moments that make it all so fulfilling."

Southern Charm, a 53 Hatteras that also calls Orange Beach home, earned second place in the overall standings by virtue of its first-place release efforts. Capt. Landon Bell, mates Connor McLeod and Zack Redman and the crew released four blues good for 2,004 points. That performance was worth a $255,825 payout.

Angler Joey Geil, Capt. Logan Lovett and the team aboard Lisa Jo, a 55 Ricky Scarborough, scaled the second-heaviest blue for the week at 597.2 pounds. That fish paid $71,010 in combined entry categories. Quick Time's owner Robert Burroughs won $92,970 for the third-largest blue marlin which tipped the scales at 575.2 pounds. Capt. Nick Knoepflein runs the 70 Viking from Ono Island. Patron, a 65 Ebony (Capt. Ben Levi) is taking home $102,870 based on a 533.4-pound blue and a release, good for third place Grand Champion honors overall. Garrett Matlidge was in the chair for Patron's weighed fish.

Skin Deep, a 63 Scarborough run by Capt. Kyle Smith, released three blue marlin and won second-place honors, plus $26,250 based on time. Sea Mixer (66 Spencer, Capt. Devin Potts), was the third-place release team with an identical score. The team's heavy investments in the optional entries earned $58,995.

Reel Fire, a 76 Viking based in Biloxi, Mississippi, pocketed $88,695, for a pair of game fish. Nathan Neames muscled in the second-heaviest yellowfin tuna at 146.6 pounds, while team mate Travis Dorland scored the top wahoo at 34.8 pounds. Single Barrel, a 60 Hatteras run by Capt. Ruston Rood, with Stephen Gainous on the rod, captured the top tuna for week at 157.6 pounds. Angler Shawn Guidry, Capt. Steven Pixley and the team on Emerald Grande, a 73 Donzi, caught the third-place tuna (102.6 pounds). With optionals, that fish paid out $64,890.

Get Reel put on a game fish clinic by boating the second-heaviest dolphin (34.6), and second- and third-place wahoo (31.6 and 26.8). Those fish were caught by Chris Moody and Braxton Smith (both wahoo), respectively. Capt. Sonny Alawine and the team aboard the 60 Hatteras earned $58,455 for its fish box. Briar Patch, a 68 Viking with Capt. Nicholas Hunter at the helm also benefited from the game fish division. The first place dolphin (35.4) and a 97-pound tuna were worth $50,490 overall. Lady angler Jaselyn Berthelot, competing aboard Rising Sons, a 58 Viking (Capt. Toby Berthelot), wound in the third-place dolphin at 33 pounds, good for a $23,625 check.

The Blue Marlin Grand Championship is hosted by The Wharf in Orange Beach. It is the final event in the Gulf Coast Triple Crown Championship series. Next year's BMGC will be held July 14-18, 2021.

The Big Oyster - Posted: Saturday, July 18, 2020 11:38 PM

There's no shortage of cliches in sports. But one comes to mind immediately with the 2020 Blue Marlin Grand Championship: "Good things come to those who wait."

Owner Andy Yarborough, "Ringer" skipper Bo Keough, angler Aaron Prosser and the crew aboard Pearl, a 48 Viking based in Orange Beach, caught the largest blue marlin of the tournament, but they had to wait a bit to weigh it. Almost 24 nerve-wracking hours, actually.

"We got the bite about 11:10 Friday at the Blind Faith rig," Yarborough explained. "We had a small yellowfin tuna and bonita out. The fish came up on the spreader bar teaser and we could see it was a kill fish. But it was all black and faded off both baits.

"We quickly put a frisky bonito back out and the marlin popped up with its bill in the port exhaust, all lit up. It nose-dived down on that bait and it was on. We fought it for about three hours. The first time we got it close it was still real green and we got a flyer [flying gaff] in the right flank but it pulled loose. We leadered it nine more times but she finally came up subdued. It was hooked solid in the corner of the mouth, but the 180-pound leader was wrapped around the pectoral fin, so we took it easy. We finally got her head turned and got two flyers in her. She did her thing after that. Nobody likes being gaffed, but we got her aboard."

