“It’s like Christmas in the middle of summer,” said Richard Rutland, rodeo president for the Mobile Jaycees, which organizes the event. “Everybody stops what they are doing and goes fishing for three days.”
At 5 a.m. Friday, a cannon shot broke the predawn stillness over Mobile Bay, signaling not an epic sea battle between desperate foes but an all-out assault on sport fish in the Gulf and inshore waters. With almost $1 million in prizes and more than 3,000 participants, the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo was certified as the world’s largest fishing tournament of its type by the Guinness Book of World Records.
“I think it’s pretty cool that we have that right here in little bitty Dauphin Island,” Rutland said.
For three days, climaxing Sunday, anglers brought their catch to the Dauphin Island docks for weighing. The scales mean the difference between prize money and just another fish in the cooler or live well.
Bradley Myer knew that feeling well. The yellowfin tuna he brought in had to be lifted from his boat by a crane Saturday and he had hoped that it would overtake the leader. But his optimism faded when he heard the weight – 165 pounds. The leader weighed 167.
But that didn’t diminish the excitement of catching the huge fish. Last year, his group had a big tuna right at the boat and lost it. This year, his two-hour fight with the bruiser ended more successfully.
“There was a lot of excitement when we got him over the gunwale,” Myer said. “It was kind of redemption for last year.”
Being home to the world’s largest fishing tournament gives the community a unique distinction, said Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier.
“It’s one of our biggest events of the year,” Collier said. “It’s something any small town would love to have.”
Over three days, 75,000 spectators swarm the little community of 1,200 permanent residents, giving a boost to the town’s economy and the area’s sport fishing reputation, and creating a bonanza of scientific data for marine scientists.
“Obviously when you have 60,000, 70,000 or 80,000 people over a three-day period, they’re going to have an impact on your economy,” Collier said.
Anglers bought $40 open tournament tickets to become eligible to enter any of 15 inshore categories and 15 offshore categories. In addition, there were jackpot tickets for additional prizes in four other categories, including speckled trout, king mackerel, shark and big game fish.
“We give away a Contender boat in a random drawing of anyone who weighs in a legal fish,” Rutland said. “They guy who won the boat last year was fishing off the dock behind his house.”
It isn’t just anglers who love the rodeo.
“We have probably 25 students from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and the University of South Alabama collecting data at the rodeo for thesis and other research,” said Bob Shipp, professor emeritus in the University of South Alabama Department of Marine Sciences and chief judge for the rodeo. “It’s amazing the number of degrees that are based on data collected at the rodeo.”
Just about every major museum, including the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History and the British Museum of Natural History, has sent representatives to the rodeo to collect skeletons and other specimens, Shipp said. Government scientists, like those from the Food and Drug Administration, come there to collect tissue samples for testing.
But mostly the rodeo is about one of the Gulf Coast’s favorite pastimes – fishing.
“I know people from out of town who structure their whole vacation around the tournament,” Rutland said. “They come and spend the entire 11 days.”
His and hers
While the rodeo itself was only three days, July 15-17 this year, a youth tournament for kids 15 years old and younger precedes it the previous weekend. This year, 1,500 youngsters took part in the preliminary.
Friends and family fish together. Eric McMichael and Lena Livingston are engaged to be married. Their fishing skills seem already to be working in harmony. Using live shrimp at the mouth of the Mobile River, they simultaneously hooked up with two hefty speckled trout that they brought to the live weigh-in. McMichael’s weighed in at 6.01 pounds while Livingston’s tipped the scales at 5.62.
“We caught them in the exact same spot at the exact same time,” McMichael said. “It was pretty neat.”
Tremendous variety of species
Dauphin Island is uniquely situated for a fishing tournament. Shipp calls it the crossroads of the eastern and western Gulf of Mexico. The western Gulf’s murkier waters are richer in nutrients from the Mississippi River. The eastern Gulf is clearer water and features more reefs.
“The habitats are very different in the eastern and western Gulf,” Shipp said.
The differing habitats mean different fish species live there. With some anglers leaving at 5 a.m. Friday and not returning until Sunday afternoon, their boats can prowl deep into the Gulf in either direction and the result is a tremendous variety of species weighed in. Meyer was fishing 100 miles offshore near an oil rig while other boats searched waters within sight of the weigh-in.
This was the 83rd edition of the Rodeo, which dates to 1929, when the only way to get to Dauphin Island was by boat.
“It’s part of the fabric of Dauphin Island,” Collier said. “There’s a tremendous amount of history. It goes back before the bridge was there.”
The rodeo is a tradition passed through generations of anglers. Rutland, a charter captain, has participation certificates and trophies from his childhood stashed at his house. He still has a plaque from where his father won the king mackerel division one year.
“I have been fishing the rodeo since I was a little kid,” Rutland said. “It’s always been a part of my life. I’m tickled to death to be a part of it and to try to make it bigger and better.”
Tradition plays a big part, but the tournament has to keep up with the times. While records are still kept on paper, they are also kept electronically. An on-line leader board allowed people to follow the tournament from their computers.
The tournament has also made concessions to conservation. The prestigious tarpon category no longer requires anglers to bring in the fish. There is a point system for fish landed, and it requires only video verification. There is also extra prize money for speckled trout and redfish that are brought live and released after the weigh-in.
But that doesn’t mean all tradition has been dispensed with.
“We still kick things off with a liar’s contest on Thursday,” Rutland said. “There’s still a captain’s meeting and everybody has to attend. We weigh the fish in one at a time. There’s still a lot of standing around in the hot sun.”
The town has learned through experience to manage the event over the years, Collier said.
“It’s all about traffic and people,” Collier said. “But it’s one of those things we’ve done so many years that it’s old hat. It’s like our Mardi Gras parade.”
Over the years, the town has also learned better ways to take advantage of the opportunity. A music festival runs concurrently, and it’s designed to siphon the crowd away from the weigh-in pavilion when there’s little activity there.
Music from a band drifts on the gentle sea breeze at the town’s main intersection as visitors stroll between shops.
“We try to spread the music out throughout the Island,” Collier said. “We want to encourage people to move about the island and have something else to do during the rodeo.”
Over the years, the Jaycees and town have formed a closer partnership. This year, the Jaycees sponsored more of the musical acts so there was continuous live music throughout the weekend.
“They’ve really bought into something we started,” Collier said. “They’ve picked up the baton and really run with it.”
For the Jaycees, the rodeo virtually has no beginning or end. A new president is elected every August, and he delegates responsibility to 11 vice presidents elected at the same time. They toil throughout the year in preparation for the event.
“It’s a 12-month operation,” Rutland said. “As soon as this one is over, we’ll start on next year.”