June 12, 2014


Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Sometimes surprises come in big packages, some 10 feet and longer.

While visiting old friends last weekend at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic (MGCBC) in Biloxi, a steady stream of boats was backing down to the weigh dock with huge fish.

With 53 boats from all over the Gulf Coast participating, the top boats would usually be spread out among the five Gulf states, but this MGCBC was an exception. Basically, boats from Alabama ruled.

The top two blue marlin were landed by Alabama boats, which also had the winning yellowfin tuna, the third-place wahoo and swept the top three spots in the dolphin category.

Plus, the Conundrum out of Orange Beach won the Top Boat award with its winning 1,200 points in the Catch and Release division.

But I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Alabama boats have been winning big all year. Sea Mixer out of Orange Beach has already scored two big prizes as the big-game season reaches the halfway point. Ronald Davis’ Sea Mixer won the billfish division in the Orange Beach Billfish Classic with a 528.8-pound blue and followed that with the top blue in the Cajun Canyons tournament in Venice, La., with a 708.6-pounder.

At the Mobile Big Game Fishing Club’s Memorial Day Tournament, Johnny Dorland’s Cotton Patch out of Orange Beach weighed in the largest blue at 710 pounds.

But back to Biloxi.

On Friday, the first boat to weigh fish in the MGCBC created quite a stir in the big-game fishing community and among the crowd at the Golden Nugget and Point Cadet Marina.

As Iona Louise backed into the dock, the huge frame of a blue marlin dominated the space on the back deck. It took everyone on the dock crew at the marina to slide the behemoth off the boat and to the scales.

When tournament emcee Scott Rossman called out 843.7 pounds, the Iona Louise crew started a celebration that didn’t end until the awards were handed out on Sunday morning.

Not only did that fish stay atop the leaderboard the remainder of the tournament, it also set a record. Deb Hebert, an emergency room doctor at South Baldwin Medical Center in Foley, Ala., landed the big blue marlin, which is the largest ever caught by a female angler in the 18-year history of the tournament.

It took more than three hours for the petite but fit Hebert, also a lieutenant colonel in the Air Reserve who has flown with Keesler Air Force Base’s famed Hurricane Hunters, to subdue the 127½-inch billfish.

“This was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had,” said Hebert, who has completed 13 marathons. “It was incredible. I’ve only been fishing for two years, and this was my first blue marlin. I’ve caught and tagged white marlin, but this is my first blue.”

Although Iona Louise went back out and tagged a white marlin and caught the third-place dolphin, Hebert said the effect of battling the blue was becoming evident.

“My arms are so sore, I can hardly straighten them out,” she said. “I’ve got bruises today that I didn’t even know I was getting when I was fighting the fish.”

Boat owner Joe Hudson, a businessman from Montgomery, Ala., said he had a special feeling about where Iona Louise was fishing when the blue marlin hit. The boat had been by the Thunder Horse rig and found little action.

“I saw this area with a lot of current about 60 miles away, so we headed there and it was real fishy,” Hudson said. “There was bait everywhere – 20- to 25-pound yellowfins and 10- to 15-pound blackfins jumping everywhere. That’s everything a big marlin eats, so we knew she was there.

“We jigged up some blackfins and put a five-pound blackfin out. Somebody asked when we would get a bite. I said, well, the moon came up at 7 o’clock last night. At 7 this morning, the moon will be directly below us, and that’s when they’re going to do it.”

Hudson said the question was posed at 10 til 7 a.m., and five minutes later the first evidence of a bite was apparent.

“It started with just a tick, tick, tick,” he said. “We let her eat it for two minutes before Deb set the hook. We didn’t know what she had until 30 minutes into the fight when she came up. She tail-walked and we got some great video of that. We got her to the wire in 50 minutes, but she was so big she would just drag the mates across the transom. You just can’t believe how powerful a big fish like that is. We got to the leader 25 times in two hours. But she would do a figure eight on the port side and go under. She would do a figure eight on the starboard side and go under. This wasn’t her first rodeo. We had 300-pound leader and two mates try to turn her head, and they couldn’t do it.”

Then the marlin sounded to a depth of more than 1,200 feet, which meant a great deal more work for Hebert. The fish finally came to the surface again and the tide turned.

“She lit up like a Christmas tree,” Hudson said of the billfish’s ability to dramatically change skin colors. “Once they do that, they’re using a lot of oxygen. My worry was she would die and start sinking. But she made a mistake and came up beside the boat, and we got a gaff in her. We had a great crew, but no crew gets to practice on 800-pound fish. It’s like grabbing onto a tow truck going away. We were just fortunate. All these boats have great fishermen. It was our time.”

Andy Ryan of Memphis, fishing with boat captain Parker Huddle aboard Patience out of Orange Beach, Ala., took second in the marlin division with a blue that hit 680.1 pounds on the scales.

Huddle said they were fishing a rip (where opposing currents converge) about 130 miles south of Biloxi. They had tagged a white marlin before the bite slowed. They checked out another area, but returned to the rip, where they found a lot of bait.

“We started live-baiting with a hardtail (blue runner), and we had the fish in about an hour,” Huddle said. “It happened pretty quickly for a fish that big.”

For those who don’t like to see those big marlin brought to the scales, Craig Martin said not to worry. Martin, who has been sampling marlin at billfish tournaments for National Marine Fisheries Service since 1986, said only a few fish are weighed in each year.

“About 95 to 97 percent of the billfish hooked are released,” said Martin, who serves as weighmaster for a number of billfish tournaments on the northern Gulf Coast. “The billfish population appears to be stable, and there are a lot of big fish out there. The first four tournaments of the 2014 billfish series have weighed four fish bigger than 700 pounds. Four 700-pounders in a year is a big deal, and we’re only halfway through the series. But the number of fish brought to the dock is minimal. Word gets around really quickly these days about what’s been weighed in, so a lot of fish get released now that might not have been in years past.”

The next event in the billfish series is the Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic June 12-18 at Sandestin, Fla., followed by the Blue Marlin Grand Championship of the Gulf at The Wharf in Gulf Shores on July 8-13. The Alabama state record blue marlin of 845.8 pounds was caught last year at the championship at The Wharf. The Mobile Big Game Fishing Club wraps up the season with its Labor Day Invitational on Aug. 29-Sept. 1 at Orange Beach Marina.

In other big-game competition at Biloxi, seven yellowfin tuna that surpassed the 100-pound mark were weighed in during Saturday’s final round. Brian Replogle on Blue Smoker out of Orange Beach weighed in the winning 173.3-pounder.

The top two places in the dolphin division went to Bloodsport out of Orange Beach. Brad Laquer’s fish weighed 43.3, while Pip Aljazra weighed in a 39.9-pounder. Hebert’s 38.6-pound dolphin was third.

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Deb Hebert and Joe Hudson, owner of the Iona Louise out of Montgomery, are dwarfed by the 843.7-pound blue marlin that Hebert boated after a three-hour-plus battle during the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic. It is the largest blue marlin landed by a female angler in the tournament’s 18-year history. The second-place boat in the blue marlin category was also from Alabama. Patience, an Orange Beach boat, weighed in a 680.1-pounder that was caught by Andy Ryan, left, as Parker Huddle captained the boat. The crew of Blue Smoker, another Orange Beach boat, celebrates the winning 173.3-pound yellowfin tuna.

NOTE: Photos provided by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are for editorial use only.