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By Peter Vankevich
The 71 fishing teams were all in a good mood Friday evening as the 33rd Annual Ocracoke Invitational Surf Fishing Tournament came to an end.
Amidst the beer, good food (barbecue, black-eyed peas, potato salad and cole slaw) supplied by Jack Edwards and the Carolina Boys and under the big tent at the Community Center’s awards party, groups were in a mood to talk.
This year, it wasn’t so much talking caught fish and the inevitable ones that got away, but rather the great weather, the tournament’s great organizing and the island’s hospitality that made folks want to sing Ocracoke’s praises.
Eleven hours on the beach in April can be a challenge as it was last year with strong winds and cool weather, but this it was much better.
Cuyler Heath, who lives in Sneads Ferry, NC, is the team captain for Teach’s Crew.
“It was originally an Ocracoke team, even though everyone now is off the island,” he said about his team. “My father, Cuyler Heath, Sr., was an original team member as was Walter Conklin.
“I’ll be back every year till I’m dead,” he chuckled.
Candace Cobb from Hillsborough with strong Ocracoke family ties has been a member of the Tide Runners of Ocracoke for about four years, and is a tenacious angler, frequently seen bare-footed recasting into the surf.
The Tide Runners are one of the first all-women teams going back to nearly the tournament’s beginning. (Out of the 71 teams, 17 are all-women.)
Over the past 30 years or so, the original team members retired and new members gradually added.
“We’ve caught sea mullet so far,” she said Friday. “Everyone has a story of the one that got away, and we lost a red drum before getting it in.”
Chum Springer, from South Norfolk, has been fishing for the Virginia Beach Drummers.
“I caught a one-point blue fish that kept me from being skunked and to have the other boys carry me,” he said. “Ocracoke knows how to run a great tournament and a good party,” he laughed and plans coming back as long as his health permits.
Even the Delaware Mobile Surf Fishermen, winners of last year’s tournament and who finished this year in seventh place, didn’t mind being dethroned.
“It’s not about competition, but the camaraderie and fun on being on the beach which is why we love coming to Ocracoke,” said team member Barry Brittingham.
The Delaware team participates in three tournaments each year and sponsors their own individual tournament at Cape Henlopen and Delaware Seashore State Park.
“The people around here are the best, the judges are the best and everyone is so friendly,” said Tim Wallace. “We come down here for the whole week.” This year the fish they caught were sea mullet and blue fish. In spite of their levity now, they hope to regain the throne next year with some serious fishing.
After finishing second and third several times, the Merchantville Fishing Club out of New Jersey, finally won the big one, taking first place with a score of 111 points.
Distant second was the Bud Light Six Pack with 76 points, and third was Team Daiwa with 67 point.
The Outcasters from Nags Head were the top women’s team with 27 points, followed by the Queen Mackerels, 22, and the Fishing Pelicans were third with 22.
Al Bevan caught the largest fish, a 27-inch red drum, and Peggy Byrd snagged a 19-inch red drum for the largest fish by a woman.
Greg O’Connell got honors for catching the most fish, 13, and four women caught four fish to tie in their gender category.
The next morning at the Ocracoke Coffee shop, Co-director Woody Billings and chief judge for the past 25 years, couldn’t have been happier with how things went.
He praised the National Park Service.
“ A-one,” he said. “I can’t say enough how helpful they are.”
Each morning they would grade the ramp entrance sand to the beach to make it easier to get on, he said.
“They even had staff out on the beach walking around and greeting the anglers,” Billings said.
Total fish caught were 415 and 1129 points; last year 303 for 1,035 points, and in 2014 399 fish for 1,394 points.
After expenses, the tournament donates the proceeds back to the island.
The groups that will receive money from the tournament will be announced in the fall.
Last year’s proceeds, totalling $7,000, were distributed to the following community organizations: Ocracoke Child Care, Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department, Ocracats Spay and Neuter Fund, Ocracoke Youth Center, Ocracoke Girl Scouts, Boy Scout Troop 290, Ocracoke School, Sigma Willis Memorial Scholarship Fund, John A. Watkins Memorial Scholarship, Ocracoke United Methodist Church and the Ocracoke Assembly of God.