Beer and Loathing at Walker’s Cay

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6th Edition Barta Blue Marlin Classic

Prologue: I entered the inaugural BBMC six years ago and have fished it each year since. It is held every year at Walker’s Cay in April. Tred Barta is the founder and chairman of the tournament. The tournament’s mission is to raise money for the IGFA’s junior angler program.

Last year’s crew consisted of my wife, Doris, Capt. Sam Crutchfield, Michele Grey and myself. Michele won the Ladies Grand Slam Cup and Doris finished in fifth place for billfish releases. Michele was unable to make this year’s event due to an eleventh hour crisis, so Doris, Capt. Sam and I prepared to take on some of the best fishing teams in the world.

Friday and Saturday, April 12th & 13th: After weeks of preparation, Doris and I headed to Ft. Pierce with our boat TUNER in tow. We met Capt. Sam at his home and headed out to dinner with him and a boat builder friend, Mark Willis. NOAA was calling for winds out of the east at 20 knots with gusts to 30, so we decided to take it easy on Saturday and visit Mark’s facility.

Saturday morning, we launched the TUNER and fueled up. We then headed to Stuart to eat lunch and look at Mark’s boat building enterprise. Mark is currently building a 67foot sport fishing boat that will cost the owner close to $3 million when completed. The hull is constructed of triple layers of Okume plywood and finished with two layers of fiberglass. It pretty much took up most of the building and will be a piece of fishing art when finished.

Sunday, April 14th: I was awakened by a thunderstorm and howling wind at 2am and figured that Capt. Sam would not be anxious to make the crossing to Walker’s. I was surprised when, at 5:30am, Sam knocked on the door and said, “Let’s go to the Bahamas.” We didn’t have to be there until the following Wednesday for the tournament, but all three of us were ready to get out of Ft. Pierce.

At the marina, the wind is 15-20 knots out of the East. NOAA is calling for the same winds for the next five days. At 6:30am, we pass through the inlet and immediately are greeted by standing waves of 4-5 feet. The boat is loaded with fuel, ice, a 7 cubic foot freezer full of bait, food, tackle, clothing and several cases of beer. I have the beer positioned to ride comfortably.

Walker’s Cay is 115 statute miles just South of due east from Ft. Pierce. The Bahamas Bank is 69 miles East. Covering 69 miles in a 29-foot boat into a 20-knot headwind can best be described as a grind. The Gulf Stream was a virtual washing machine, with a large ground swell from the NE competing with the head seas to see who could put the most spray over the top of the TUNER. After 5 hours at 12-14 knots, we reached the bank and the seas relented a bit. We covered the last 30 miles in just over an hour.

Capt. Sam cleared customs while I unloaded the boat and Doris checked us into the Hotel. The beer has safely made the journey. We run into Tred who has caught several nice dolphin that morning and he invites us to have dinner with him and his family. Capt. Billy Black, the pioneer charter captain running the 53-foot Hatteras, DUCHESS at Walker’s, joins us that evening. Listening to the tales from Tred, Sam and Billy made me realize how much I have to learn about the art of BS. At the same time, each man is very genuine in person.

Monday, April 15th: Breakfast at the Hotel’s restaurant overlooking the barrier reef is one of my favorite things to do at Walker’s. Capt. Sam and Doris are anxious to do some bottom fishing so we head to Grand Cay to one of Capt. Sam’s secret honey holes. On the way, a French sailboat begins broadcasting a Mayday. He has run aground and bent his rudder shaft badly. When we arrive, the sailboat is anchored comfortably in 15 feet of water and in no danger. We help him make arrangements to be towed and the boat fixed on Grand.

The fishing turns out to be an exercise in frustration. We hook several fine mutton snapper and yellowtail only to have sharks consume them and our hooks. We move to a spot North of Walker’s where the bottom drops from 60 feet to 110 feet in a sheer cliff. Sam caught a fine 3 lb yellowtail and I got a 10lb Cero mackerel to take a top water plug. The fishing was unusually slow and with dinner in the box, at 5pm we headed back to the island.

At the dock we were greeted with the news that Billy Black’s wife had been killed in an auto accident. She was on her way to the airport with their children to fly to Walker’s to participate in the tournament. The BBMC has become a real family affair and the sad news cast a pall over dock.

