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By Connie Leinbach
The 36th annual Ocracoke Invitational Surf Fishing Tournament was one for the records as anglers in 70 teams caught the most fish ever over the two-day event May 2 to 3.
The tournament total for points by the end of the Friday morning session had already surpassed any previous numbers—700 fish caught for more than 1,700 points–said Woody Billings, head judge and tournament co-chair.
“I’ve been doing this for 27 years and this is the most fish ever caught in any tournament,” he gushed during the awards presentation that night.
This year, 70 of 72 teams entered, caught 865 scoreable fish for a total score of 2,319. (This was not the highest scoring tournament since size matters. Larger fish yield higher scores). Last year, 455 total fish were caught and in 2017, only 79 fish were caught.
Maybe it was the sunny, relatively calm weather that contributed to the high number of catches and the high spirits. In the last several years, challenging weather conditions, especially high winds, were factors in low number of catches.
“They’re catching fish like crazy,” Billings said Friday afternoon during the last of four fishing sessions as he drove the several miles from South Point to Ramp 68, checking in on judges and teams. “It’s really competitive.”
A change in rules this year also undoubtedly resulted in more scoreable fish.
“That was a game-changer,” Billings said. “Everybody said what a great change that was.”
Prior to this year in this catch-and-release tournament, all fish caught had to reach a minimum length in their respective species to receive a score. But this year, they counted any fish 11 inches or longer. That meant that more teams scored this year. According to the final score sheet, all but two teams scored something, with the lowest score being 1.
During the event, 13 pairs of judges—composed of both local and out-of-state volunteers–are stationed all along the beach to dash to the anglers and officially measure each fish caught.
Team Advanced Fishing, based in Hatteras, captured top honors with 69 fish caught for a total of 147 points. Last year, the overall winner, Surfside Anglers scored 110 points.
Second place was the Merchantville Fishing Club of Merchantville, N.J., with 42 total fish and 147 points. Team Diawa was third place with 46 fish caught for 111 points.
Team Advanced Fishing was prepared to disclose their secret Friday night in the Community Center as each member brandished a can of Vienna sausages when asked why they caught so many fish.
“Persistence,” said Andy Martz of Waynesboro, Pa., after the laughter subsided. Actually, the team credits their equipment—Century Rods—a British brand with which they can cast far out beyond the breakers, for its success.
“We don’t have to wade into the surf,” said Gale Johnson of Hatteras. He said the world record surf cast with a Century rod is 900 feet.
His team, composed of men from around the region and beyond, also was the top session winner after winning the Friday morning session with 39 fish and 84 points.
After posing with the Blackbeard trophy, the team said they dedicated their win to their late team member Scott Miller of Gloucester, Va., who died in June.
“He was on the team seven years,” Johnson said. “He was a great guy.”
During the awards ceremony, Billings made special mention of Carol Dillon, a longtime member of the female first-place team, the Hatteraskals, which caught 15 scorable fish for 62 points. This was Dillon’s last time fishing for the team.
The Fish-A-Ritas of Hatteras came in second for women with 21 fish and 61 points, and the Outcasters were third place with 35 fish and 48 points.
Greg O’Connell of Merchantville caught the most fish, 24, for men.
“We love it every year,” he said while on the beach after having just caught two scoreable fish in five minutes.
For women, Melinda Hoffman of the Sandbunnies caught eight fish.
Largest fish is also part of the competition. For the men, that honor went to Bob Burgess of the Ridge Anglers with a 27-inch puppy drum.
Lydia Schmierer of the Delaware Mobile Surf Fishermen won in the women’s division with a 21 1/2-inch bluefish.
Along with Team Advanced Fishing, session winners were Bud Light Six Packs, Thursday morning with 17 fish and 52 points; Delaware Mobile Surf Fishermen, Thursday afternoon with 8 fish and 31 points; and Merchantville Fishing Club, Friday afternoon with 20 fish and 51 points.
Candice Cobb of the Tiderunners was happier with the two days than in the last few years with two scoreable fish and 6 points.
“It was the best weather,” she said during the Friday evening meal, featuring pork barbecue by longtime caterers The Carolina Boys. “It was a tournament of superlatives.”
Co-director and one of the founders of the tournament, Richard Perkins, said in an interview Friday on WOVV 90.1 FM, Ocracoke’s community radio station, that a new team, Deep Blue, was added this year.
After expenses, the tournament donates the proceeds back to the island.
Last year $8,500 was donated to 12 organizations, including two scholarships of $1,000 each to a graduating high school senior. Billings thanked the National Park Service for their cooperation and partnership with the tournament.
Next year’s tournament will take place April 29 to May 1.
Peter Vankevich contributed to this story.