Prosser was using a Shimano Tiagra 130-class outfit with 130-pound main line and an 11/0 circle hook to make the catch. The fish measured 120 inches long and 16 3/4 inches around the base of the tail.

Yarborough said they rode in on pins or wide open throttles, with a brief 10-minute delay after a fuel bladder strap broke. Pearl made the Sailfish Bay deadline and would have made it to The Wharf scales before it closed at 7 pm Friday, except it encountered four barges and three recreational pontoon boats in the Intracoastal Waterway before reaching the marina. The boat was forced to slow down, causing it to miss the cut-off. Saturday was spent keeping the marlin, iced down in a fish bag, with multiple additional layers of ice under the sun shade in the boat's cockpit.

When Weigh master Craig Martin finally calibrated the scale, Pearl's fish registered 642.4 pounds, capturing the top spot on the blue marlin leaderboard. It wouldn't be surrendered.

Angler Garrett Matlidge and his team mates aboard Patron (Capt. Ben Levi) would weigh the fourth and final marlin for this year's contest. The 65-foot Ebony caught the 533.2-pounder Saturday morning. Patron is also based in Orange Beach.

Southern Charm took the top release honors by letting four blue marlin swim away, earning 2,004 points. Skin Deep and Sea Mixer were second and third, respectively, with identical 1,503 scores, but Skin Deep released their three marlin first.

Triple-digit yellowfins dominated the tuna leaderboard this year. Single Barrel, with Stephen Gainous on the rod, boated the biggest at 157.6 pounds. Nathan Neames on Reel Fire was close behind with his 146.6-pound fish, followed by Shawn Guidry on Emerald Grande at 102.6 pounds.

The dolphin weights were tightly bunched together. Jarret Johnson on Briar Patch scored the top bull at 35.4 pounds. Chris Moody wound in one at 34.6 aboard Get Reel. Rounding out the division was lady angler Jaselyn Berthelot on Rising Sons with a 33-pound entry.

Travis Dorland was the top stick for wahoo, cranking in a speedster that weighed 34.8 pounds fishing on Reel Fire. Braxton Smith finished out the set with a 31.6 and 26.8, competing aboard Get Reel.

The 2020 Blue Marlin Grand Championship hosted 71 teams and 451 anglers competing for $1.63 million in overall prize money.

Homecoming - Posted: Friday, July 17, 2020 8:51 PM

Two local teams decided to return to The Wharf Marina a little early. Both are glad they did.

Taking advantage of Friday's Early Bird Special weigh-in, owner/angler Robert Burroughs and his crew on Quick Time backed up to the dock at 7 am. The 70 Viking, based in nearby Ono Island, offloaded a blue marlin that was hooked 10 minutes after lines went in Thursday afternoon. The fish measured 116 inches from the lower jaw to the fork of the tail. Grand Championship rules stipulate a marlin must be at least 110 inches to be weighed.

"That's the way you hope it happens," Burroughs said of the quick bite before the weight was announced. Burroughs, Capt. Nick Knoepflein and the team were the first on the leaderboard with their 575.2-pound fish. In a strange coincidence, Quick Time also was first on the board with a morning blue in a previous Blue Marlin Grand Championship. After taking on more fuel, the boat ran back offshore to see if Lady Luck would keep on smiling.

The BMGC uses a hybrid scoring format to calculate winners. The Grand Champion is determined by the weight of the heaviest blue marlin scaled. Second through fourth places are based on a point system. Blue marlin weighing 499.9 pounds or less score one point per pound. Fish over 500 pounds earn two points per pound.

Catch and Release is another hotly contested—and lucrative—division. Blue marlin successfully released earn 501 points. White marlin score 250, while sailfish, spearfish and unidentified billfish are worth 200 points apiece. Releases must be verified by video proof.

