When most anglers think of marlin fishing it’s likely that an image of an exotic tropical paradise comes to mind. While there’s no denying the fact that destination trips hold many anglers ticket to marlin success, there are, in fact, plenty of large marlin swimming in our home waters – a fact that was lamented at the 2009 Drambuie Key West Marlin Tournament. The 53-boat, 390-participant tournament was staged in conjunction with the island’s Hemingway Days Festival, an annual salute to author Ernest Hemingway, who resided in Key West during the 1930s.
Captain Marco Gaona knew that his angler had to hurry if his Shockwave fishing team was to have any chance at winning the 2009 Drambuie Key West Marlin Tournament, staged in late July in the Florida Keys. But there was one minor problem; angler Jim O’Malley was battling a 500-pound-plus blue marlin on 40-pound test line during the final moments of the contest. The fish wasn’t about to give up easily and time was running out on the competition’s third and final day.
We were rooting for him to hang on and hoping it was the biggest blue marlin ever caught during the tournament’s 27 year history, surpassing a 570-pound blue landed in 1990…
Gaona began day three well out of the lead. The only points his team had accumulated were from a 21.45-pound dolphin that Javier Celis landed on day two. “We went back to the same area we fished the first day when we missed two marlin bites,” said Captain Gaona, referring to a region about 25-miles southeast of Key West known as East Crack, a deep trench in the ocean floor where marlin and other pelagic game fish are known to congregate. The crew enticed the big blue to strike around noon while trolling a mylar-skirted balao. But it took O’Malley, a Tampa resident, three and a half hours before the fish could be reeled in close enough for the mate to grab the leader and record an official release. On the final day of fishing lines out was at 3:00 p.m., and although their blue marlin counted for 400-points, Gaona’s crew ran out of time and had no chance to add another fun fish to their score. They missed victory by less than three points. “We wanted to get the marlin to the boat and then move shallower in hopes of hooking a dolphin, wahoo or tuna to put us over the top,” said Captain Gaona, who won the Drambuie in 2000. “Unfortunately the determined blue fought to the very end.”
The way the situation unfolded was exactly what 2009 Drambuie winner Dr. Rene Cruz on the Doc Cruiser was hoping for when he heard Captain Gaona call in the hookup to the tournament’s committee boat. “We were rooting for him to hang on and hoping it was the biggest blue marlin ever caught during the tournament’s 27 year history, surpassing a 570-pound blue landed in 1990,” said Cruz, a Cudjoe Key, FL, veterinarian whose team won the tournament’s top $25,000 prize. “We knew if it was big, they would be in for a long fight and not have the opportunity to catch another fish.”
Cruz’s angler, Rick Sheriff of Big Pine Key, scored the tournament’s first blue marlin, released on day one, and a 23.05-pound dolphin caught on day two. However, Captain Gaona didn’t complain too much about accepting second place and a $10,000 check. “We had our chance the first day and even on the second day when we lost a 45-pound dolphin,” said Gaona. “You have to appreciate what you get, when you get it.”
In third place was Cracker, skippered by Mark Schultz of Fort Myers. Cracker angler Maurice Gibson caught a 17.8-pound dolphin and released a blue marlin for $5,000.
In the fun fish division, Mary Jeanne skippered by Captain Kenny Hyatt, won $5,000 for the largest dolphin, a 33.1-pound fish reeled in by Steve Dross. Captain Harry Carter’s Lacey D scored the largest wahoo and Randy Sterling’s Reel Conch was awarded the largest tuna trophy for a 15.6-pound skipjack.
History Of Marlin Fishing In Key West
“When people think of Ernest Hemingway, Key West immediately comes to mind,” said tournament chairman Tim Greene. “But when they think about Hemingway fishing for giant blue marlin, they usually associate him with Bimini or Cuba, not the fertile blue waters south of Key West.” Greene said the founders of the original Key West Marlin Tournament, Captain Norman Wood and Wayne Hunt, believed that marlin fishing off Key West could rival the action seen in many of the most famed spots around the world. “Did Hemingway know about the great marlin fishing off Key West decades earlier?” Greene asks. “You bet he did!”
It wasn’t to prove a point, but in 1981 Norman Wood invited the late Miami Herald fishing writer Jim Hardie to Key West for a trip aboard Petticoat III. The trip ended up making angling history. The Herald headline read “Hemingway Never Had It So Good” and chronicled a story of the catch and release of four blue marlin that were taken out of seven hookups during a single day of angling. The fish ranged from 150 to 400-pounds and were all caught about 25-miles south of Key West. The area where those fish and many more were caught was eventually dubbed “Wood’s Wall,” and incorporates three cracks, or fissures, where bait tends to stack up in large concentrations. The word was out about Key West’s marlin hot spot and in 1982 the inaugural Key West Marlin Tournament featured 92-boats and 400-anglers. The tournament continued each October through 1992, when challenging economic times interrupted it. In 1999, Greene decided to assemble a tournament board of directors that included Wood to resuscitate the event.
Even though blue marlin fishing typically peaks off Key West in October, Greene reasoned a July event would be more appealing to anglers with families and thought it could pair perfectly with the island’s annual salute to Hemingway. “We’ve proven you can catch blue marlin in July, and given Hemingway’s love for fishing it’s only natural to hold the event during Hemingway Days,” Greene said. “It’s so much more than just another fishing tournament.”
“Time after time, I’ve had competitors tell me they love being in Key West just for the tournament’s social experiences and the island’s laid-back and quirky atmosphere,” he said. “Catching a marlin, or winning, is a bonus for them.” To ensure the event’s consistency, Greene attracted corporate sponsors like Drambuie, Marine Max and Cabo Yachts. And in 2009, while the recession took its toll on many other angling contests, The Drambuie Key West Marlin Tournament still managed to attract a large field of anglers that rivaled the event’s very first year.
For complete results and information on how to compete in the 2010 Drambuie visit www.keywestmarlin.com. More details on the Hemingway Days Festival can be found at www.hemingwaydays.net.