Big, hungry marlin lead to wild first day at Big Rock

Annual sport fishing tournament starts strong with a nearly 600-pound fish caught on Monday

A 588.9-pound blue marlin, caught Monday by the crew of Wolverine, was the biggest catch on the first day of the 61st annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament. (Photo by Ted Lewis / courtesy of Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament)

MOREHEAD CITY — If we’ve learned anything in the first day of competition at Big Rock, it’s that the marlins have been eating well.

The 61st annual Big Rock Tournament is in full swing, and fishermen are pulling in super-sized marlin off the North Carolina coast.

Last year, Honey Hush took home the Big Rock prize with a 518.5-pound marlin. The anglers on board caught it on the second day of the 2018 tournament, and the lead held up through the week.

That would have been good for fourth place on the first day of this year’s tournament. The 533.9-pound marlin caught by Run-Off to win Big Rock in 2017 would also have been in fourth place after day one.

In a wild opening day, a total of seven marlins were caught as boats took turns atop the leader board, making it the most eventful day at Big Rock in 16 years. That 2003 day also saw seven marlins brought in to be weighed, with five different boats spending time atop the leaderboard.

In addition to the seven marlins on the scale, there were 41 billfish releases and 22 dolphins brought to the scales.

A dolphin is measured at the end of the Monday’s opening day of the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament. More than $2.8 million in prize money, a Big Rock record, is up for grabs at this year’s tournament. (Photo courtesy of Big Rock Tournament)

Sweetums, a Texas-based boat captained by former Morehead City resident Pete Ray, earned the first score of the tourney, bringing a 545.4-pound marlin to the scales early in the afternoon. By landing the first 500-pounder of the tournament, Sweetums claimed the Fabulous Fisherman prize, netting the boat $531,250.

Sweetums actually caught the second marlin of the day, but the first, landed by Morehead City’s Post Call, captained by Gene Ward, was 451.4 pounds, missing the Fabulous Fisherman criteria by 48.6 pounds.

Maryland-based Top Dog caught a 464.9-pounder, and Morehead City’s Piracy, captained by Chris Russell, hooked one at 461.4 pounds.

The Wolverine, captained by Morehead City’s Rocky Hardison, jumped into the top spot in early evening, weighing in its catch at 588.9 pounds.

“We had a pretty good idea about what it was going to weigh,” Hardison told the Big Rock website. “The fish jumped one time and we knew it was going to be a real one. It was pretty well on from then.”

The Donna Mae landed a 569.9-pounder later in the day to pull into second place, bumping Sweetums into third. Big Tahuna pulled into fourth with a late catch weighing 482.3 pounds.

This year’s tournament attracted a total of 184 boats, with 181 of them in action on opening day, in the hopes of taking home the Fabulous Fisherman prize. Entrants can fish a total of four out of the six tournament days and must notify officials ahead of time which days they’ll be taking off.

Other day one winners included Job Site, which caught a 53.7-pound dolphin to earn $2,000, and Full Pull, which won the daily release prize of $47,104 with 800 points.

On Tuesday, 161 boats were in action, with 23 taking the day off.

Total purse money for the tournament will be a record $2,869,050, topping the previous record, set last year, by more than $300,000.

Wolverine took home more than $793,000 for topping the charts on day one, and the boat remains in position to claim the big prize at the end of the week.

Big Rock kicked off with the traditional Keli Wagner Lady Angler (KWLA) Tournament. The 22nd annual KWLA was held on Saturday. Whitecaps took home the top prize with two marlins, worth a total of 800 points. Collins White of Wilson and Wortley Whitehead of Wilmington each landed one, earning the boat $81,525 for first place. White landed her marlin after a 56-minute battle, while Whitehead took just 19 minutes to bring her fish aboard.

In other KWLA competitions, Jennifer Cameron of the Floridian caught the largest dolphin, at 36.6 pounds, earning a total of $67,150. Blue Eyes earned $15,450 with a wahoo weighing in at 29.7 pounds.

All told, 29 billfish and 43 gamefish were landed on the one-day tournament.

A record 167 boats took part in the KWLA, making it the largest one-day billfish tournament in the U.S.

“To be honest, the record total didn’t surprise me,” KWLA director Madison Maxwell told Big Rock’s site. “When reports from offshore boats indicated Friday (fishing) was great, we had a surge in registrations. KWLA competitors look forward to this competition every year. They weren’t going to let a little bit of rain spoil the fun.”

The proceeds from the day’s events, which also included several on-land competitions, including a “best dressed” contest, were donated to KWLA charities, which has raised nearly $350,000 over the life of the tournament.