Daily Updates from the Championship

by Capt. Dave Lear

Blue Flames - Posted: Saturday, July 14, 2018 11:20 PM
July 14, 2018; The Wharf Marina, Orange Beach, Alabama:

In the end, it came down to a shootout between two former Triple Crown champions with another four not-so-innocent bystanders. By the time the flames and smoke had cleared, only one was left standing. Strangely enough, that team had to settle for second place.

Perennial contender Done Deal did it again when the Houma, Louisiana team brought a 640.8-pound blue marlin to the scales. That fish, which had the leader wrapped behind its dorsal fin, was finally gaffed after being wired more than a dozen times. Katie Gonsoulin, daughter of boat owner Jon Gonsoulin, spent eight hours in the fighting chair in order to whip the 117-inch billfish.

“The team kept encouraging me, giving me water and food and keeping me cool,” Katie said after the weight was announced to the crowd of thousands at The Wharf entertainment complex in Orange Beach. “These are the best guys ever and this was a total team effort.”

“Katie was great,” added Done Deal skipper Jason Buck. “She never gave up. I would have given up on that fish.”

Done Deal’s catch vaulted the team into second place in the blue marlin category but it was not enough to supplant Friday’s leader, Shock Wave. Breathe Easy, with Capt. Patrick Ivie on the throttles, made a late challenge by weighing the team’s first marlin in the BMGC. At 598.2 pounds it would guarantee angler Rick Olsen and the team third place in the signature category.

Four other teams would weigh blue marlin on Saturday night in the final hours of the 2018 contest.Reel Addiction came up short in its quest for the Triple Crown Championship after weighing a 499.2-pound blue (Kenny Way). REHAB (486, Jasen Gast), Black Sheep (481, Ryan McKenzie) and Click Through (468, Keith English) also weighed Saturday night, which featured flames shooting out the mouths of the stainless steel marlin sculptures straddling the scales.

Done Deal settled for first place in the Release Division with four blues and one white released, good for 2,254 points. Team Galati was second with 2,004 points (four blues), followed by Melanie (2,003 points).

Larry Wireman and the Carib team set a new tournament record after boating a yellowfin that tipped the scales at 192.2 pounds. Nick Pratt, fishing aboard Hauling Away was second with a 183.2-pound fish, while Ashley Faulkner whipped a 158.6-pound yellowfin fishing on Team American.

This year’s dolphin division was tightly contested with some nice bulls on display. Chris Williams on REHAB took top honors with his 45-pounder. Drew Marshall, competing aboard his family’s boat, Traders Hill, was just behind with a 42.6-pound fish. Owner/angler Scott Cooper on CE rounded out the category with a 39.8 dolphin.

Billy Richardson, competing aboard Southern Miss, captured the top wahoo for the tournament after landing a 56.6 speedster. Joey Diffatta on Gunnfighter whipped a 49-pound ‘hoo, while Neal Foster on Intense boated the third-largest fish at 34.6 pounds.

With $1.88 million in prize money on the line amongst the record 76-boat fleet, the 2018 Blue Marlin Grand Championship set several new benchmarks. The prize money and individual honors for the top lady and junior angler will be announced at the Sunday awards breakfast.

Reverberations - Posted: Friday, July 13, 2018 8:15 PM
July 13, 2018; The Wharf Marina, Orange Beach, Alabama:

Shockwave sent tremors through the crowd Friday as a chunky blue marlin was carted to the scales. Weigh Master Craig Martin had already measured the fish at 123.75 inches and everyone could see the broad girth continued down the length of the body all the way to the rotund tail. So when the weight was announced at 795.6 pounds, no one was shocked. The team was jubilant, however, and rightfully so. The weight, worth two points per pound, vaulted the Perdido Key team solidly into first place atop the Grand Championship leaderboard.

“We just tried to do everything right,” explained angler Austin Blakeney. “We put a live little tuna out and 15 seconds later, we got the bite. We fish hard, we have a great crew and it happened for us today.”

Blakeney needed 4.5 hours to land the hefty blue. He was using 130-pound tackle with 100-pound monofilament and 200-pound leader. Capt. Marco Gaona is the skipper of the 64 Viking.

“Austin did a great job, all by IGFA rules,” Gaona said. “I tried to get her away from the rig and the other boats that were there. I asked a couple of them to give us room and in true spirit of sportsmanship they did. We finally landed her and started back.

“My biggest job during a fight is keeping everyone calm,” he added. “You don’t know how long it will last, so you have to treat it like a marathon.”

Shockwave was fishing near Independence Hub, which has produced numerous big fish this season. Gaona said several other boats were in the vicinity at the time of the strike.

Quick Time christened the scales early Friday morning with a 507-pound blue. But the standings will likely change by Saturday night. Boats have to be past the check-in point by 6 p.m. Done Deal is running towards Orange Beach with an estimated 116-inch blue on board. The current Triple Crown leader also released two billfish. Click Through has boated a marlin (109 inches), along with Black Sheep (107.5 inches, estimated). The minimum length requirement is 107 inches, measured from the tip of the lower jaw to the fork of the tail.

