By Connie Leinbach
The Ocracoke Invitational Surf Fishing Tournament this year celebrates the 35th anniversary of serious fishing fun.
Tournament co-director Woody Billings is geared up and said 72 teams will compete for the largest and most fish caught during four sessions Thursday and Friday (May 3 and 4) along the beach from the NPS campground to Southpoint.
Billings has been a part of the tournament for 30 of those 35 years.
“It’s tradition, it’s friendship, it’s camaraderie,” Billings said.
Merchandise and raffle ticket sales open from 2 to 5 p.m. today (Wednesday, May 2) in the Community Center, and the public is invited to the kick-off party Thursday, May 3, at 7 p.m. in Howard’s Pub with The Michael Clark Band featuring Tracy Clark.
A pig pickin’ barbecue dinner prepared by the Carolina Boys from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Friday, May 4, is free and open to the public, followed by awards.
“I was asked in 1990 to be a judge and the next year I was head judge,” Billings said, a position he still holds, and which makes him the longest acting fish judge on the Outer Banks.
This tournament is a catch-and-release, and fish caught must be at least 11 inches long to receive a score. Teams receive points for largest and most fish caught.
Results each year vary. “It’s springtime, and the water is still cold,” Billings said. “Fishing in the fall is generally better.”
During the sessions, Billings drives up and down the beach checking in with the teams and refereeing the judging because “size matters.”
All judges and those who tally the results, sell merchandise, obtain raffle items and winners’ gifts are volunteers.
After expenses, proceeds from the event—team fees, merchandise sales, raffles and program ads–are distributed to various island nonprofits.
This year, the tourney donated about $7,000 to island nonprofits, said Sharon Miller, tournament treasurer, who gathers raffle prizes. The tournament also awards two $1,000 scholarships to graduating Ocracoke School seniors each year.
Composed of both men and women, the regional and local teams, many of which have been included since the tournament’s inception, sport colorful names, such as “Pheasant Pluckers,” “Fish Lips,” “Misfit Mermaids” and “Hooligans Marauders.” Some have sponsors, team logos and shirts with slogans, such as “Tight Lines.”
Several local teams are part of the fishing action.
Rex O’Neal, of the local “Ocracroakers,” last year sat on the back of his truck out of the heavy easterly winds that hampered results on the second day.
“You can’t pen cattle in an easterly wind,” he said about the lack of bites.
Back in the last century, cattle roamed the island and locals would corral them for butchering.
“In this wind, you don’t even try,” O’Neal said. “But we’re not faring bad sitting here having a beverage.”
The camaraderie is the main thing.
“If we catch fish or not, we’re having fun,” said Charles Dickinson, also an Ocracroaker.
Following the final fishing action on Friday, team members scrutinize the scoreboard outside the Community Center and swap stories. Often, even though teams may catch fish, those fish are not eligible for scoring.
As he reviewed the scoreboard last year, Jamie Jackson of the Ocracoke Internationals noted that his team scored zero.
“That’s why they call it ‘fishing,’ not ‘catching!’” he said.
The Carolina Boys, who provide the Friday night barbecue, have been a part of the tournament since its beginning. Sometimes they hand out promotional stickers saying, “Best meat on the beach.”
Hank Edwards, whose father was the original Carolina Boy, said last year that his group of 11 prepared four whole hogs, 150 pounds of potatoes, 12 gallons of coleslaw and 38 pounds of black-eyed peas.
City Beverage is among the many sponsors who support the event with cash, goods and prizes.