It took me a while to collect thoughts and play back just what had happened, but here is my memory....
Local Teams Dominate National Fishing Competition
Brunswick County has once again shown itself as the center of the King Mackerel fisherman’s universe as both the first and second place winning teams in the Southern Kingfish Association’s (SKA) National Championship hale from this county.
I have written in past articles about the SKA’s National Championship tournament which takes place annually, typically in Biloxi, MS. The fishing event is the culmination of a year of fishing King Mackerel tournaments from North Carolina to South Florida and around the Gulf all the way to Texas. Over this geographic range there are divisions set up, and through the year of tournament King Mackerel fishing, teams qualify within their division to earn the opportunity to compete in the National Championship tournament. Historically North Carolina fishermen and in particular, Brunswick County fishermen have faired very well in national competition. The county is home to multiple title winners, and there is definitely an unspoken, but well known sense of pride in bringing the trophy back to your home state. And thus leads into the story of the 2013 SKA National Championship tournament as none other than Team OIFC (Brant, Barrett, Rube, Amy, Brayden and Caroline McMullan) won the title for an unprecedented third time in the last five years. We weighed in a pair of King Mackerel at 56.28 and 48.82 pounds each for a winning two fish aggregate of 105.1 pounds. I will get to the story on how all that came to be in just a moment, but I certainly do not want to make light of the fact that the second place team was also a Brunswick County team. Choice of Two/OIFC with Corey Bellamy, Eddie Jones, Ryan Stevens and Trask Cunningham weighed in the event’s largest King at 58.44 pounds along with a 36.38 pounder for a two fish aggregate of 94.82 pounds. Corey and team are out of the Calabash area and are members of the Ocean Isle Fishing Center team. I could not be more proud of Choice of Two/OIFC team and congratulate and thank them for their outstanding showing.
As for our story on how we again managed to best a field of the country’s best King Mackerel fishermen for the third time in five years, I too am starting to think we might actually be doing something different. The problem is I have to figure out what. It was without a doubt an epic journey as it all started back in mid October. Barrett, Rube, Brayden and I travelled to Venice, LA to get our boat in place for the upcoming tournament and start getting a lay of the land. However, we were mainly there so early to participate in the incredible Yellowfin Tuna fishery. Right out of the gate we experienced engine trouble as we had gotten water into our fuel. The starboard engine fuel pump had to be changed and thus we were a day behind. Fighting through the obstacles, including wrecking my truck and terribly rough weather, we found our way to the fishing grounds and got into what local guides called the bite of the year. We free lined 1 to 2 pound Mullet to huge, hungry Yellowfin Tuna and therein proceeded to get our butts whipped. We had taken tackle in the 60-80# class anticipating that it would do the job but found out that we needed our 100# class gear that we use for Bluefin Tuna fishing back home. Through the day we did not spend a minute without at least one fish on and through that we broke four rods and a reel which literally shattered the frame, tearing it off of the rod. We boated four Yellowfin in the 100-130 pound class and lost many more that were obviously much larger. Local guides who were more well equipped met us at the dock with multiple fish over 200 pounds, giving proof that we had indeed shown up to the gun fight with a knife. And to top off the day the fuel pump on the port engine went out on the way back to the dock. We had to drive 4 hours back to our launch point in Biloxi, MS, pick up the trailer, drive back to Venice, LA, load up the boat, trailer it 3 hours to be repaired in New Orleans all before finally catching a flight home to Ocean Isle. That is part one of journey, and as you can see, we were fighting it the whole way. It did not seem to matter what we did, but it was going to lead to something breaking or going wrong. The damages and repair bills were mounting up, but we continued to press on.
Barrett, Rube, Caroline and I flew back into New Orleans the first week of November where we picked up a repaired boat and headed back to Venice, LA to begin our prefishing for the SKA National tournament to be held the following weekend. Venice, LA is typically closer to the fishing grounds than the host location in Biloxi, MS and thus we have found it easier to get a lay of the land from that base location. The weather was an obstacle as it blew 15-20+ knots about every day and made fishing difficult. We did find some fish to the west of Louisiana, but they were in the 30-40 pound class, and we felt we would need to find a better class. A main objective we had was to locate and accumulate bait to take back to holding pens we would set up in Biloxi. Catching the bait was no problem, but transporting large quantities became an issue due to the rough seas. On Monday, November 4th we packed up all our gear, loaded the bait on the boat and made the 100 mile run north to Biloxi. The wind was blowing 25 knots and the ride was not pleasant. Upon arrival to Biloxi we set up our bait pens and got ourselves situated to fish the Pro Tour’s last event of the season on Wednesday and then the Nationals over the weekend. The weather report was bordering on epic bad as strong cold fronts were forecast to pass on Tuesday and Thursday. What were supposed to be two day fishing competitions for both tournaments were turned into one day fishing for each event.
