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By Connie Leinbach
Kevin Jacobs’ huge drum caught Friday during the 35th annual Ocracoke Invitational Surf Fishing Tournament was so large it broke the judges’ rulers.
Well, it didn’t exactly break the measuring tool, but the 42 3/4-inch fish exceeded the ruler’s length.
“They had to use a measuring tape for the rest of it,” said Woody Billings, tournament co-director during the awards presentation Friday night in the Ocracoke Community Center. “Our rulers only go up to 42 inches, which still are bigger than any other tournament measuring sticks on the Outer Banks. We haven’t seen a fish that big in a long time.”
Friday also was Jacobs’ birthday, and the crowd of anglers sang him “Happy Birthday” as his team, the Surfside Anglers of Kitty Hawk, posed for winning the tournament with 110 points.
“It took me 20 minutes to land it,” Jacobs said about his battle with the drum. “I was tired.”
Trudy Austin, an official tournament photographer who rides with Billings as he checks on the action, was there to photograph Jacobs’ catch.
“He was jumping up and down,” she said.
Jacobs’ father, Luther, began the team decades ago, said Casey Copeland of Kitty Hawk, a member of the team.
The Merchantville Fishing Club of Merchantville, N.J., placed second overall with 80 points and the McClammers were third with 78 points.
More teams caught more score-able fish this year during the tournament May 3 and 4 than last year as shown on the scoreboards outside the Community Center.
“There were 455 total fish this year,” Billings said. “Last year there were 79.”
That was largely due to the sunny, milder weather this year. The most fish were caught Thursday morning and the strikes steadily decreased as the wind picked up making the ocean rougher over the two-day tournament.
In this catch-and-release tournament, all fish caught must reach a minimum length to receive a score. Fish at 11 inches receive one point and Jacobs’ drum received 76 points.
The Surfside Anglers were at station No. 4 near Southpoint, a favored spot, when Jacobs caught the drum.
During the tournament, the 71 men’s and women’s teams—from Ocracoke, the region and several states–are stationed at numbered spots along the Ocracoke beach from the NPS campground to Southpoint. Before the tournament, the teams draw for each of their positions in four sessions on Thursday and Friday.
Volunteer judges, two to a vehicle, are stationed along the beach to monitor the action and jump out and measure any fish caught.
Fish, such as skate, are considered “trash” fish and don’t count, although an Ocracoke team, the Misfit Mermaids, would have liked that since Jennifer Esham, team captain, landed a four-foot skate on Friday.
As Esham got the skate onto the sand, it did a flip.
“It was terrifying,” said team member Vera Attaway. “Then it threw up a 17-inch bluefish!”
That fish, without its head and skin, measured 17 inches, but it wasn’t scorable.
“That would only happen to this group,” said Chrisi Gaskill.
As Friday’s session wore down, the Mermaids watched their lines and listened to music, singing along to “Sweet Caroline.”
“We’re number one in fun!” they said in chorus.
Whether they catch fish or not, most teams enjoy the beach and the camaraderie.
“We don’t care if we catch anything,” said Michelle Cobb of Guinea, Va., of the OBX Rays.
Ocracoke Islander Bubby Boos of the Ocracoke team Castaways was happy with a 15-inch bluefish for five points and noted that he saw a six- to eight-foot hammerhead shark on Friday.
“I was out on the bar trying to catch something,” he said. “I’d rather catch something than be skunked.”
Session winners were the Rod Runners, a women’s team, the first session. The Fish Finders were the second-session winners, the Surfside Anglers won the third session and the Drag Setters won the fourth session.
Greg O’Connell of the Merchantville Fishing Club was the top man with the most fish and Susan Garrett of the Rod Runners won the most fish for the women’s teams.
Her teammate Sheila Ballance captured the largest fish honors for women with a 27-inch drum.
The end of the tournament is capped with a pig pickin’ dinner courtesy of the Carolina Boys to which all in the community are invited and an awards presentation where victorious teams receive a bounty of donated prizes–coolers, fishing gear and more.
After expenses, proceeds from sponsorships, program ads, merchandise and raffle ticket sales are donated to various Ocracoke nonprofits. Each year, about $7,000 is distributed, including two $1,000 scholarships to Ocracoke School graduating seniors.
Billings, along with co-director Richard Perkins, has coordinated this longest active event on Ocracoke for 30 of its 35 years.
“When you think of the Ocracoke Invitational Surf Fishing Tournament, you think of Woody,” Austin said.
“This is my legacy,” Billings added.