MOREHEAD CITY — Hatteras Fever II captain Buddy Hooper didn’t think he had a winner, and he was happily wrong.
As it turned out, the 465.3-pound blue marlin that the Buxton-based boat brought to the weigh station earlier this week was a winner, claiming the 55th Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament on Saturday and $474,050 in prize money.
Not, however, without a challenge.
With 99 of the tournament’s 100 boats fishing the final day, 30 blue marlin were tallied as officially caught and released because they failed to meet the tournament qualifying standards of 400 pounds or 110 inches.
So how does it feel to win one of the most prestigious tournaments on the East Coast?
“You’re kind of exhausted,” the deeply tanned Hooper said as he stood inside the Carteret County Civic Center before the awards banquet. “Yeah, you’re just, ‘Wooo, thank goodness.’ But you just feel lucky.”
Not that the 64-year-old was feeling that way when angler Taylor Miller and crew brought the big blue to the boat Wednesday after a brief fight that included about 10 minutes alongside the 54-foot Ricky Scarborough.
In fact, he didn’t think he had a winner at all.
“I thought it was a good chance it could maybe place, but I didn’t think it would hold up,” he said, adding he had not seen another blue marlin not only this year but in last year’s tournament either.
Sensation brought the only other big blue to the weigh station, a 423.8-pounder on Monday. Sensation, based out of Morehead City and captained by Dale Britt, won $206,950 for its second-place finish.
And while Hatteras Fever II withstood three days of fishing by its competitors, Saturday figured to be the biggest threat to its hopes of winning not only because every boat but one — The Enigma — was fishing, but it was the best weather of the week.
Or, as Hooper said, tied with Wednesday, which also happened to be the day Hatteras Fever II brought its big blue to the docks.
Was Hooper worried?
“You take your chances,” he said. “It’s not a luck tournament, but anybody can win this tournament the way the rules are, which are probably the most fair rules of any tournament in the country.”
Asked how he was feeling the past 24 hours, he replied: “Focused on trying to catch another fish and forget about what you can’t do anything about.”
As of 2 p.m. Saturday when lines were officially out of the water for the final time at this year’s Big Rock, three boats were still hooked up, including Blue Magic at 1:59. Crack of Dawn had been hooked up the longest of the trio — since 12:13 p.m. — while Reel Dreams was at 1:08 p.m.
Reel Dreams released a blue marlin at 2:30 p.m. and Blue Magic 29 minutes later. Then after about a three-hour battle, Crack of Dawn brought what it discovered was a 99-inch big blue (11 inches under the tournament minimum) and opted not to bring it to the dock.
Hooper said he was aware of Crack of Dawn’s situation but didn’t pay too much attention to the possibility it might be fighting a blue marlin bigger than his own.
“Good luck to him if it’s bigger than ours was,” he said. “When you’ve been in it 43 years, you mellow out a little bit. You always support the other fellow.”
Oddly enough, Hooper credited the radio for helping him land his winner.
“The charter boat boys in Hatteras were seeing a lot of blue marlin and I picked up and ran 25 miles to where they were fishing,” Hooper said matter-of-factly. “So they’re the reason I was able to get that fish.”
Hooper said he learned he had won the Big Rock from some of the younger fishermen on his boat, who had found out on the Internet as the boat headed to Morehead City where “win, lose or draw” the captain and crew were coming to celebrate.
“When the kids on the boat found out, they started screaming,” Hooper said. “They were pretty wild. They were excited. I was excited for the people on my boat and my son (Chase). He mated with me. He’s been on the boat with me since he was 5.”
While Hooper has competed in the Big Rock for years, he said he’d never “really caught a big fish” in the six-day tournament.
Until this year.
“We just got lucky,” he said. “You wish everybody the best of luck and hope yours is bigger. That’s all you can do.”