After Inspiration brought a mammoth 754.3-pound blue marlin to the scales on the opening day of the 56th Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament and all but left its competitors fishing for second place the rest of the week, captain and owner Casey Wagner and his crew had few anxious moments until the final day Saturday.
About 18 minutes before lines were required to be out of the water at 2 p.m., Tidal Volume radioed in. It had hooked a fish.
While one of the smallest boats in the field of 120 at 28 feet, 8 inches – Inspiration, by comparison, is 55 feet - Tidal Volume battled the fish in the middle of the ocean while back at the Coral Bay Club in Atlantic Beach the Inspiration’s crew and captain, along with friends and family, waited anxiously, their celebration on hold and the Cook’s California Champagne (medium dry) still chilling.
Finally, at 2:39 p.m. word came via the radio. Tidal Volume had released a blue marlin.
Back on shore, Wagner and company, who had been closely monitoring the radio, let out a yell of celebration and relief, arms pumping the air, with hugs, smiles and champagne all around.
“I still don’t know if it’s soaked in,” Wagner said. “It’s amazing. It’s something I’ve been doing for 40 years, and we’ve been trying to win this tournament. To finally get here and win it with all these good friends and my son (Cole) as the mate on the boat, it’s amazing.”
And a bit nerve-racking following a relatively stress-free week after bringing to weigh station the third-largest winning blue marlin ever – only Summertime Blues’ 831-pounder in 2000 and Chaser’s 759-pounder in 1993 were bigger.
“The last hour was the worst of it,” Wagner said. “During the week, you’re just sort of going with the flow, but that last hour you’ve got to push it over the line.”
As they waited and some tried two specialty drinks for the occasion – Inspiration (vodka, grape fruit juice, Blue Curacao) and Blue Marlin (Malibu Rum, orange juice, soda water) – the anxiety was evident. While no one really thought Inspiration was in danger of not winning, they couldn’t be sure.
“I guess you never know,” Wagner said. “Anybody can catch a big fish. You’ve got to wait it out ... , but anything can happen.”
And then Wagner and his son, his ear close to the radio, heard what they’d been waiting for: Tidal Volume had released a blue. The tournament was over.
“Big relief,” the elder Wagner said as he hugged his son and then angler Bruce Brown of Nags Head, squeezing Cole between them.
Inspiration, which is based in Morehead City, took home $306,137 while Eye Catcher pocketed $52,457 for finishing second with a 606.9-pound blue marlin. Ava D, captained and owned by Havelock’s Jerry Jackson, was third with a 491.4-pound big blue, winning $345,405 while Chainlink claimed $84,150 for fourth place with a 412.7-pounder.
Prize money is contingent on what level each boat enters in the tournament.
Neither Inspiration nor Eye Catcher entered the level that includes the Fabulous Fisherman’s prize of $306,000 that goes to the first boat that brings a 500-pound blue marlin to the scales.
Wagner, however, had no regrets about the money left on the table.
“The money comes and the money goes,” he said. “We get our name in granite on the fountain in downtown Morehead, and that’s going to be the reward right there.”
The victory was no doubt a popular one. Wagner has long been intimately associated with the Big Rock. He is a past president and also has served on its of board of directors for more than three decades. He’s also fished in it every year except once since 1976, finishing second two years ago, and this was the 10th big blue he’s brought to the scales at the Big Rock.
Beyond that, Wagner’s wife, Keli, was also heavily involved in the tournament before she died of cancer in 2008. A short time later, the one-day women’s tournament that precedes the Big Rock was named in her honor, the Keli Wagner Lady Angler.
And, of course, the boat itself was named in honor of her.
Asked about all his history with the Big Rock, Wagner paused and adjusted his sunglasses.
“Well, it certainly has been a focus of my life and it’s something we really like to do and enjoy doing and we’ve tried hard to do,” he said. “To finally win it, it’s just unbelievable, it’s awesome.”
As was the blue marlin that won it.
Brown hooked the marlin about 9:40 a.m. June 9, just 40 minutes into the start of the tournament, and the fight was on – for 5 1/2 hours.
“It happened so fast,” Brown said. “I saw that it was a great fish. The fish bit and came tight and from then I was game on for about three hours, a tug of war. We get 300 back and the fish takes 300 or 400, back and forth. The fish finally sounded, and we had to pump the fish up the last two hours probably a foot at a time (for) about 700 yards.”
And while he was the angler, Brown said it was “clearly a team effort” – and the team knew it had a keeper and, possibly, more.
“We felt if we could land this fish we probably would win the Big Rock,” he said. “When we got it in the boat, it pretty much confirmed our earlier thoughts. It was a pretty exciting moment.”
Wagner emphatically seconded that.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I’ve never seen one like that in a boat before. It’s just incredible.”
Brown, who in 30 years of fishing the Big Rock had never won it until now, said he believed there was “a lot of divine intervention” in Inspiration’s victory.
“I brought my nephew with me on Monday. His mom passed way three weeks ago,” Brown said. “He said, ‘Uncle Bruce, I talked to my mom and made a wish, and I think there was some (divine) intervention there.’ That’s the first time he’s ever been offshore. It was a lot of fun.”
Briefly: Dancin Outlaw won the weekly release division with two blues and three whites, pocketing $15,000, while Crack of Dawn (2 blues, 2 whites) was second and won $10,000. ... Dancin Outlaw also won the overall release division ($59,287) while Billfisher was second ($35,572) and Coverage third ($23,715). ... Haphazard won the dolphin division (45.5 pounds) to claim $85,000. ... In the game fish weekly division, Hammertime caught the largest tuna (52.3 pounds) for $3,000 while Purple Pirate hooked the biggest Wahoo (77.8 pounds) and $3,000.
Rick Scoppe is the sports editor of the Jacksonville Daily News.