By Capt. Dave Lear
June 8, 2017; Biloxi, Mississippi:
As the 120 boats in this year’s Classic plot a course deep into the iridescent blue depths of the Gulf, a certain expression bears repeating: The more things change, the more they remain the same. Adding the swordfish division this year and the chance for a six-figure payout for the largest broadbill breaking the Mississippi record has definitely created a lot of excitement. It’s also attracted many new teams participating for the first time.
But throughout the tournament’s 20-year history, the focus has always been on blue marlin, the sport’s ultimate prize. Factor in major-league competition with more than $2 million in prize money on the line this week and you have the formula for high-seas drama and nail-biting stress. Hollywood’s top screen-writers couldn’t script it any better.
One of the leading players is You Never Know!, a custom 72-foot F&S owned by Thomas Turner, with veteran skipper Joey Birbeck at the helm. The team has won several circuit categories over the last couple years and last month landed the pending Florida record bluefin tuna. That behemoth was 115 inches long with an 82-inch girth and tipped the scales at 827 pounds. Birbeck and Company are hoping to find a blue of similar proportions or preferably larger.
“We’re going to run 250 miles west to get away from the crowds,” Birbeck explains. “We’ll be trolling in 6,000 feet of water and looking for one big fish. She’s out there, we know it. We just have to find her.”
Captains Logan Lovett and Chase Pate are tag-teaming in their efforts to find that special “blue one” aboard Lisa Jo, a 55 Ricky Scarborough based in nearby Orange Beach, Alabama. Lovett drives the boat while Pate puts out a mixed spread of ballyhoo, mullet and Spanish mackerel. Some will be naked while others will wear chin weights or black, blue/white or pink/white skirts.
“We’re not exactly sure where we’re going yet,” Pate says. “We’ll brainstorm together and come up with a plan. We don’t have as much range as some of the others, so we’ll look at the closest best spot to fish. We have tuna tubes, but we’ve had better luck trolling. We’ve got the right hum on here—Lisa Jo really raises fish.”
Keith English, owner of Click Through, a 68 Wanchese, and the chairman of The Billfish Foundation, says his team will change course after running west to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
“We finally got a good satellite picture of the conditions,” English explains. “The weather has been socked in for a week. So we’re going to head due south and see what happens.”
Tom Hilton, of Hilton’s Realtime Navigator forecasting service, says the absence of the Loop Current this season is forcing boats to change their game plans.
“The rigs that produced last year probably won’t be as good now,” Hilton says. “The DeSoto Canyon and Spur do look promising. There’s been a lot of tuna on the Ram Powell. The southeastern edge of the Green Canyon is slow right now, but there’s a strong current off to the northwest. Marco Polo, Tahiti and West Neptune could all be hot. There’s certainly no shortage of nice color changes and strong current around all that structure in the central Gulf. It’s just a matter of being in the right spot at the right time and running over one.”
And when that does happen, the big guns will be locked, loaded and spoiling for a fight.