Gulf Coast: Home Slider
May 15, 2012

The Gulf Coast's Forgotten Fishing

The Gulf of Mexico offers up the best blue marlin fishery in the United States

Texas Tourney Formats
In the six decades following Oregon’s unearthing the Gulf’s marine riches, third-coast anglers have not only popularized lure fishing in the Atlantic, but they’ve given us the model for the big-money, big-game tournaments now held from Cape May to Cabo San Lucas. The prototype for these events is the late Walter Fondren III’s Poco Bueno Invitational Fishing Tournament, which began in 1969 as a friendly, high-stakes fishing competition for 50 or so of his friends and a way to highlight his favorite getaway, Port O’Connor, Texas. Years later, the tournament would become a fundraising vehicle for the Gulf Coast Conservation Alliance (another Fondren invention), which is now the influential nationwide recreational fishing lobbying organization CCA.

Experienced big-game fishermen all, Fondren and friends like Stewart Campbell and Joe Bright came up with a novel idea for increasing interest in the event by bringing the inherent side wagers into the open with a lively, let-the-good-times-roll Calcutta auction of boats, which owners and participants bid upon. From those early six-figure payouts to today’s $1.5 million auction, Poco survives and thrives without the backing of a single sponsor.

Among Poco’s first winners was a South Texas angler by the name of Robert H. (Bob) Byrd, who, in his 25 years of fishing the event, was the only angler to win it three times. Fishing blue marlin off Kona, Hawaii, in the early ’70s with captains like Bart Miller on Black Bart, the enthusiastic Byrd brought Miller’s techniques home to Texas to try, says his son, Robert (Bobby) Byrd II, co-founder of the Texas-based Legends Tournament. “Dad started his fishing career with Capt. Bill Hart, the Tommy Gifford of the Texas Gulf Coast and the state’s first blue-water captain, and went on from there, fishing with top captains out of South Pass, Louisiana, Florida and Kona to learn everything he could about marlin fishing. To his credit, he was an innovator in his own right,” Bobby adds. “I started fishing with him as a boy, soon after he started pulling lures in the early ’70s, and was there when he introduced live-bait fishing for blue marlin to the Gulf. Most people don’t know this, but in the early ’90s, my dad invented some of the first tuna tubes, which he had built out of fiberglass with recirculating pumps.”

North Florida, Alabama and Mississippi
The ’60s were a turning point for fishermen in the northeastern Gulf, as well as Texas and Louisiana, says Paul Pristas, who began collecting catch data from the Gulf in 1974 for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Much like Louisiana, blue-water fishing off northwest Florida consisted of nearshore fishing for snapper and grouper, king and Spanish mackerel, and the occasional sailfish. “Very few people had ever been out as far as 50 to 500 fathoms before that,” he says. The first marlin taken off Florida’s Gulf Coast was a white marlin, caught Aug. 29, 1959, off Destin, Pristas says.

Two years later, Destin charter captain Bruce Marler caught the first blue. Like modern-day fishermen, he found his quarry on the clean side of a rip of dirty-brown and dark-blue water off an area now known as DeSoto Canyon. News of this momentous event was enough to convince tourism officials to host the region’s first blue-water contest, the Pensacola Billfish Tournament, in 1962. The tournament actually predates the Pensacola Big Game Fishing Club by eight years, organizing founder Ralph Fuller says. “The club did not start until 1970, with an organizational meeting at my house,” he explains. Again, Dutch Prager was largely behind the effort. “We met through work, and after discovering our mutual interest in offshore fishing, he invited me to fish with him off South Pass. During the trip, he encouraged me to start a club off Pensacola and later came over to help us write the bylaws and rules. Back in 1970, at the most there might have been a dozen guys trying for billfish here,” Fuller says. “Charles Peyton, who had a boat called Viking, was one of them, and he became our first president. I was elected vice president, and Tom Eastman and Tom Born were secretary and treasurer. In 1971 the club took over running the Pensacola International Billfish Tournament.”

It seems that members of the New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club had a lot to do with the founding of the Mobile Big Game Fishing Club as well, says Jim Cox, the tournament director at the MBGFC, recalling the oft-told story of how the region’s first blue marlin fishermen, Dr. Robert Mudd, Jere Austill Jr. and Max Rodgers, were rebuffed after inquiring about fishing the NOBGFC’s 1966 International. Told the only way they could fish it would be if they were members, they then inquired about joining and were rejected a second time. “Heck,” Mudd muttered. “We’ll start our own club and tournament,” which is what they did on Aug. 12, 1966.

 “The Mobile Big Game Fishing Club’s Memorial Day Tournament is now one of the largest big-game events in the Gulf,” Cox says. “Our 2006 Memorial Day Tournament set a record; with 136 boats and 620 anglers participating, [it’s] the biggest ever held in the Gulf.” Cox believes that part of the reason for its success is the club’s expanded facilities at the 16-acre Orange Beach Marina, one of the Gulf’s largest. Location is another. Just 35 miles south-southeast of Orange Beach and Bonita Pass lie De Soto Canyon and other storied fishing grounds, such as the Nipple, Curve, Canyon and Elbow. These same areas have produced two of the Gulf’s three grander blue marlin, along with a dozen or more 700- to 800-pounders, including Alabama’s state record 779-pounder caught by Marcus Kennedy. Cox says that in addition to founding the Mobile Big Game Fishing Club, Mudd is responsible for catching Alabama’s first blue marlin from a 23-foot Formula in 1963, and two years later partnered with Sonny Middleton to open the area’s first Hatteras dealership.

Owned by Mobile club member Earle Long and his family, the Orange Beach Marina and adjacent Mobile Big Game Fishing Club were completed in 1978, following the developer’s promise to build the organization a clubhouse. Long says it was a synergistic relationship from the get-go, resulting in shared growth as big-game fishing in the Gulf grew tenfold. Annually, the marina hosts a handful of major fishing events, including the nonprofit Orange Beach Billfish Classic, which Long started, and he has awarded $600,000 to The Billfish Foundation and CCA since its inception.

While the New Orleans, Pensacola and Mobile big-game fishing clubs were the first of their kind in the Gulf, they are not the only such clubs. As the sport has grown these past 40 years, big-game clubs have spread from city to city to include the Mississippi and Panama City big-game fishing clubs — organizations that all started because of a shared passion for billfishing. That said, the common thread of each and every one of these organizations is conservation of the species, which almost universally is part of their charters, Avrigian says. “Many of these clubs and their members were instrumental in getting current federal minimum weights raised and universally have supported time and area closures for swordfish and other species. Yes, there are a lot of big-money tournaments in the Gulf, all with higher-than-legal limits on blue and white marlin and sailfish. And many are total release events.”

Paul Kalman Jr. of New Orleans, whose father was the linchpin for big-game fishing in the Gulf, says, “It makes us proud to know, in the Gulf at least, conservation is a legacy that continues to produce memorable fishing days all these many generations later.”