MOREHEAD CITY — The 33rd annual N.C. Ducks Unlimited “Band the Billfish” Tournament will kick off today at Big Rock Landing.
The captains’ meeting and registration will take place today, followed by the first day of fishing on Thursday. Anglers will be able to fish two of three days through Saturday. The scales will open on Thursday and Friday at 4 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Participation is expected to be high after last year’s competition pulled in 40 boats. Last year was a dramatic increase from the 22 boats registered in 2019, 28 in 2018 and 22 in 2017.
“Last year, we had 40 boats, so this year we’d love to see at least 50,” Tournament Co-Chair Neal Rowland said. “I’ve got a good feeling that our participation should be up in that area. Everybody wants to get out and fish.”
In years past, the tournament has held its captains’ meeting and awards ceremony at the Crystal Coast Civic Center, but last year’s indoor gathering restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced changes that wound up sticking through this summer.
“Everything will be at Big Rock Landing this year,” Rowland said. “Last year, COVID taught us how to trim back things, and we had a very successful tournament.”
The tournament does have a heaviest blue marlin category, but most anglers will shoot for the release category, which awards 400 for blue marlin and 150 for all other billfish species.
“We’re still trying to promote conservation,” Rowland said, “so we’re giving 400 points just for bringing a blue marlin up to the side of the boat.”
Last year, The General, captained by Wade Fickling, became the competition’s first boat to capture three straight tournament victories. It released three blue marlins and a sailfish to finish with 1,350 release pints and win $36,750 in prizes.
Just as it did last year, The General will come into this weekend’s tournament with a recent win already under its belt. Fickling and his team won the first-ever Big Rock Kids Tournament last weekend.
Patron placed second last year in the Ducks Unlimited Tournament with 800 points and walked away with $8,100 in prizes. Due South placed third with 700 points and won a $19,350 payout.
The competition saw 39 total releases, the most since 2014. That figure included 17 blue marlins, the second-highest release total since the tournament’s inception and the most since 1998.
In the gamefish category, Loose Cannon reeled in a dolphin that wound up being worth more than $1,000 per pound. David Mauser reeled in the 19.1-pound fish that won $19,000 in prizes for the Largest Dolphin category and then $5,500 more for the Gamefish category for a total payout of $24,500.
The Largest Blue Marlin category went unclaimed with monies returned to participants.
The N.C. Ducks Unlimited Billfish Tournament has been in effect since 1989, helping to release over 1,100 billfish in the process. The name “Band the Billfish” speaks to the organization's conservation efforts, and release numbers back up that sentiment.
In conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries, the tournament employs a minimum blue marlin requirement of 110 inches or 400 pounds. In the tournament's inaugural year, Capt. Howard Basnight of the Wave Runner reeled in a 1,002-pounder to become the first and only angler to catch a blue marlin weighing over 1,000 pounds in the waters off Morehead City. Ironically, the fish was not eligible for the competition as it was caught after the competition had finished, but Basnight was officially honored in 2018 at the 30th annual competition.
Proceeds from the “Band the Billfish” have gone to Ducks Unlimited’s Sound CARE program. Sound CARE (Conservation of Agriculture, Resources, and the Environment) is N.C. Ducks Unlimited’s premier conservation initiative, dedicated to the conservation and restoration of North Carolina wetlands and North American breeding grounds.
For more information on the tournament, visit ncdubillfish.com.