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MOREHEAD CITY – Cork was popping, champagne was flowing and smiles were visible.
The crew aboard the Inspiration of Morehead City was certainly happy after they brought in a 754.3-pound blue marlin Monday during the first day of the 56th annual Big Rock Blue Marlin fishing tournament.
“I’ve been fishing this thing for 40 years and that fish is just a fish of a lifetime,” captain and owner Casey Wagner said. “I think every day you go out and hope (for a big fish) because you never know what’s going to happen out there. It’s a big ocean and you never know when you are going to get lucky.”
Inspiration’s catch was the third of three marlin brought to the Morehead City scales during the opening day of the most prestigious blue water fishing tournament along the East Coast.
The Wrightsville Beach-based Eye Catcher boated a 606.9-pound big blue earlier in the afternoon while the Cape Carteret-based Carnivore – the 2010 Big Rock winner – brought in a 410.7 pounder before Inspiration’s arrival.
Inspiration is in a position to win $306,137 from the Big Rock’s $1,395,825 tournament purse. Wagner didn’t enter all levels of the competition and was not eligible to earn the $306,000 prize for being the first to bring in a marlin that weighed at least 500 pounds.
Eye Catcher is in position to win $52,457. It also didn’t enter all categories. Carnivore, which entered all levels, is in position to win $345,405 if there are no other changes to the leaderboard.
This marks the 17th consecutive year the Big Rock purse reached $1 million.
“It’s just a really good year. There was an 821-pounder caught two or three weeks ago here,” said Wagner, who captained Inspiration to second place in 2012. “I think everything is lined up. The fish are there, the bait is out there. This is probably one of the best Big Rock Blue Marlin days I ever remember.”
Inspiration angler Bruce Brown of Nags Head hooked the marlin around 9:40 a.m. and fought the fish for about six hours. The vessel then arrived to the scales around 6 p.m. in front of a standing-room only crowd.
“I was sitting in the chair for 5 1/2 hours. It was a moderate chop, but it was OK,” Brown said. “We are tired. It’s been a long day. This is a game of luck. Luck is a big piece of it. If you have all of your stuff together then you can actually do well when the opportunity hits. But you don’t expect to do well right out of the gates. Nobody does.”
But Inspiration emerged with the day’s biggest fish, despite what Wagner called “a battle” to bring the marlin aboard. The marlin measured 127.5 inches, leaving its tail hanging from the back of the boat as it arrived to the scales.
“The fish was very strong,” Wagner said. “We had the fish on for maybe two hours … from about 50 yards from the boat and he took off and pulled off another 750 yards of line. That’s when we knew we probably had a pretty nice fish. Then from there, it was just trying to get him on the boat. He fought to the end.”
Inspiration’s arrival to the scales held more meaning to Wagner besides just a possible heavy check.
Wagner, a past president of the Big Rock, was the husband of the late Kelly Wagner, who died from cancer in 2008. The Keli Wagner Lady Angler tournament that precedes the main Big Rock competition is named after her.
“We named the boat after Keli. The Inspiration is after her,” Wagner said. “We love being out there representing Keli and know she’s looking down on us right now.”
Simply, Wagner and his crew had plenty of reasons to be happy Monday.
The same held true for the crew aboard Eye Catcher, which brought in the tournament’s first marlin. The 606.9 pounder was the tournament’s biggest marlin in three years until Inspiration showed up.
“This is one of the bigger ones we’ve ever caught and we’ve been at this for 20-something years,” captain Burrows Smith said. “It’s pretty neat to finally get one and get one that quick.”
Just how quick?
Randy Kelley, a 1989 graduate of Jacksonville High School, hooked the fish just 10 minutes into the tournament, and he needed about 45 minutes to reel it in.
“We had some good (luck) or something going on,” Smith said. “We actually did the same thing in Wrightsville Beach in about the same area and we hooked that one up in about 10 minutes and released it. I kind of hated to quit today so early, but we figured we would come in.”
Carnivore later brought in its 410.7-pounder. Under Big Rock rules, marlin have to be at least 110 inches long or 400 pounds to qualify, meaning Carnivore captain Ed Petrilli had to make a tough call. Anything below 400 pounds and his boat would have faced a penalty had it brought another fish to the scales.
“We took measurements and it was pretty tough where we were and so it was tough to get a real solid measurement on it,” Petrilli said. “But the fish was pretty fat and we felt like it was going to be real close. As it turns out, it was OK.”
Fishing in the tournament continues through Saturday, with daily weigh-ins at the Morehead City Waterfront.
Chris Miller is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News.