Smaller blue marlin score 501 points, provided the crew documents the successful release on video. White marlin and spearfish are worth 250 points, while sailfish count for 200. Multiple boats had released up to four billfish as of Friday evening.

So it all comes down to the final day. Will Done Deal’s fish be the ultimate fatty? Or will another boat take advantage of the early morning bite and land an 800-pounder or better to send more shock waves through the Gulf? Starting at 5 p.m. Saturday, we’ll know for sure.

Early Leader - Posted: Friday, July 13, 2018 8:29 AM
July 13, 2018; The Wharf Marina, Orange Beach, Alabama:

Quick Time lived up to its name. The 70-foot Viking based on nearby Ono Island was the first to the scales in the 2018 Blue Marlin Grand Championship. Capt. Shelby Johnson and owner Robert Burroughs took advantage of the special morning scale opening to record their 507-pound blue marlin. The fish was hooked around 6 p.m. Thursday evening and boated after a 2 hour and 20 minute fight.

“We saw the fish and caught it,” Johnson explained. “It jumped and then went around the rig and almost into it. But it finally died and Robert brought it in. He did a great job.”

Johnson said they were fishing a live bonito near the Blind Faith rig when the marlin took the offering.

“It was calm, calm, calm out there. There is some scattered grass, but it’s trying to form up. We’re going to turn around and go right back out there to try and get a bigger one.”

Today’s catch marks Burroughs’ biggest score in the Grand Championship. Quick Time is a regular contestant on the Triple Crown circuit, however.

“It ate that bonito on the short line,” he said after the weight was announced. “I was using light leader, so I was very gentle with the fish. It’s so easy to make a mistake with these big guys.”

Burroughs, who lives in Laurel, Mississippi, credits his team for the catch.

“My crew is the best. I can’t say enough about them. So now we’re running back out to see what else we can do.”

The BMGC scoring format awards 2 points per pound for fish weighing more than 500 pounds. So Quick Time has set an early mark for the other 75 boats to beat. A few releases have been reported but no other marlin have been boated so far.

With the Friday the 13th hex clearly broken, the stage is set for the second round of weigh-ins Friday night. The scales open again at 5 p.m. and are free to the public. The Sponsor Village and Billfish Boat Show, located along Main Street at The Wharf, open at the same time. Fishing continues non-stop through Saturday until the mandatory check-in time of 6 p.m. with $1.88 million in prize money on the line.

Passing the Rod - Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2018 7:15 PM

Hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel are burning as you read this. A record 76 boats competing in the 7th annual Blue Marlin Grand Championship are spreading out across the central Gulf in search of blue, silver and gold. Several are churning towards Independence Hub, a commercial rig operation southeast of the Mississippi River, where many of this season's top fish have been caught. Besides bragging rights, $1.88 million in prize money is on the line for those bringing the largest blue marlin, tuna, wahoo and dolphin to the scales either Friday or Saturday night.

A total of 502 anglers are fishing in this year's contest, which represents untold years of bluewater experience. Big-game fishing is a special sport, one that requires a great deal of dedication and skill to be successful. So how did most of these contestants learn their craft? From family, friends and mentors.

"My dad got me started fishing," says Capt. Myles Colley, skipper of Born2Run based in Pensacola. "I was around 10 years old and we ran out to the #1 sea buoy in a 15-foot Boston Whaler and caught king mackerel. It seemed like we were 100 miles offshore. As I got older, I started cobia fishing, then working on charter boats. Eventually I got the opportunity to run a private boat and I really took to the competition."

Dana Foster, Born2Run's owner, also shares memories of being on the water with his father. "When we lived in the Northeast he and I would be on the water in a canoe or small boat all the time. My love of the outdoors and water are all related to him."

"I was born and married into this, really," says Optional Entry and Weigh-in volunteer Rachel Ivie of Orange Beach. Rachel and her husband, Capt. Patrick Ivie, owned a charter boat for nine years. Today Patrick runs Breathe Easy, a past Triple Crown Champion.

"I grew up fishing. My prize fish as a kid was an 8-pound bass caught in my backyard pond," she explains. "Daddy and I started going deep sea fishing since I was six. I do this because I love all these guys and the tournament lets me be involved. My kids love to fish, too."

Capt. Jimmy "Cricket" Crochet is a ringer mate working the cockpit of Share-E this weekend. An uncle from Biloxi introduced him to the sport. After moving to Destin, Crochet started working for Capt. John Holley before eventually taking the helm of private boats like the Conundrum before it was recently sold.

Weigh Master Craig Martin has been certifying fish since the BMGC started in 2012. Like others, he also trained under the guidance of a key mentor.