We knew going into fishing competition on Wednesday that the weather was going to be very bad. I don’t think until we actually got out into it did we realize just we were in for. Barrett, Rube, Caroline and I set out to compete and attempt to bring home the tournament’s top prize. The weather had been warmer than normal to that point in the year and it was known that the Kings had not arrived at their typical wintering spot known as the Salt Dome. Thus we deduced a scenario we had seen in previous years where the big Kings would school at a rig known as the Exxon some 15 miles from the Salt Dome. The good news was we thought we had it figured and would catch good fish. The bad news was the wind blew a legitimate measured 30-40 knots on Tuesday and now on competition day it was still blowing 15-25 knots. Words really can’t put into perspective the ride and beating we took, but we rode 80 miles in a quartering head sea at 20-25 mph into a steady 5-7 foot sea with scattered 10-12 footers. It was a long, rough and wet ride, but we felt like the effort would be worth it if we could land on the school of big Kings. We arrived to the enormous oil rig set in 250 feet of water and deployed baits. Four or five other tournament teams had the same idea and they too worked the area. That was pretty much the best news of the day as we did not catch a single King Mackerel at this rig. Around noon we began making our way in, stopping at several rigs to look for Kings and stock back up on bait. We did manage to get more good bait, but our search for Kings continued unfruitful. Upon return to the dock we were physically and mentally beat. I had turned thought to the Nationals coming up, and based on what I had seen on this day, it was going to be a tough one to figure. We later found out that there was a group of Kings found at an area known as the City, but reports were scattered and the action was not what we have come to know in years past.
On Thursday a very strong cold front had passed bringing cool temperatures and strong North winds. Competition was cancelled on Friday and thus the two fish aggregate format still stood, but we would weigh both fish in one day of fishing. All the Ocean Isle Fishing Center teams joined together for dinner and to discuss strategy for the following day’s fishing. The consensus was that the Kings should be somewhere between the City rigs where they were caught on Wednesday and the Salt Dome where they typically head to once the water temperatures turn cool. A couple of the teams would start at the City and a couple at the Salt Dome and we would communicate to try to hone in on the school. Blast off was at 6:40am on Saturday morning and 100+ big, powerful, offshore fishing boats shot across the sea at 60+mph. The ocean had gotten much nicer compared to previous days, but it still presented a sloppy 3-4’ Southeast sea. We ran behind the Chandelier Islands to get out of the sea and linked up with team members Choice of Two/OIFC. Corey and crew were heading to the Salt Dome while we were going to the City; hopefully one of us would find the fish and let the other know. Upon arrival to the mass of 20+ rigs located in 200 feet of water known as the City, we could see other competitors already fishing the area. We did not see any bent rods, which almost sent me running immediately. However, we had a plan, and I wanted to let Corey get to the Salt Dome so we could compare notes. Some fifteen minutes later I heard someone call Choice of Two and ask if they were seeing any action. I heard Corey say he had gotten a couple of bites, and I immediately knew it was time to go. We had not gotten a bite in 20 minutes of fishing and had not seen any other boats fighting fish. We picked up and began the 9 mile run to the Salt Dome. Halfway there Corey called me over the radio and told me he thought I might want to get out to where he was fishing.
When we arrived there were 10 other boats fishing the area and every single boat was fighting fish. This is what we had come to know. This is what we came for. The Salt Dome bite has become famous as the ultimate King Mackerel bite. We won our 2009 and 2011 National Championship titles while fishing this very spot, and we were now ready to do some business. I ran around the group of boats and surveyed what was going on before settling up sea. Barrett and Rube deployed and it took about five minutes before the first reel went off. After the bite, I set the boat in neutral and we began drifting and free-lining baits to hungry and fired-up King Mackerel. Amy was angling one fish out of a double which swung close to the boat. She put out the word of good fish and Rube ran up to sink the gaff in a long King. I was enthralled in baiting more hooks and briefly looked up to see the fish come over the rail. I got a little excited as I felt like this fish could make for one half of a possible winning duo; possibly making 50 pounds. But it was all work aboard our boat as we continued to set out baits and battle fish. The objective for our team is to try to keep multiple fish on the hooks at all times so we can try to cull through more fish. We are fishing a mass of Kings, Yellowfin Tuna, Wahoo, Amberjack, Sharks and who knows what else, and the more fish we can hook and bring to the boat, the better our chances. Through the heated battle Corey on the Choice of Two called and asked for a report. He said he had one good fish but needed a second and was running low on bait. Barrett was hooked up and called for the gaff. I stuck the gaff in a nice fish which we pulled aboard and put on ice. We knew we had a couple of good fish that should show well for us. The problem out there in that kind of bite is everyone is catching fish, and you have to assume that others are catching the same quality of fish. Around noon Amy and Rube were locked into a double header of screaming reels. Rube saw his fish and announced that he had the big one. Amy and I were getting an eye on her fish and when the fish came by the boat we both remarked on how wide the fish’s back seemed. Rube hollered as his fish bit through the wire, a fish that he would later swear was easily over 60 pounds. Amy’s fish was stubborn and had actually gotten tail wrapped, coming up sideways and tail first. We couldn’t judge the fish and didn’t want to kill a fish we weren’t going to weigh, so we allowed Barrett to reach over and tail fish aboard. As Barrett hoisted the fish my eyes grew as this was a fat fish. I pronounced this is our big fish at which point Barrett and I went into a debate. We ended up putting the three fish we had boated together and measuring them to determine which two fish we needed to ice and take best care. Our first fish we boated and last fish we boated ended up being our weigh fish. We continued to fish on, but as it passed noon, the size of the Kings decreased and we saw more action from “trash” fish, in particular Yellowfin Tuna. I can only imagine what it must have looked like underwater with all the fish and feeding activity, but I can tell you there were lots of hungry fish eating baits and lots of hungry sharks eating the fish that ate the baits. It was a mêlée of fish activity.
