SANDESTIN — The docks at Baytowne Marina were buzzing.

 

Fishing crews from across the southeast and elsewhere milled about in the early morning breeze Thursday, inspecting their ships and eagerly anticipating the coming weekend and the start of the 16th Annual Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic.

Golf carts carrying crewmen, supplies, food and ample amounts of beer whizzed past across the narrow, wooden causeways, rushing to stock any of the 91 registered boats — a tournament record — before the fisherman would leave their berths for open water at noon for two full days of angling.

The sun was out, peeking through a thick layer of cumulus clouds with darkened edges. It was a perfect day for fishing, and unlike a year ago, there wasn’t a tropical storm in sight.

A record-low 36 boats participated in the tournament a year ago when the threat of Tropical Storm Cindy forced 47 boats to drop out of the annual contest where anglers compete to catch the heaviest marlin, tuna, dolphin and wahoo. The winning blue marlin weighing in at only 553 pounds, well short of the tournament-best catch of 899.6 pounds set in 2015.

Taylor Gray, who is crewing the Doulos out of Port Aransas, Texas, this year, was looking forward to his second ECBC in 2017 when his team dropped out to avoid the weather.

“We were here, but due to the tropical storm we weren’t able to make it out,” Gray said. “It wasn’t too bad because the tournament after that, we went to the Pensacola tournament, and ended up catching and killing two blue marlins.”

Gray, who has been working fishing boats since he was 16, and his crewmates are still out for their first blue marlin in the tournament after failing to catch one in 2016. With a pot of $2,038,125 at stake, Duolos and the rest of the competition field have until 6 p.m. Saturday to haul one in and return to the marina for weigh-ins.

With or without the big fish, Gray said the tournament is still great fun.

“It’s just a great all-around family environment,” Gray said. “I always loved fishin’, just the camaraderie around the dock. It’s a good time.”

On the opposite end of the dock, Capt. Ron Woodruff, who spent three years of his life growing up in Destin, was prepping his boat, A Work of Art. Sailing out of Orange Beach, Alabama, Woodruff has been partnered with Art Favre, the boat’s owner for the past 20 years. A career fisherman, he’s been fishing the ECBC since its inception — long enough to remember a time when the average boat competing in the tournament was only 46 feet long.

These days, he said competition fishing boats regularly check in at 60-plus feet. A Work of Art is 92 feet long and stocked from bow to stern with steak and pork chops for the weekend.

His current crew’s biggest catch was a 665-pound marlin, but Woodruff said they’re gunning for the tournament record this weekend. Their strategy is a simple one: Cast their lines and see what happens.

“There’s no guarantee in (fishing) at all,” Woodruff said. “It’s like we say, ‘One day you’re the hero, the next day you’re the zero.’ It's just part of it. I’ll make my strategy and I’ll go out there and put ’em out.

“The big man upstairs got the rest of it for me from there.”