"In 1986 I answered an ad for a fisheries aide position with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Paul Pristas hired me and I worked on king mackerel studies for two years before moving on to big-game tournaments," Martin recalls. "Back then we just had block and tackle, no digital scales, no ounces, just overall pounds. I started doing the Mobile ladies and junior angler tournaments until Paul retired. I was also doing billfish work for The Billfish Foundation, collecting otoliths and shipping off marlin heads to the labs. The clubs starting hiring me to do more, but it all started with the Bay Point Invitational in Panama City Beach."

NBA star forward and team captain of the New York Knicks Lance Thomas is relatively new to the tournament scene but not to fishing. He did a trial run at last year's Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic before committing to fish every Triple Crown event this season in his 40-foot Invincible catamaran Slangmagic with a team of buddies.

"A friend in college got me hooked on Falls Lake in North Carolina. I'm really loving fishing the circuit this year," Thomas says. "I'm learning something new every day and having fun with my guys. I learned a lot from Venice, Louisiana charter captains, where I keep the boat. Captains John Cole and Brett Ryan are part of my team and some of my biggest mentors."

Tim Jones, general manager of the Gulf Coast Hatteras Yacht Group in Orange Beach, has been involved with the local tournament scene almost from the beginning. He credits Dr. Robert Mudd and Jerry Austil from Mobile as pioneers.

"In the mid-60s they heard about pelagic fish in the Gulf, but they couldn't target them because the wooden boats at the time weren't up to it," Jones recalls. "So they went and bought a fiberglass Hatteras to fish offshore. Hatteras didn't have a dealership here, so they became the first. When they tried to enter a New Orleans tournament, they were turned down because they weren't local. So they helped form the Mobile Big Game Fishing Club.

"In the early 1970s I went to work for the late Sonny Middleton as a technician. So Sonny, Dr. Mudd and Jerry Austil are my big influences. The late Bill McLellan also really helped spool up and promote Gulf tournaments to what they are today. It was really fun back then and it's still really fun right now. This is a great sport!"

Pressure Test - Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2018 6:53 AM
July 12, 2018; The Wharf Marina, Orange Beach, Alabama:

Fuel. Check. Ice and groceries. Check. Drags set. Check. Optional bets. Check.

Lists are shrinking as the record field of 76 boats makes last minute preparations for the 2018 Blue Marlin Grand Championship. The final dollar figures won’t be known until late morning when the fleet departs The Wharf Marina, but this much is known already: Catch a big fish, the right fish, and it’ll be worth a six-figure payout.

Money isn’t the only motivating factor, though. These are the top teams in the highly competitive Gulf circuit. All are here because they love the sport. Others want to see how they fare against the best. And for a small handful, the Grand Championship is crunch time, the last chance to earn enough points to lock down the coveted Gulf Coast Triple Crown Championship.

A few like Wynsong, Breathe Easy and Relentless Pursuit have an outside shot at the title. The latter two are past champions, while Wynsong made a strong initial run. The Triple Crown features five events, including the Orange Beach Billfish Classic, Cajun Canyons Billfish Classic, Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic and the Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic. But it all boils down to the final contest, the one starting here today. Two teams—Done Deal and Reel Addiction—are the top contenders.

“Winning the Crown means everything to me,” says Rocky Jones, owner of Reel Addiction, a 56 Viking based in nearby Pensacola. Capt. Scooter Porto is the boat’s skipper. “The awards ceremony is Sunday and that’s my birthday so I can’t think of a better present than to win it. We’re going to have $50,000 on the line. This is the last big hurrah of the year, so if we can finish least in third, we’re in good shape.”

“We’re going to fish the way we always do,” Porto adds. “We always fish as hard as we can, so nothing is changed. There’s just a little more on the line. We have a couple ideas about where to go, but we won’t really know for sure until we get out there and look around.”

“Luck will play a role,” Jones says. “There aren’t any pronounced conditions, so a lucky spot may produce. We’ll have to run at least 100 miles to find blue water though and when we get there, we’ll live bait. That’s pretty much what we do 100 percent of the time.”

“It’s worked out for us so far [live baiting]. So there’s no use in changing anything now,” Porto adds.

Done Deal, a 70-foot Viking based in Houma, Louisiana, is the current Triple Crown leader with 486 points. Reel Addiction is right behind with 450. Points are earned strictly on blue marlin for the top three weighed fish as well as the top three boats in the release standings. Done Deal, owned by Jon Gonsoulin with Capt. Jason Buck on the bridge, is a two-time Triple Crown Champion.

“This thing can still belong to a number of teams yet,” Buck explains. “If not for our bonus points in the OBBC, we wouldn’t be leading right now. Reel Addiction is quite capable of bringing in a big one as they’ve done in the past. So we’re not taking anything for granted or resting easy. We need to go out and win this tournament.”

Seventy-five other boats are saying the exact same thing. The scales open Friday evening at The Wharf and the public is welcome. Huge crowds will be on hand to see if it’ll be Done Deal, Reel Addiction or another boat that brings in the winner. For the Championship. And for the Crown.