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Lots of Billfish, Fishing in Wallets for Bills

October 09, 1998|PETE THOMAS

A 700-pound blue marlin was hoisted onto the Cabo San Lucas scales earlier this week, much to the amazement of dozens of tourists who gathered around to get a closer look at such an impressive specimen.

Wayne Bisbee, however, could only scratch his head.

"Why in the world would anyone want to take that thing out of the water now?" he wondered aloud?

Surely, whoever caught this magnificent fish is not part of Wayne's world, that annual circus known as Bisbee's Black & Blue Marlin Jackpot Tournament.

Because if he were, then why not release the fish and try to catch it again when it might be worth something--like a million bucks?

This year's extravaganza, headquartered at the Marina Fiesta Hotel, is set for Oct. 20-24. It is the richest billfish tournament in the world and its participants--judging from the 50-foot yachts that have been motoring into the Cabo San Lucas marina all week, are some of the richest fishermen in the world.

Given this, it is understandable why this resort city at Baja California's tip, having awakened from its summerlong siesta in time for peak season, is already abuzz with Bisbee fever.

"You could probably stand in the middle of town right now, yell 'Hookup!' and people would start having heart attacks--the anticipation is that high," said Bisbee, 34, the tournament director from Newport Beach, whose family has been putting on this show for 18 years.

Anticipation might not be that high. But the Bisbee tournament is a very big deal at Land's End. The tournament field has grown from six teams in the first year to 180 or so.

"From a dollar standpoint, the impact is pretty unbelievable," Bisbee said, citing a 1993 survey of participants from 120 teams who claimed to have spent a total of $8 million during their stay in Cabo San Lucas.

"It's scary to think how much of that $8 million was spent on alcohol," Bisbee added, half-jokingly.

A great deal, probably. The blenders are already smoking. The crowds have been growing steadily for the last week or so. And come the post-tournament bash, the winners will really have something to celebrate.

Last year, Gene Price of Rancho Palos Verdes took top honors with a 372-pound blue that netted his team $757,055. The second-place team, because it had entered more side jackpots, won a tournament-record $917,263.

The Bisbees were quick to point out that, by comparison, Pete Sampras was awarded significantly less, $664,000, for winning the 1997 Wimbledon tennis title, as was golfer Tiger Woods, $486,000, for his 1997 Masters victory.

The largest marlin in the history of the Black & Blue was a 993-pound blue marlin caught in 1994 aboard Phil Gentile's yacht, Picante.

When the marlin, nearly 20 feet long, was finally alongside the boat, one of the deckhands stuck it with a flying gaff. But the gaff-head failed to release and the deckhand failed to let go. He was pulled overboard and on top of the monster, which apparently was too tuckered out to exact revenge.

The deckhand finally let go and swam to safety and the Picante team--Phil's cousin Joe was the angler--cashed in at the awards ceremony.

Phil Gentile, 47, who lives in Upland, has since retired from his environmental cleanup business and used his share of the $600,000-plus purse to go into business in Cabo San Lucas. He started Picante Sportfishing and now has a fleet of seven upscale Cabo sportfishers catering to high-end clientele.

"I was going to start a business down there anyway," Gentile said. "But my marketing strategy changed a little bit after winning the Bisbee's."

Last year, fishing was terrible during the Black & Blue. A record 728 anglers aboard 181 boats managed to catch only two marlin that met the 300-pound minimum for weigh-in consideration--smaller billfish are tagged and released--thanks to 90-degree water generated by El Nino, which kept the bigger billfish away.

This year, prospects are excellent. Smaller blues moved in during the summer and the bigger blues--and possibly some blacks--are putting on a show almost daily.

Several have been right around the 300-pound mark. A week ago, a 480-pounder was weighed in. That was followed by a 600-pounder caught aboard one of the Picante boats. More recently, the 700-pounder was caught aboard a private yacht.

"I think 500- and 600-pounders are going to be caught every day of this year's tournament," Gentile said. "And I'm pretty sure something at about 800 pounds is going to win the thing."

Feeling lucky? Applications are still being accepted. All you need is a boat to fish on, the $5,000 entry fee and perhaps some extra cash for the rollover jackpots. Details: (714) 650-8006. The tournament will be cybercast daily on the Internet at


* Members of the United Anglers of Southern California are smiling broadly, now that Gov. Pete Wilson has signed into law AB 1241, which defines a new framework for fisheries management that gives priority to sustainability rather than short-term economic gain.

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