Neal Foster named his boat “Intense.” That’s a pretty good description of what the five-man team aboard the 39-foot Contender center console boat experienced over four days of fishing during this year’s Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo.
Foster and his team won the rodeo’s hotly contested king mackerel division and the king mackerel jackpot with a 53.31-pound king. But getting the big fish in the boat and to the weigh station in Dauphin Island was no easy matter.
“I couldn’t have done it without these young guys,” Foster said, pointing to his team members a few minutes after weighing in Sunday. “Not everybody can do what I put these men through.”
In addition to staying out on the Gulf of Mexico in an open boat for four days with very little sleep, the Intense team battled storms that sent a waterspout down on their boat and a rogue wave that almost washed a crew member overboard. The Intense made it to the finish line about 10 minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline Sunday.
But such is the competition in what the Guinness Book of World Records certified as the “world’s largest fishing tournament.” More than 3,200 anglers bought $35 tickets to vie for honors in 30 categories in the 84th edition of the annual tournament. Winning entries ranged from a 3.32-pound white trout to a 159-pound yellowfin tuna. Anglers targeting popular species like speckled trout and king mackerel also vied for optional jackpots.
“We are weekend warriors,” said Van Sims, president of this year’s rodeo, which is sponsored annually by the Mobile Jaycees. “We’re a tournament that is really for the amateur angler. Ninety percent of the anglers are amateur anglers and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to endure.”
Most species are plentiful
Generations of Gulf Coast anglers have dueled with each other to land the biggest fish in each of the species categories. The saltwater fish include both inshore species like speckled trout, redfish and flounder and the big offshore species including tuna, mackerel and snapper.
Bob Shipp, professor emeritus of marine biology at the University of South Alabama, has served as the tournament’s chief judge for more than 30 years. USA uses data collected for research. Saltwater fish populations seem to be in good shape, he said.
“The snapper population continues to dazzle me,” Shipp said. “There are so many snapper. Talk that they’re in trouble is ridiculous.”
Shipp noted that inshore species like speckled trout and redfish appear to be healthy. The one species that gives him cause for concern is Spanish mackerel, which he theorized are being hurt by too much pressure from commercial fishing.
Thirty years ago, Shipp said, it often took a 7-pound Spanish mackerel to win the category. This year, the winning entry was just over 5 pounds.
As big as the winning king mackerel entry was, it wasn’t the biggest king mackerel brought onboard the Intense. Like many competitive anglers, the Intense team fishes before the tournament to determine where the fish are.
Keeping it honest
The rodeo began at 5 a.m. Friday, and anglers with winning entries were given polygraph tests to determine that the fish wasn’t caught earlier and put on ice or frozen. Foster’s team caught a 56-pound king during pre-tournament fishing. But the big fish couldn’t go to the scales.
Intense team member Doug Mallonee said they wanted to win the right way.
“We want to encourage good sportsmanship,” Mallonee said. “We want to encourage all the young anglers to do the right thing.”
As it turned out, Foster and his team returned to the same area and hooked up with the big fish that won the king mackerel division. Even with the big fish in tow, the anglers kept fishing.
“With the rodeo, you never know what’s coming in,” Foster said. “Because there are thousands of people fishing, not just a hundred or so.”
Never know what you’ll catch
Most saltwater anglers target a specific species when they head out on the water. But there are so many species in the water, they don’t always know when they hook up what’s on the other end of the line. Sometimes, it’s a pleasant surprise.
Mike Hartman and his fishing companions were targeting king mackerel on Saturday as they fished 40 miles out.
“I was putting out a line with about a 2-pound hardtail,” Hartman said. “Before I could even set (the rod in the rod holder), he hit it. He came at it like crazy and went into frenzy, jumping and all that.”
Hartman thought he might have a king mackerel that could compete for first place. But the fish turned out to be a 38.9-pound barracuda that took first place in the barracuda division.
Throughout the weekend, members of the Mobile Jaycees labored in the sweltering weather that saw heat indexes climb well into triple digits all four days.
“It requires a lot of hard work,” Sims said. “It requires a lot of dedication. We have a lot of volunteers who are willing to give up time with their family, that are willing to give up time away from their real jobs to make this the tournament what it is.”