In the game fish categories, dolphin and wahoo must weigh at least 20 pounds to get on the leaderboard. Yellowfin and big eye tuna minimum weights start at 50 pounds.

With the Friday evening scales closing at 7 pm, things were relatively quiet at Marlin Circle at the end of The Wharf's main boulevard. But word came in that another contender was running wide open to make it back in time.

Lisa Jo, a 55 Ricky Scarborough based in Orange Beach, made it to the scales with six minutes to spare after being 92 miles offshore. The boat was south of ELF rig, fishing in scattered grass when a big blue made a swipe at the long 'rigger bait. A live bonita was quickly pitched to it and the fish wolfed it down. One hour and 45 minutes later it was boated after Joey Geil fought it on 80-pound class tackle. Capt. Logan Lovett is Lisa Jo's skipper.

"The water was blue out there, with seas one to two feet," Lovett said. "There were a couple other boats around. Once we got the fish aboard, I pushed the throttles up while we put everything away. We knew it was going to be tight making the deadline, but it all came together."

Lisa Jo's fish measured 118 inches and it tipped the scales at 597.2 pounds to take the lead.

"We're definitely blessed it all worked out," Lovett added. The team also earned the early top spot in the dolphin division with a 23.2-pound entry.

The competition between the 71 teams continues through Saturday afternoon. But all with entries (weight fish and video releases) must be back in by 5 pm.

Which begs the question, will the Friday home teams be able to maintain their early leads? Or will a visiting boat surge in front? The next 24 hours will determine who will be crowned this year's Blue Marlin Grand Champion.

Uncertain Options - Posted: Thursday, July 16, 2020 4:50 PM

It's the question 71 teams are asking right about now: Did we make the right decision? As the 2020 BMGC fleet fans out across the central Gulf with stereos blasting and trailing plumes of diesel exhaust, all are hoping to be spot on. Find the right combination of water, current and bait and it could mean a six-figure payday. Miscalculate and a long, boring boat ride is the alternative. Ever-changing conditions offshore make the prospects even more uncertain.

"The weather looks good throughout the weekend with only 2- to 3-foot seas," says Capt. Tom Hilton, of Hilton's Realtime Navigator, an offshore forecasting service that's widely subscribed by big-game enthusiasts. "There is a big warm core eddy with downward current rotating clockwise across some popular fishing spots. It's moved up onto the shelf, grabbed some of that dirty Mississippi River water and is pulling it west and southward. It's also turning over the water column, producing plankton blooms with a lot of green water around the spars and drill ships. There are still pockets of blue water that look good, and those will concentrate the fish. But those smaller areas are going to be crowded with boats." Spots like Devil's Tower, Thunderhorse, Gulfstar 1 and Blind Faith that were hot earlier this season could still produce a winning marlin.

Hilton says overnight clouds have prevented clear satellite images of the water surface. Bait typically concentrates in nutrient-rich upwellings, which in turn attracts the game fish. But with bait not free-floating due to the expanding eddy, the focus will be on oil and gas rigs that serve as habitat. Hilton says there are significant water color changes on the outside edges of green water. Those differences stack the bait up, too.

"I still expect a lot of fish will be caught southeast of the delta," he explains. "I just don't know what the water color will be."

Instead of trying to pull a billfish out from the crowd, some boats are opting for long runs to other destinations like Lloyd's Ridge, which currently is showing cobalt blue water. The ridge is 162 nautical miles from Perdido Pass in a depth of nearly 10,000 feet.

"That's a hero or zero game," Hilton says. "It's so remote it can be great or it could be a bust. It's so far out there, 107 miles southeast of the Spur, that it's closer to Tampa than it is to Alabama so you can't immediately go somewhere else if it's no good."

The red-hot Born2Run team, a veteran crew out of Pensacola and the current leader in the 2020 Gulf Coast Triple Crown Championship, will be following its normal routine, regardless of heading.