Shortly before dark, some friends from Charleston pulled into the marina in two pretty Carolina custom boats. They joined us in the restaurant to dine on the yellowtail and Cero prepared by the restaurant staff and served with the classic Bahamian dish of peas and rice.

Tuesday, April 14th: With 2 days left until the tournament starts, we once again enjoy a relaxing breakfast and decide to try some blue water trolling to work any kinks out of the boat, bait, rigging and presentation. The day is uneventful, but we get a chance to figure out the spread we want to run. Back at the docks, folks gather at 7pm for a memorial service for Allison Black. Tred says a few words and reads a letter his daughter wrote to Billy’s children. It was a moving moment.

Wednesday, April 15: I enjoy the last breakfast we will have on the island. The boys from Charleston want to go bottom fishing. They are eager to try some of Sam’s secret spots and invite us to fish aboard their boat. One of the boat’s great features is the Eskimo ice machine. It pumps 600lbs per day into a large, insulated box. We caught several nice fish, the highlights being two mutton snapper over 15lbs. At 4pm we headed back to get ready for the Captain’s Meeting at 7pm.

This is Tred’s 6th tournament and he has become a much more polished MC. After a moment of silence for Allison, Tred asks every boat to contribute $300 toward a scholarship fund for the Black children. Charter boat Captains have an old saying, “If you’re making money, the boat knows it.” Despite his fame and fishing prowess, Captain Billy Black needs our help. Before the end of the tournament, the participants from 82 boats have contributed over $27,000 to the fund.

As the next order of business, Tred introduces Dr. Guy Harvey, Carey Chen, Be Forbes, Caren Stevens and Al Barnes. Each artist will complete an original work on the island and auction it off Thursday night. I run into Jerry, a friend from North Carolina, and he and I head off to the restaurant to meet Doris and Capt. Sam. Guy Harvey and his daughter, Jessica, join us at the table. As you can imagine, Guy is an interesting dinner companion. Jessica has her first oil painting entered into the auction. She has a wonderful and precise British accent. Guy and Jerry swap stories about fishing the Cocos Islands aboard the Madam and Hooker...a memorable evening.

Thursday, April 16th: The casual part of the trip is over and the tournament has begun. Some of the best Captains, Mates and Anglers in the world have once again converged in the waters around Walker’s Cay to fish for nothing more than bragging rights. There is no Calcutta. There is no prize money. Only single hook rigged mullet, mackerel and ballyhoo, you are scored on your honor. This week, on this island, a man is as good as his word.

I find myself in a familiar situation. Out of 82 boats, my 29’ Mirage TUNER, is the second smallest. I keep watering her and perhaps someday she will grow. Only a 26’ boat from tournament sponsor, World Cat, is smaller.

We begin the morning by running down the inside of the islands to Stranger’s Cay channel to avoid the bumpy ocean. The bigger boats don’t seem to mind. Capt. Sam really likes fishing the canyons off Stranger’s and we had great luck last year in the area. The radio was very busy with a number of boats calling in hookups. Over the course of the day, we had a shot a one white marlin and failed to get a hook in him. Another team from Gainesville releases a blue marlin for 500 points.

At 6:30pm the auction is beginning with Capt. Sam as the auctioneer. Numerous items including rods, reels, electronics, etc bring in some money. Guy Harvey’s original painting of a blue marlin chasing a tuna is the first on the auction block. After some spirited bidding, it fetches $5000. Guy agrees to paint another original for the losing bidder for an additional $5000. He seems pleased. Next up is Jessica’s painting of a sailfish. While no match for her father’s work, it is a nice piece. The bidding is hot and heavy, with some of the big boys sensing an investment opportunity. The winning bid was an eye-popping $8500 for a painting by an 11-year-old girl. Jessica agrees to another painting to the losing bidder for $8500 and the Harvey clan has raised $27,000 for the IGFA junior angler program in 10 minutes. At the end of the auction, the total raised by this year’s tournament is approaching $200,000.

Friday, April 17th: After a frustrating Thursday, Capt. Sam makes the decision to head North to find a temperature break reported by others. There is a 3-degree drop, but it has become very diffused and spread over a two-mile area. There is a westerly current and an easterly breeze of around 15 knots. On one side the waves are stacked up eight feet high and cresting. The other side has gentle waves under 3 feet. As we troll a weed line back toward the island, we make a decision that will cost us some points.

