June 6, 2014; Biloxi, Mississippi:
By Capt. Dave Lear
When the thousands of spectators gather this afternoon to watch a big blue marlin being weighed most won’t realize all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. But a million-dollar tournament like the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic is no small undertaking and dozens of people are responsible for its continued success. It’s also been a family affair from the start.
The late Bill McLellan, the founder of Marlin magazine and a consummate promoter of big game fishing in the Gulf, first hatched the idea for the Classic and pitched it to Bobby Carter. Carter agreed, signed on as its director and the first event was held in 1997. Bill enlisted family members and close friends to help run it and with very few exceptions, that same group is still responsible for its operation today.
“I’ve been here from the beginning,” says Tournament Coordinator Chris McLellan, Bill’s nephew. “Marlin fishing is in my blood. I took my first trips offshore with Bill aboard his 23-foot Robalo, Pacifier, and on my first two trips I caught two blue marlin and a white marlin. I’ve been hooked ever since.” Chris is in charge of the optional entry portion of registration, then switches to Dock Ops once the scales open.
Chris’ dad and Bill’s brother, Ronnie (who has also passed away) helped with the computer programming and statistical side of keeping track of registration, teams, anglers, fish weights, etcetera. That job is now in the capable hands of Marie, Chris’ sister. His brother Ronnie is in charge of radio operations from his perch atop the Golden Nugget parking garage. Ronnie has the difficult duty of checking boats in and lining them up for the weigh-in.
Andrew, Ronnie’s grandson, is the third generation of McLellans on the team. Andrew, along with Daryl McCall, each run the fish crews that tag and off-load the fish from the boats. Dottie Hepworth, Chris’ aunt, and Krissy Hall are the t-shirt gurus who have the popular apparel sales down to a science.
Long-time friends of Bill are also an integral part of the Classic team. Tournament coordinator Bert Merritt and weigh master Jack Teschel have been pals since childhood. Rusty David is the site coordinator, while Danny and Laurie Pitalo handle the marina operations. Jimmy Taylor is the catch and release coordinator and Jim Franks is the committee biologist. There’s another family connection too. Robby Carter, Bobby’s son, is responsible for marketing and promoting the tournament and dozens of other friends and family members help share the work load.
“We have about 50 team members and it’s been a collective effort by everybody to pull this off each year,” Chris explains. “The Golden Nugget staff has been a huge help and they’ve embraced the tournament with open arms.”
The work doesn’t stop with Sunday’s awards ceremony either. Chris says the group is constantly exchanging ideas and looking for new ways to improve the tournament all year long.
“We’re constantly tweaking and critiquing how we do things or what we can add to make it even better,” Chris explains. “Our constant goal is keeping the Classic the premier event that it is and treating the fishing teams right. That was always Bill’s intent and we’re just following his lead.”