MOREHEAD CITY — There was no question in Todd Dickerson’s mind when the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament announced it would be continuing as planned in June.
The 2019 event’s winning angler from Top Dog – which produced a tournament-record 914-pound blue marlin last summer – was quick to sign up despite logistical doubts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Why would we not come back?” Dickerson said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to match last year’s results, but we’re going to try.”
The tournament is currently in flux with what specific changes could take place, all of them largely dependent on the status of the governor’s stay-at-home order at that time. It’s likely the competition will take place with no in-person festivities and limited people allowed at the weigh station docks.
“We’re going to follow what the local and state regulations are at the moment,” Big Rock Director Crystal Hesmer said. “Hopefully they’ll change for the better as we get closer to the date. We may or may not be able to have anyone at the weigh station. No matter what, we’ll have extensive weigh station coverage that will be broadcast every day.”
Like Dickerson, many of the participants from last year’s Big Rock were ready and willing to take part in a coronavirus-adjusted version of the tournament.
“Before the decision was made, I called all of the participants from last year’s tournament, and the majority of them wanted the tournament to take place,” Hesmer said. “They were fine with doing it without the events. They just wanted to fish.”
No matter what phase of the state’s plan is in place when the tournament kicks off with the Keli Wagner Lady Angler (KWLA) Tournament on Saturday, June 6, there will certainly be physical changes to how the event is run this year. The full scope of those adjustments won’t be fully revealed until the tournament date gets closer, but regardless, the experience remains every bit as exceptional for Dickerson.
“It’s going to be different, but it’s still going to be the Big Rock,” Dickerson said. “I’m sure they’ve got something up their sleeve to make this tournament just as special as it has always been. It might even open up some new avenues, getting more people involved.”
The tournament technically begins Friday, June 5, with the captains’ meeting and Best Dressed Contest at the Crystal Coast Civic Center, where teams for the KWLA dress up in their best nautical-themed outfits. Often, the outfits are extravagant and the competition cutthroat.
“The contest is almost as important as the fishing is to them,” KWLA Director Madison Maxwell said. “So, we’re going to pivot to a virtual setting for the contest. It gives everyone a chance to have fun and be safe. And it could be a little more fun with the backdrops and settings people can choose.”
As for other logistical changes, participants can anticipate a potential drive-through situation with the annual Wednesday night dinner of pork chops provided by Smithfield Foods.
“We plan to do a midweek takeout dinner with the pork chops everyone loves,” Hesmer said. “We would easily be able to set up a drive-through on the Civic Center campus, and I think people would feel comfortable coming through to pick them up.”
Otherwise, the rest of the six-day tournament (anglers can fish four of those six days) will see teams well spaced-out on the water. There will be tighter control on the number of people allowed at the scale, as well.
“It’s easy to social distance offshore where you’re naturally pretty spaced out,” Maxwell said. “The hope is that we can offer a virtual presentation of what’s happening at the docks to limit the amount of people that try to congregate.”
The tournament has fostered a strong broadcast identity over the last several years, namely with Big Rock TV, but this year, the virtual offering will be more important than ever.
“Not everyone can go to a college or professional sports game, but you watch it on TV and you love it,” Hesmer said. “I think people will still enjoy watching the tournament through the broadcasts if that’s what it comes to.”
On any other given year, Top Dog of Olney, Md. would be welcomed back to Morehead City as heroes with their monstrous catch a year ago. Instead, the team, which was led by Capt. Ryan Knapp last year, will have to play it a little quieter.
“I’m not going to lie, that’s a little painful, but all we need to do is win it again and we’ll get another opportunity next year,” Dickerson said. “We have proved ourselves to ourselves, and the accolades have been incredible, but we fish to have fun. We do it to be with buddies and with family while we’re doing what we love. There might even end up being a little more dock camaraderie because of all this. We might throw steaks on the grill with the guys rather than go out to eat.”
Dickerson was more than the angler of last year’s monster blue marlin – he also co-owns the boat with his brother, Kyle. Last year Kyle Dickerson also reached the scale with a 464.9-pounder.
“Our dad got us into this, and he passed away last year in September,” Todd Dickerson said. “This is our therapy, our tribute to dad and what he instilled in us. It’s our way to stay connected with him.”
The two blue marlin weighed last year were the brothers’ first in five years of competing in the tournament. There were only the second and third bites, respectively, in their time during the tournament as well.
“But that’s the kind of tournament it is,” Dickerson said. “They make you want to come back. They build relationships that last a lifetime.”