At the Northeastern edge of the Bahamas bank, we can head west toward Matanilla reef or South toward Stranger’s. Sam feels our best shot is south, so we head in that direction. At around 2:30, a white marlin grabs a large swimming ballyhoo on the center rigger and jumps once before tossing the hook back. The ‘hoo was mangled so badly that the hook got turned around and lodged in its head. The folks that went west had better days, with the eventual tournament winner releasing a blue, 2 whites and 2 sailfish. The other boat from Gainesville, LEGAL TENDER, has released another blue and is in second place. Capt. Sam is haunted by the decision and vows to go West on Saturday.

Friday night is a casual evening with a buffet dinner under the large tent near the Hotel pools. A projector is set up and the first screening is of the pilot for Tred’s TV show titled The Best and Worst of Tred Barta. The show airs Tred’s opinions on matters large and small and is set on Long Island before a duck hunt. Love him or hate him, not many people will be unaffected by the show. Guy Harvey showed some footage of himself diving with billfish around the world, noting the feeding habits that will help us understand and apply to our fishing technique. I can tell you the TUNER fishing team was paying attention.

Saturday, April 18th: As usual, we are among the first boats to leave the marina. We head west using one of Capt. Sam’s triple secret routes through the coral. The seas are light with large swells from the East. Every bait is deployed within 45 seconds after the committee boat calls lines in. Two boats close to us hook large fish and lose them quickly.

Finally I spot fins behind our center bait. It is a small white marlin around 50-60lbs, the perfect size for a release tournament. We dropped back to the fish several times but the hook never stuck. “Watch the right rigger, whites love a big bait”, hissed Capt. Sam, upset that the fish didn’t take the center bait. Five seconds later, the fish exploded on the rigger as Sam predicted. After the drop back, the fish is fast to the line. We’d called in our 2 previous hookups, so this time I reported, “Due to the results of our prior calls reporting being hooked up, we’d like to report that we are no longer not hooked up.”

Doris is the angler, I clear the rods and Sam drives. The fish is very acrobatic, but we manage a release in less than 3 minutes. As we put out the baits, the LEGAL TENDER passes by and the crew waves. As they troll away from us a huge blue inhales one of their baits and makes a tremendous splash. After 5 minutes, the marlin makes a strong run and catches the angler by surprise. The 30lb class rod snaps in half and shortly afterward the line parts. The crew has just lost the winning fish.

Lines are out at 3pm and the awards dinner starts at 6:30pm. There is a festive atmosphere under the big tent. The BBMC has seen 82 fishing teams come together and compete ferociously for nothing more than a handshake and a slap on the back….did I mention there are some fine trophies? A taxidermist has created some of the best-looking fish trophies I’ve seen and they are stacked six places deep for every imaginable category.

Tred has encouraged the kids all year to obey their parents and make good grades. Any kid who remembers to bring his report card is given a signed print from all the artists. Junior anglers have caught all the heaviest dolphin, wahoo and tuna of the tournament. Small fry anglers released several billfish. Doris wins 3rd place in the ladies division. The LEGAL TENDER comes in second for the entire tournament. Gainesville has been well represented. The last award is a beautiful trophy Tred presents to the handful of us that have fished every year since the beginning. Love him or hate him, he is one loyal sumbitch.

The BBMC has become several things: 1) a premiere charity event, 2) a showcase for sponsors and manufacturers, 3) a wonderful family event, 4) the print media eats it up, 5) there is a camaraderie that exists in no other tournament.

Sunday, April 19th: It seems every year we beat into the wind getting to Walker’s Cay only to have it switch and blow in our face on the way home. For 6 years the weather has been miserable going home. That streak was broken on this day. The day was sunny and calm with small wavelets under 1 foot. Running 25 knots, we made Ft. Pierce in just over 4 hours.

Epilogue: Walker’s Cay is accessible, yet slightly exotic. It always kills me to open the Christmas card they send Hotel guests in December, when I’m shivering, and read, “We miss you… your friends at Walker’s”. Over the years, I’ve fished dozens of tournaments on the Gulf and East coasts and in the Bahamas. Many will not see me again. The BBMC is a special time, with wonderful people, in a special place. I will fish it ‘til I can’t fish anymore and maybe even then if they’ll have me. If you have the opportunity, don’t pass up the chance to experience it for yourself and take the family with you.

Copyright by Capt. Wiley Horton