Carterican, seen here celebrating a win in the Swansboro Rotary Memorial Day Bluewater Fishing Tournament, captures the first-ever N.C. Billfish Series with 3,378.6 points. (Contributed photo)

MOREHEAD CITY — The first-ever N.C. Billfish Series wrapped up Saturday at Pirates Cove with Carterican of Atlantic Beach grabbing a close win over Builder’s Choice.

The Pirates Cove Billfish Tournament wrapped up a seven-tournament series that begin in May with the Hatteras Village Offshore Open. The newly-named series took over for the dissolved N.C. Governor’s Cup Series, which was managed by the Division of Marine Fisheries.

“We saw a lot of blue marlin and folks had fun. I think it went well,” series co-organizer Randy Gregory said. “The turnout was incredible this year. The number of boats participating was up, with most of the tournaments setting new records for boat count and purse total.”

The series went off without a hitch, aside from the Hatteras Grand Slam Tournament, which was forced to cancel with the approach of Hurricane Arthur.

Four of the remaining seven tournaments were based out of Big Rock Landing downtown, including the Swansboro Rotary Memorial Day Bluewater Fishing Tournament, the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, the Big Rock Kids Tournament and the N.C. Ducks Unlimited “Band the Billfish” Tournament.

“Morehead city is truly blessed to have a cool place to hold a billfish tournament,” Gregory said. “A lot of credit goes to the town and the Big Rock Tournament for putting that stuff together. It’s a town facility, and it’s pretty cool that we can have a venue like that to work with.”

There was also the Cape Fear Blue Marlin Tournament in Wilmington and the Pirates Cove Billfish Tournament. The latter decided the win for Carterican, with Capt. Lee Smith surviving a late run from Capt. Brent Gaskill of Builder’s Choice.

“We knew it was close before Pirate’s Cove,” Smith said, “and that tournament usually shakes up the standings because there’s always some good releases.”

Builder’s Choice out of New Bern released six white marlin to finish with 3,300 points in the N.C. Billfish Series. That fell just shy of Carterican’s 3,378.6 points.

“That’s a narrow margin,” Gregory said. “They were able to pull it off in the end. Builder’s Choice had a strong beginning of the season, but then they went to Bermuda for the summer. Pirate’s Cove was their first tournament back, and they put some good days together. They almost came back and beat (Carterican).”

Smith and his crew had a fantastic start to the series, winning the Swansboro Rotary competition with a 476-pound blue marlin and released three more to snag a $79,510 payout. The boat also scored 800 release points in the Big Rock to pad its stats.

Carterican only fished five of the tournaments – Smith was still rebuilding the motor during the Hatteras Village Offshore Open – and it only caught fish in three, but the strong start was enough.

“There were a lot of big blue marlin coming through in May and June,” Smith said. “We felt very fortunate to be in the right water at the right time (for Swansboro Rotary Memorial). To have several releases and a boated marlin was pretty neat.”

The boat had never broken the podium in the Governor’s Cup.

“We like to see our other local boats succeed as well,” Smith said. “Brent is an awesome captain. The whole crew on Builder’s Choice is great. We always enjoy competing against those guys and the other local boats. It’s always nice to get a win.”

Smith co-owns the boat with his brother, Jamie.

“We’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that boat,” he said. “And then our mate, Charlie Hoffman, I’d put him up against anyone. We couldn’t do it without him. We’ve had some success together and we hope to keep doing it.”

Smith noted that many of the top boats in the series were local. Only Top Dog of Olney, Md., winners of the 2019 Big Rock Tournament with a record 914-pounder, was a non-local boat in the top seven. The General came in third place with 2,300 boats. It beat out Bill Collector for the bragging rights by a public charter boat.

That matchup was a close one going into Pirates Cove, where Capt. Wade Fickling of The General released three white marlin to grab the lead.

There were several lady anglers with a blue marlin release this summer, and Lisa Merriam of Reel Quick got the win as the first one to accomplish the feat and rack up 400 points.

Brown Gaddy absolutely destroyed the junior angler division with 1,325 points for the release of three blue marlin and one white marlin.

“He’s no mere mortal junior angler,” Gregory said. “He’s a pretty good fisherman. Him and his brother, Charles, they are very good. We had a lot of good junior angler competition, which was exciting.”

Junior anglers were on full display in July for the brand new Big Rock Kids Tournament. All but one of the releases were made by anglers ages 16 or younger.

“Anytime you can get a bunch of kids out there fishing, that’s a success,” Gregory said.

The largest fish reeled in by a series boat was a 574.5-pounder off Release. Re-Leased also caught a 538.2-pound blue marlin. The largest dolphin was a 46.3-pounder off Baby J., Reel Quick won the largest wahoo division with a 66.1-pound catch, and Builder’s Choice won the tuna division with a 121.2-pound catch.

There were 183 billfish caught in the series, with only six weighed. The remaining 72 blue marlin, 76 white marlin and 31 sailfish were all released for a 97 percent release rate. Those statistics are what Gregory was looking for in the new series.

“There were things that were strikingly familiar (to the Governor’s Cup),” he said, “but we feel like we were able to continue that tradition of a competitive series between all these tournaments. We’re still pursuing the conservation and research efforts of the old series, and we’ll continue to do so.”

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