Omie Tillett was as content as could be Friday while sitting under a tent and enjoying conversation near the Morehead City waterfront scales.
The topics varied. From his knowledge of fishing to his strong religious beliefs, the 85-year-old Tillett, who lives in Wanchese on Roanoke Island in Dare County, was enjoying the company at the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament.
It didn’t matter that no blue marlin were brought to the scales on the penultimate day of the 56th annual tournament, leaving the Inspiration of Morehead City still atop the leaderboard following its 754.3-pound big blue caught Monday.
Many associated with the Big Rock were just as awed and impressed with Tillett’s words, which he hopes leaves them inspired.
“I like to talk to people,” Tillett said. “I’m a Christian and that gets people to you. I have a way of getting to people. A voice means a lot.”
It certainly does in Tillett’s case when it comes to the Big Rock, and captains and anglers alike hear his message loud and clear every morning over the radio as they prepare to sail deep into the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of catching a marlin or other fish worth some prize money.
Although known in his younger years as a fishing and boat building “pioneer,” as past Big Rock President and current board member Randy Ramsey put it, Tillett is popular now within the Big Rock community as the man who delivers the blessing to all of the vessels each day of the six-day tournament.
The gentle and soft-spoken Tillett said his prayers aren’t preconceived. He said they come from his heart as he wishes crews his best for good competition, but more importantly for safe travels across the sea.
“I enjoy praying,” Tillett said. “You don’t get nothing from him (God) until you ask for it and he’s given it to me.”
And Tillett’s words of encouragement give Big Rock participants and staff plenty, tournament media director Bruce Paul said.
“He makes every day special,” Paul said. “He blesses the fleet and everyone offshore appreciates his words, his passion and the concern he has. He just has been a tradition over the years and we are just lucky to have him. We are honored to have him here.”
Tillett was born on the Outer Banks. By the time he was 10, he was baiting hooks, working the lines and cleaning fish on the boat owned by his father, Sam.
Fishing and boating has always been in Tillett’s blood, and he carried on his trait into his adult life, emerging as a well-known fisherman and boat builder.
But those days are behind him. Tillett hasn’t been in the fishing and boat building businesses since he retired in 1997. One year later, he began blessing Big Rock competitors.
“He quit fishing in 1997, but prior to that, about 40 years ago, he became saved and he started saying a prayer every morning as the fleet was running out of the Oregon Inlet,” Ramsey said. “That’s caused him to go to places like the Bahamas, Saint Thomas, Hatteras and other places. A lot of those places still have the prayers because he was asked to come do it.
“That grew on and I asked him if he would come here when he retired to give the prayer to the fleet every morning.”
Tillett doesn’t shy away from his religion. He finds it is his duty now in life to be approachable and spread the message of what he believes. Tillett calls himself blessed to be personable, opening the door for his current role in the sport.
“In 1969 when I got saved, it might have been three or four years later when somebody asked me to give a prayer,” Tillett said. “I don’t know where, but that’s how it got started.”
Tillett, though, had thoughts of not delivering the blessings this year at the Big Rock. He felt earlier this spring that perhaps it was someone else’s turn.
“I’m getting old,” he said. “But I feel that there are so many people who have shown so much love to me that I can’t turn my back on them.”
Tillett has been a leader within the fishing and boating ranks from when he was a young adult. At 20, he took fishing parties out and spent a half-century leading anglers for blue marlin, white marlin and dolphin.
When he was 22, he helped lead the move of a small new charter fleet from Nag’s Head to a new location that became the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.
“It is now one of the premiere charter fishing fleets in the world,” Ramsey said. “They have some of the best tuna fishing and white marlin fishing in the world.”
Tillett’s contributions go beyond just that, Ramsey said, noting he was an innovator in fishing.
“He started running boats and as he grew up, he started trying to find better methods and better ways of doing things, and he did,” Ramsey said. “Omie was one of those guys who constantly evolved. Not only was he instrumental in charter fishing and a pioneer in offshore sport fishing in North Carolina, he also helped pioneer what is now Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.
“And if that wasn’t enough to do, … a guy named Warren O’Neal and Omie built what was the predecessor to what is today the modern North Carolina sport fishing boat, which has spawned some of the finest custom boat builders in the world.”
Ramsey said Tillett opened his own company called Sportsman Boatworks, named after Tillett’s boat, Sportsman. Tillett said he built eight boats, with his final one hitting the water in 1961.
Each of them, Ramsey added, was ahead of its time.
“One of his boats …, the last one he built, came by here the other day and it looks as good as any boat built today,” Ramsey said. “Now there are changes, subtle changes, but the bones of the boat, the style and design were so far ahead of everybody. He spawned a lot of different boat builders who worked for him and a lot of fishing captains who worked for him.”
Not only is Tillett proud of his faith, he gets a sense of fulfillment that his efforts in the waters have opened the door for others to come after him. The ties that have been created because of his presence makes him feel good, he said.
“But they are ahead of me now,” he quipped.
Tillett smiles as he talks about those who have come after him. His good spirits, however, stop momentary, when he speaks of a decision he made as a youngster to not continue his education.
“I didn’t finish school and I’m not proud of that,” Tillett said. “I just wanted to get into fishing. I didn’t pay attention in class.”
But Tillett spent his younger days with schools of fish as a successful seaman and he said these days he enjoys going to local classes to speak to children.
“We got a school in our church and I talk to them sometimes in the classes,” he said. “I tell them to always pay attention. If you pay attention, you will make it.”
Just like a lot of those who have followed Tillett throughout his career.
“He’s the kind of guy who people have gone to for years. Even today at 85 years old he’s telling me about making repairs on a boat that his brother is running right now,” Ramsey said. “The leaders in boat building today in North Carolina, everyone has a tie to him. They’ve fished with him, they’ve built boats by him and he’s helped them set up boats. Every single one of them has some tie back to him and that’s an impressive feat.”
-- Inspiration, which has fished its four days and won’t fish Saturday, still leads the blue marlin division at 754.3 pounds, followed by Eye Catcher’s 606.9 and Havelock’s Ava D at 491.4.
-- Dancin Outlaw leads the release category with two blue marlin and three white, followed by Billfisher at two blues and one white.
-- Hammertime is the tuna leader at 52.3, followed by Reel Love at 49.2. Purple Pirate is tops in wahoo at 77.8 and Gamekeeper is second at 77.2. Haphazard and Sandrita are tied in the dolphin division at 45.5.
-- Of the 120-boat field, only 55 are eligible to fish Saturday.
Chris Miller is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News.