The final chapter of the story comes in the ride home. We felt like we had good fish, and weighing was of top priority. Rube prompted me to leave a little early on a few occasions but I pushed it to keep trying for a bigger catch. The ride home was 70 miles of open ocean and it ended up being much rougher than I anticipated; I had made a mistake. I was watching the GPS and calculating all along how fast we needed to go to make it in time. It was going to be close, and we were getting beat up trying to maintain the needed speed, but we were going to be OK. Then with 37 miles left the starboard engine died. My heart sank. I jumped back to the bilge and pumped the fuel primer bulb. Barrett refired the engine and throttled up, but it died again. This was the exact same scenario we had seen the two weeks earlier with the failed fuel pump. We had again gotten water into our fuel and again it had caused a failure. There was no hesitation as we learned the only way to keep the engine going was to literally give it manual resuscitation by continually pumping the fuel primer bulb and thus forcing fuel into the engine. Amy jumped into the bilge and Barrett lay on the floor taking turns pumping the primer bulb until their forearms burned too much to continue. Meanwhile Caroline held onto Brayden, Rube jumped in for occasional primer bulb pumps and I drove the boat for all she was worth. I had the port engine throttle pegged and then feathered the starboard engine between 4000 and 5000 rpms depending on how fast they were able to pump the primer bulb. When the engine would start sputtering I’d pull back a little to let them catch up and then ease back up to try to gain speed and get the time back we needed. I was honestly on the brink of tears as there was a time shortly after the problem occurred that it was apparent we were not going to make it. Amy took on the role as motivator as she pushed both Barrett and I to keep going and push harder. She is a CrossFit instructor at CrossFit Ocean Isle Beach, and I think the trainer/motivator in her kept us in the game. I watched the GPS and its projected ETA as we fought to make the 5pm deadline. Keep in mind that it is still rough while all of this going on. We are getting beat up while physically and mentally agonizing. As we got closer to shore the seas settled enough to pick up speed and thus we began to pick up time. At 4:50pm we showed the tournament official our boat number and a huge sigh of relief was exhaled as we had done it. We didn’t have any idea how were going to fair in the tournament, but we did know that we had done enough to at least have the opportunity to find out. We soon learned that a Wilmington, NC based team Windy Conditions was in the lead with 91 pounds. It was still early in weigh-in but I thought to myself that was not that much; we might do pretty well. As we moved through the weigh-in line we found out that Choice of Two/OIFC had weighed a monster 58 pound King and taken over first place with 94 pounds. I was really excited to hear of their success, and again thought it strange that more weight had not been posted. By my calculations I figured us to have in the neighborhood of 100 pounds, and it was dawning on me that we might actually win this thing again. The weigh-master first weighed our smaller fish at 48.82 pounds and Amy and I looked at each other as if to know, we had done it. We pulled out the big fish, the King that Barrett had simply tailed into the boat and it pulled the scales to 56.28 pounds. We had taken over the lead and would end up winning our third SKA National Championship title.
In retrospect it was not the most glamorous as nothing could rival the 74 pounder we caught in 2009. It was not the most efficient as 2011 saw us all working perfectly in sync and losing no fish. However, 2013 will go down as the most dramatic and most earned through perseverance. Again, congratulation to Corey Bellamy, Eddie Jones, Ryan Stevens and Trask Cunningham on Choice of Two/OIFC for their great finish as well as Wilmington, NC based Windy Conditions for their third place finish. This year’s tournament fishing is in the books and as we say, “You are only as good as your last tournament.” Thus I think we will take off a long Winter and bask in this glory as long as we can. Happy holidays and Merry Christmas. I am signing off for the season and look forward to getting things cranked back up in the Spring.
32' YELLOWFIN / YAMAHA
BRANT & BARRETT MCMULLAN
CHOICE OF TWO
31' CAPE HORN / YAMAHA
30' CONTENDER / YAMAHA
- Capt. Brant McMullan