On April 20, 2010 the Gulf of Mexico experienced what is being labeled as the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States. As a result of negligence and lack of maintenance, the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded, burned for two-days, and sank nearly a mile below the surface. With extensive damage to the rig, oil was gushing into the Gulf an alarming rate. After several failed attempts over a period of 87-days, and approximately 200-million gallons of oil later, the leak was finally contained. With the Gulf of Mexico providing essential nursery grounds for North Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea fisheries, there was a bleak outlook as to how the fragile ecosystem would be affected. Much of the Gulf was closed and both commercial and recreational vessels were stuck at the dock. With the leak finally capped and clean-up crews working diligently to remove and isolate oil, NOAA gradually reopened offshore waters. In commemoration of the revitalization of the northern Gulf, The Sandestin Celebration Fishing Tournament was introduced.
Based out of Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort, The Sandestin Celebration Fishing Tournament was held August 25-29, with proceeds benefiting the Destin History & Fishing Museum. The new tournament celebrates the favorable conditions in the Gulf of Mexico plus the reopening of Federal fishing waters. The much needed event brought the fishing and boating community together to show the world that Florida’s Panhandle is open for business with thriving fisheries.
We overheard a few other boats releasing swordfish in the same general area and found it very uplifting to hear that the Gulf was once again producing.
While anxious anglers were eager to head offshore and scour waters that were recently off limits, no one expected such exciting competition. For starters, the weather for the two-night, two-day tournament was far from ideal with 3 to 5-foot seas and torrential downpours limiting the field to 20 offshore battlewagons. Nevertheless, the event was still a huge success. Large crowds braved the conditions and showed up in force at the weigh-in to celebrate offshore fishing in the Gulf.
Having been stuck on land since the spill, I was ready to get offshore and jumped at the opportunity to fish with Gordon Gill and Captain Clay Dubuisson aboard Never Better. With the ugly marine forecast for the weekend and the limited area that was open for us to fish at the time, it was decided that on the first evening we were going to target swordfish along the 200-fathom line just north of The Spur. The game plan was to rack up a few points tagging broadbill swordfish and although 25-knot winds made things interesting, our efforts paid off at 5:00 a.m. when the tip rod went off. We had the sword to the boat in 20-minutes and our first 200-points of the tournament were in the bag. We overheard a few other boats releasing swordfish in the same general area and found it very uplifting to hear that the Gulf was once again producing.
Daybreak brought more rain and breaking whitecaps, but also schools of blackfin and yellowfin tuna. While it was impossible to stay dry, we all had smiles plastered on our faces thanks to the Gulf’s bounty. Working the edges of the schools we were hoping to stick a blue marlin when we got word of a solid white marlin bite at The Squiggles. We reluctantly worked our way inshore and the move paid off with a small white tagged and released before noon. Doing our best to dodge squalls as the day progressed, we worked back towards The Spur so we could be in prime position for another night of swordfishing. With the uncomfortable conditions now lasting 36-hours straight, we looked like soaking wet rats and not one of us got a wink of sleep—but the swordfish didn’t care.
At 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, the 66-foot G&S Mollie was into a beast not more than a mile from us. Two other boats were tight when we hooked up. The swordfish bite was clearly on! Our fish was tail-wrapped and couldn’t be revived so we boated it and quickly reset the spread. Without delay we were into another broadbill and while this fish was just a pup, we earned critical points for the release. With dawn approaching, we headed back towards the 100-fathom curve to see if we could get an early morning jump on the whites, later learning Mollie lost their fish at the leader. Estimated to weigh 300-pounds, a small consolation was the 200-points for the release. No sooner than prematurely releasing their sword, Mollie started pulling plastics and hooked a blue marlin. By now we were kicking ourselves for leaving the deep water, especially after Mollie released their blue and tied us for first place with 600-points—the pressure was on.
While crowding the bridge trying to remain somewhat dry, a debate ensued about which color trolling lure worked best in the rain. All of the sudden the long rigger got blasted and revealed the answer—dark purple. The fish remained on the surface and soon a supercharged sailfish had a new body piercing and we had another 175-points to put us back in the lead.
As the day progressed, overcast skies and heavy rainfall seemed to knock down the seas, but more importantly there were baitballs and feeding activity everywhere. In the next few hours we went 0 for 3 on whites, landed a couple of small dolphin and two decent blackfin tuna. With only hours remaining before we had to make the run back to Destin it was wild watching huge schools of blackfin crush baits on the surface with finback whales and hungry sharks joining in on the feeding frenzy. I believe it was 5:00 p.m. when we finally cleared the lines and started the 45-mile trek back to Destin’s breakwater.
At the dock Chef Emeril Lagasse was weighing his bounty caught aboard Destin-based Ole Miss with Captain Brad Benton. Emeril was his usual self and had the crowd cheering with his 60.3-pound wahoo good enough for 1st Place Wahoo. BAM! It was great having Mr. Lagasse support our economy—he is a man that loves the Gulf and the incredible fishery we have here.
Out of the field of 20 boats we managed to secure Top Release Team and Top Angler. Gordon released two swordfish, one white marlin, one sailfish, and weighed in a 79.6-pound swordfish and a 19.6-pound blackfin tuna good for $18,032 in cash prizes. Local angler John Dalton fished aboard Two Buy Four with Captain John Pugh and Captain Harold Destin. They pulled in the 2nd Place Wahoo at 44-pounds, and 1st Place King Mackerel at 15.7-pounds for a total of $2,957. The largest fish weighed was a 121.4-pound swordfish captured by Ford Torrey on Legal Dose II with Captain Andy Lindsey. They also won 1st Place in the Grouper Division, 18.7-pounds, and managed to take home $8,421. You Never Know collected a total of $48,381 with 3rd Place Wahoo, 1st Place Dolphin and both 2nd Place & 3rd Place Blackfin Tuna. They also secured 3rd Place Release Team with one swordfish and one white marlin.
Sport fishing related activities in the Gulf of Mexico employ approximately 300,000 individuals and generate an annual economic impact of $41 billion. The devastating BP oil spill won’t kill the spirit along Florida’s Panhandle and this is clearly evident after the Sandestin Celebration Fishing Tournament. We will persevere and we will head out in the worst of conditions and recapture what we’ve been dreaming about.