Mention Florida’s Atlantic coastline in our circle of friends, and it’s highly arguable that no species garners more attention than acrobatic sailfish. Competitive crews travel far and wide in search of the state’s official game fish, and with the 21st Annual El Pescado Billfish Tournament coinciding with the arrival of the year’s first cold front, it’s like crews participating in the prestigious event were destined to collide with the front line of sailfish migrating south for the winter. The precise location of early season spindlebeaks has always been a highly guarded secret, and remained that way as tournament professionals from North Carolina to South Florida geared up for this World Billfish Series sanctioned event. You can bet that all of the participants had hopes of qualifying for the WBS Grand Championship. Capitalizing on the historical productivity of North Florida’s Sailfish Alley, as the event neared pre-fishing crews remained tight-lipped as to the precise location of aggressive Pez Vela.
A small historical town established in 1565, St. Augustine is an extremely popular vacation destination for visitors from around the world. Well known for its pristine beaches and quaint historical sites, the nation’s oldest city also offers world-renowned angling. In its 21st year, the El Pescado Billfish Tournament is, without a doubt, North Florida’s most celebrated blue water event. Conceived as a marlin tournament by the St. Augustine Marlin Club in 1988, the inaugural competition hosted 26 boats, which combined released six blue marlin, one white marlin and two sailfish. In 1991, a very impressive 14 blue marlin were released! While St. Augustine is hardly considered a big game destination; the numbers simply don’t lie.
In its 21st year, the El Pescado Billfish Tournament is, without a doubt, North Florida’s most celebrated blue water event.
While blue and white marlin remain eligible species, tournament rules have evolved. Event dates were recently changed from April/May to September/October. This seasonal shift was put into place to enable crews to cash in on the reliable sailfish migration that kicks off during the fall.
Over the years, El Pescado has attracted some of the most dedicated big game crews from up and down the eastern seaboard. And with teams having to venture up to 60-miles offshore, the event is typically reserved for billfishing’s elite who feel right at home in the cockpits of magnificent sportfish yachts. But the tournament isn’t only about good fishing. Proceeds from the event benefit the Monique Burr Foundation. Over the last three years, El Pescado has raised over a quarter of a million dollars to help abused children.
“It is because of the generous support of our teams, sponsors and guests that we’re able to continue to raise donations of this magnitude for the foundation,” remarked Dennis Rosa, tournament co-director.
Held at the Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor in St. Augustine, 27 teams participated in 2009, raising more than $76,000 for children in need. During two days of fishing in October, 103 sailfish were released and more than $136,000 in prize money was awarded. If the release numbers in this early-season event were any hint as to the upcoming sailfish season anglers could expect in South Florida, then we’re currently enjoying another banner year.
The highlight of the event came when the winning team, Lor-A-Di, received their winnings and trophy, and then in unprecedented fashion, immediately donated $25,000 to the foundation.
“We believe this tournament should be about giving back. The Monique Burr Foundation does tremendous work to prevent child abuse,” said Sammy Vaughn, owner of Lor-A-Di, which is the only team to win the tournament on three separate occasions. “My wife Diane and I donated the money this year in honor of my brother, Jimmy Vaughn, who was a long-time member of the Northeast Florida Marlin Association and was instrumental in founding the “Corporate Challenge” offshore fishing tournament whose goal was to raise money for the club’s charities,” added Vaughn.
In conjunction with the 21st Annual El Pescado Billfish Tournament, the Monique Burr Foundation hosted the first Fish-N-Chips Marina/Casino event, which drew 400 attendees and included Texas Hold ‘Em, Black Jack, Roulette as well as the unique “Ladies Tackle Box” featuring shopping opportunities with local artists who support the same organization.
As tournament day finally approached, it was anyone’s guess as to precisely where the largest concentrations of sailfish would be holding. A number of crews chose to venture south and fish The Steeples off Daytona, while other teams headed north and fished off Jacksonville. When the game was finally over, Lor-A-Di, with Captain Ty Moore, won 1st Place Overall Team with a total of 11 releases and was handed a check for $82,725.
Outlaw, owned and led by Captain Neil Subin, took 2nd Place Overall Team with nine releases, and Grand Slam owned by Wallis Higginbotham and led by Captain John Loyd, won 3rd Place Overall Team, also with nine releases. Additional awards included Top Angler, which went to Jim Vaughan aboard Floridian, and Top Junior Angler, which was awarded to Skyler Wichers on Boneshaker. Vaughan, the Top Angler, will be invited to the World Billfish Series Championship in Los Suenos, Costa Rica, in December, and the International Game Fish Association Offshore World Championship in Cabo San Lucas.
For information on the El Pescado Billfish Tournament, visit their website at www.elpescadobillfish.com.
The Monique Burr Foundation for Children was created as a nonprofit organization in 1997 to honor the late Monique Burr, a tireless advocate for abused and abandoned children. The foundation’s mission is to provide hope in the means of training and education to prevent and reduce abuse among children across Florida. Since its inception, The Monique Burr Foundation has donated over $2 million to child-serving agencies. The Monique Burr Foundation also supports prevention and intervention programs offered through various nonprofit agencies that aid children and families in abusive situations. With dedicated programs like this the cycle of abuse can be stopped. www.moniqueburrfoundation.org
A leader in conservation, El Pescado holds the title as Northeast Florida’s first billfish tournament to enact a no-kill policy. Blue marlin releases are worth 400-points, white marlin 200, and sailfish 100. There are also prize categories for heaviest dolphin and wahoo, however “meat fish” carry no point value. Boats may fish no more than six lines at any given time and no live bait is allowed. A Billfish Release Affidavit must be completed and submitted to the tournament committee along with a time and date-stamped digital image (still or video) that clearly reveals the billfish species and the colored ribbon of the day. The tournament is limited to boats 31-feet or longer.
World Billfish Series
The World Billfish Series is comprised of over 70 prestigious billfish tournaments from eight divisions around the world. Over 30,000 anglers participate in this highly regarded series, with anglers earning points based on participation, tournament catches and tournament finishes. At the end of the year, the top 10 anglers from each division are selected to participate in the World Billfish Series Grand Championship. In addition, the top angler from each WBS sanctioned tournament receives an invitation to the Grand Championship. www.worldbillfishseries.com