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This Is No Fish Story: $1 Million Grand Prize

Outdoors: Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament is one of the world's oldest and richest deep-sea fishing events.


MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. — A small flotilla of big-game fishing boats will chug out of port in a hunt for a $1 million prize and a sea creature that's a silvery-blue torpedo of muscle bigger than a bear.

The 44th annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament is one of the world's oldest and richest deep-sea fishing events. But it remains largely unknown to those outside the sport.

Last year, Adrian Holler's 61-foot yacht out of Newport, N.C., landed a 515-pound marlin and claimed $942,100, a record payout for the Big Rock tourney. Compare that to pro golfer Reteif Goosen, who received $900,000 for winning the U.S. Open a few days later.

Certainly, deep-sea fishing events are more expensive and harder for the average person to try. And for spectators, there's little to see when the competition is 50 miles out in the ocean.

Worldwide, there are probably fewer than 20,000 competitive offshore anglers competing in about 80 events, according to the International Game Fish Association in Dania Beach, Fla.

But here and at a handful of similar events around the globe, contestants are willing to pay dearly for the right to battle a fish that has inspired barroom boasts, seafarer legends and, in literature, Ernest Hemingway's epic battle of man versus nature in "The Old Man and The Sea."

"There's nothing like fighting a marlin, to me. It's so exciting. When one of those fish hit and the line starts screaming, it's just hard to describe," says Ted Garner, who has entered the past 14 contests and whose family has owned the Sanitary Restaurant here for decades. "You've got to live it and you've got to be able to afford it."

A blue marlin can grow into a monster more than 16 feet long and weighing more than 1,300 pounds, though most are smaller. Big Rock tournament rules require that marlins under 9 feet long or 400 pounds be freed.

When they're hooked, they may shoot straight up out of the water or arc repeatedly over the waves trying to get loose.

"It makes your jaw drop open," says Garner's son, Jeff, who captains their 56-foot boat Yellowfin.

Starting Monday, about 200 boats will spend four of the next six days searching the Gulf Stream off the North Carolina coast for marlin heading north as summer approaches and waters warm. Competitors are required to choose two days to stay dockside.

The entry fee per boat to qualify for all prize levels is $8,250 and--like cash tossed into the pot at a poker game--the number of those willing to play determines the size of the purse.

"There's a lot more variables in fishing than there is playing a game of cards. Basically, I guess, the objective is the same--to win the pot or to catch a winning fish," says Ted Garner. "I've never been in a poker game where you could win $350,000, $400,000."

That's just the start of the spending that will flow.

Organizers estimate the 200 or so boats entered each year spend $2.9 million--or more than $14,400 per boat on fuel, dock fees, bait, motels and meals. The Garners spent $800 last week just to have five reels serviced and restrung.

"This is a big deal. You don't buy hot dogs and those premade sandwiches" to feed these crews, says Tommy Bennett, a motel owner and former county tourism board member who tallied the tournament's local economic impact.

Money from sponsors--most selling boating gear--are used to help local charities. Last year, $115,000 went to groups that provide free medical care to the poor, help battered women and others.

Of the 201 boats that entered the Big Rock last year, three-fourths were from North Carolina. The rest came from every East Coast state from Florida to Massachusetts except Rhode Island, plus one each from Ohio and Bermuda. In the past, anglers from Canada, Mexico, France and Japan also battled for prizes.

Tournament organizers don't shy away from telling contestants that they're hunting for a species that is considered severely overfished, with populations in the Atlantic 40 percent of the level needed to maintain healthy members. Blue marlin also range across the Pacific and Indian oceans.

About 95 percent of the marlins killed are taken indiscriminately by commercial fishing ships hunting for tuna and swordfish, according to a United Nations-chartered organization charged with managing tuna and billfish in the Atlantic's international waters.

The culprits are the enormous nets hauled behind commercial vessels that scoop up acres of marine life.

With that kind of mortality, some conservationists don't want any blue marlin killed for the sake of a contest.

Tournament organizers penalize boats that bring in an undersized marlin by counting the dead fish's weight against the rest of their catch.

Last year, all but three of the 47 marlins or sailfish hooked in the Big Rock were released.

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