"We're a one-trick pony," skipper Myles Colley says with a laugh. "We just do what we know how to do and stick to our game plan." The boat, a 72 Viking owned by Dana and Lisa Foster, specializes in live baiting for blue marlin. The normal crew added a couple extra mates for this weekend's stiff competition. Born2Run often racks up billfish release points but is not opposed to weighing a contender.

"If it's over 500 pounds, we'll take one if it's big enough," Colley explains. "With the modified scoring of the Championship that could mean the difference."

The scales at The Wharf open Friday night. If a hefty marlin has been boated, crews may opt to run back in to avoid losing critical pounds in body weight. Or they may take their chances and hold out until Saturday's ultimate deadline. The options—and final outcome—are still uncertain with an overall $1.6 million in prize money on the line.

The Show Goes On - Posted: Wednesday, July 15, 2020 8:55 PM

This year is going to be little different. Even as the 2020 Blue Marlin Grand Championship gets underway today at The Wharf, the spectacle is being scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic. Long known as “The Greatest Show In Sport-Fishing,” teams returning to the scales won’t be greeted by smoke, flames and Jumbotron video presentations. The typical mesmerized spectators numbering in the thousands will be subdued as well, all in the interest of public health. But the show is still going on. The top boats in the Gulf of Mexico will still be competing as hard as ever, reflecting the spirit and history of this world-class event.

“We started the Championship in 2012,” says Tournament Director Scott Burt, who ran the successful Bay Point Invitational in Panama City Beach for 25 years prior. “The backstory is an interesting one. Joe Galati of Galati Yachts got a call from The Wharf saying someone was pitching them on doing a billfish tournament. The pitch man was the late Rocky Jones.

“Before it came about, though, the marina and development went bankrupt. Art Favre eventually bought it and hired us to run the marina. My first day, four hours later as I was driving down Canal Rod on the way to the airport, I called Rocky and asked him if he still was interested in doing the tournament. Without hesitation, he said ‘Hell yes, let’s do it.’ And that’s how it all began. Rocky, Chris Miller and I partnered together and with the exception of the tropical storm cancellation last year, we’ve been going strong since.” Jones passed away earlier this year after a long and impressive run on the Gulf Coast big-game circuit with his wife, Laurie, and Capt. Scooter Porto aboard his Viking, Reel Addiction. But his vision lives on.

“What sets us apart is the hybrid scoring format that doesn’t penalize releases.” Burt adds. “I love the showmanship and bling. It gets a lot of exposure for the Gulf Coast as a high-profile event. It’s an adrenaline rush for the teams, to make them feel special. Unfortunately, this year is definitely low key. We’re going to be very careful to keep everyone as safe as we can.” The drama and excitement won’t be sidelined, however.

“To me, the whole thing comes down to The Wharf,” says Tournament Co-Director Chris Miller. “There’s no other venue that can rival what this property does, with its facilities, amenities and close proximity to the fishing grounds and where many teams call home. The owner [Art Favre] is very passionate about the sport. Traditionally we give the teams the rock star experience. We’re having to scale back this year, but we’ll return to the Greatest Show in Sport-Fishing again in 2021!”

Miller says his most memorable BMGC experience was the Friday night in 2013 when the Alabama state record for blue marlin was broken twice in a matter of hours. He is also impressed by the collective fleet, with all the associated buzz and excitement.

“The docks are just electric. Just walk around and listen. We also have a huge team—up to 120 people—who all help behind the scenes to make this happen. It really is an awesome and memorable experience.”

BMGC Weigh master Craig Martin has been there since the beginning, too. Martin, a Gulf tournament veteran since his days with the National Marine Fisheries Service in the mid-1980s, has witnessed the evolution of the sport.

“The competition this week is pretty ramped up,” Martin explains. “The traditional production value is bar-none with all the pyrotechnics and exposure. But these are the best boats in the northern Gulf, from Texas to Florida. With a 71-boat fleet, that’s some serious hardware. I’d estimate 25 percent of the boats are $10-million dollar yachts and they all know how to catch marlin. It’s going to be yet another exciting week.”

And the show goes on…