Fabulous Fishermen

John Tunnell, left, and Bob Simpson reflect on the Morehead City waterfront about the early days of blue marlin fishing on the Crystal Coast.

Big Rock - Mary Z

 “Whoa, he doesn’t look like that anymore,” John Tunnell said, leaning in for a closer look at a black and white photograph taken on the Morehead City waterfront in 1957.

“She doesn’t quite look like that anymore either,” Bob Simpson offers, pointing to a photo on the same page.

And while no offense is intended, the 80-somethings giggle for a moment like teenagers as they browse the images of their youth. The two have come back to the starting point, The Sanitary Restaurant, to reminisce about that first blue marlin caught off of Carteret County’s coastline and the glory days of the Fabulous Fishermen – the first organization to promote offshore fishing in Carteret County.

Their meeting commemorates the annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, set for June 5-13. In 1938, Simpson explained, a blue marlin was landed off of Oregon Inlet, just north of Morehead City. Scientists of the day warned local anglers that this was merely a fluke, a chance encounter, and that there was no real population of the fish in nearby waters. A few white marlin perhaps – but any blue caught must have been an accidental passing.

“During the 1950s a new crew working on Bogue Banks discovered a blue that had washed ashore,” Simpson said. “And it was taken to the waterfront and displayed at Capt. Ottis’ fish market.”

 The sight of the fish was all it took to motivate area residents. “We saw fishing here as the one thing we really had going for us that could bring people to the area,” said Simpson. “Fishing and the beaches. But it wasn’t publicized, nor was it recognized on the East Coast as a spot for fishing.”

Charter boat captains, fishing pier owners, anglers and other business owners saw things differently, however. In the early 1950s a band of these movers and shakers had formed a small, casual club, the Fabulous Fishermen. When that blue washed ashore, the officers got together over coffee at The Sanitary and devised a plan. Tired of being slighted as a hotspot for fishing, Simpson and his peers decided to contribute $25 each and solicit additional donations in hopes of raising a $500 reward for the first blue marlin brought in. It was set up almost as a wager, Simpson remembered, with the club basically saying “we bet you can’t get one.”

Tom Potter, Bill Strickland and Jerry Shumacher were at that groundbreaking meeting. So was Hubert Fulcher, chief of police; Ted Garner, co-owner of The Sanitary; Dick Parker, auto dealer. The late Mary Simpson, Bob’s wife, handled the fundraising.

“And she had solicited about $350 by the time Bill Olsen, working out of the Morehead City Yacht Basin, took an inexperienced fisherman offshore and returned that evening with a marlin,” Simpson said.

It was Sept. 14, 1957 when angler Jimmy Croy heaved that 143-pound blue marlin aboard the Mary Z – a day that marked a new era for Carteret County and the fishing industry worldwide. By the time the pair arrived a crowd had gathered at the waterfront to see the catch and a bright red Radio Flyer (donated by Roses Department Store) loaded with silver dollars (ordered by Garner and restaurant co-owner Tony Seamon) was carted down to greet them. Simpson snapped the photo that memorialized the day in history.

“But in all these years there’s one thing no one has ever mentioned to me,” Simpson said, pointing to the framed photo from the museum-like wall of The Sanitary. “Look at it – it’s upside down,” he adds, laughing at his own lack of knowledge. “They gave me a rope and told me to string it up. Well, I had no idea how to string up a marlin, but I did the best I could.”

Regardless of how it made its way up on display, the fact that a blue marlin made it to land that day was a milestone in Morehead City’s history. No one knew exactly where the pair had found the fish, noted writer Bruce Paul in the history of the Big Rock Tournament, but many speculated that they had reached the Gulf Stream, where warm offshore waters merge with the cooler inland temperatures, probably near the stretch of ledges on the Continental Shelf known as the Big Rock.

It was a phrase that Carteret County residents would know all too well before long. And exactly what the Fabulous Fishermen were hoping for.

The first tournaments were loose at best. There were few rules, with some of those early anglers referring to the contest as a “free for all.” But it gained attention and steam as it progressed.

“One of the more fun and crowd-building events was when we established the practice of firing my Lyle gun when a boat arrived with a marlin aboard,” Simpson said.

The bronze cannon, which Simpson still fires each July 4th from his riverfront home, was like a siren, calling the crowds to the docks to see the massive fish as they were strung (tail side up) on the dock. The first few competitions became so popular that Morehead City Yacht Basin’s “Bump” Styron took over sponsorship and helped the Fabulous Fishermen with the planning phase.

“Bump really saw the potential in the business it would bring to the area,” said Simpson. “He was a great help.”

And as the number of annual entrants increased, the “fish tales” became more and more common along the Carolina coast.

“George Beswick once caught five in one day,” said Tunnell. “Heck, once we caught 90 in a year,” countered Simpson.

Tales of the ones that got away, the one that never made it to shore and the young man who caught a tournament record-breaking blue marlin only to realize his fishing license had lapsed followed. But for these men, who once sat around the restaurant table musing about how they could bring the folks to their own little slice of heaven, the stories that come with the fishing are half the fun. Big game fishing is ideal fodder for a storyteller. And for many, the story is being told on the way to the bank.

In his tournament history story, Paul said that the purse for the 1974 contest was listed as $800, but just 10 years later it had jumped to what was then an astonishing $70,000. The 2010 purse was up to $1.6 million and included a variety of species as well as a woman’s tournament. Entry fees for all levels in the 2015 tournament are $20,000. The figures are even staggering to those first visionaries who thought they had an inkling of the boon marlin fishing could be for the area.

“We had no idea that it would be as big as it is, but we were hopeful,” Simpson said. “Maybe I’m bragging, but if there is anything singled out as being helpful to tourism along the Carolina coast, I’d say it’s fishing – from Wrightsville right on up to Hatteras and Southport. We really had no idea that it would grow to the size that it has and have as much impact as it has. We were aiming to benefit local business.”

But the entire state is now benefiting by North Carolina’s active offshore fishery. A 2010 study from the NC Division of Marine Fisheries shows a direct economic impact of saltwater angling of $943,929,472, an additional indirect income of $319, 250,048 and $339,542,720 in induced effect for a total of $1.6 billion a year. The study, which uses data from 2008, goes on to note that the industry is responsible for an estimated 17,758 jobs across the state.

“You know, I’m proud of what we did,” Simpson said. “And I’m proud of all those people who worked with us and after us because they stepped up to the bat. We were told it was impossible – and we did it.”

The 2019 tournament runs June 7-15. Learn more at thebigrock.com.

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