Some of the world’s top anglers and research scientists will converge for the 15th annual Gulf Coast Billfish Classic June 3-9 at the Golden Nugget in Biloxi, Miss. Founded in 1997, the tournament is considered the premier billfishing event in the Gulf of Mexico.
Anglers are drawn by the promise of great fishing, as well as historically large payouts. In 2012, the total purse topped $1.1 million for best in class blue marlin (there is also a catch-and-release billfish division), wahoo, tuna and dolphin.
For 2013, swordfish have been added, providing a potpourri of angling opportunities. During the tournament’s tenure, prize money has exceeded the $10 million mark with several new Ford vehicles awarded for anglers setting new state records.
Tournament Marketing Director Robbie Carter reports the tournament pulls an influx of $5 million into the local economy. “The Gulf Coast Billfish Classic brings some 20,000 spectators and visitors to the area and draws an average of 5,000 spectators to each day’s weigh-in,” Carter said.
Hurricane Katrina decimated the tournament’s Point Cadet Marina (biloxi.ms.us/pr/ports/index.asp) in 2005. This year marks the first since completion of the marina’s rebuild and restoration. The facility boasts slips capable of accommodating vessels up to 100 ft. Services include both gas and diesel service, electrical hook-ups, and new support facilities
The Golden Nugget Casino (goldennugget.com) is the tournament headquarters and has a tournament support staff of nearly 40 on-sight to ensure the event runs smoothly.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast area offers fishermen and spectators spectacular attractions, in addition to what is arguably the best combined inshore and offshore fishery in the world. Casino nightlife, five star golf, and natural and historical museums abound.
The billfish classic has garnered the attention of top-tier marine biology researchers, led by Jim Franks, senior fisheries biologist at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. The tournament offers graduate researchers and undergraduate students a platform from which to collect samples from freshly harvested fish. Franks’ teams have collected and processed vast quantities of scientific data over the tournament’s 15-year history, enabling researchers to learn about the various species hauled to the docks during the tournament.
“The Classic has given us a unique opportunity to collect biological samples over the years,” Franks said. “We focus on tuna, billfish, wahoo and dolphin – evaluating their age class, reproductive patterns (spawning) and other environmental factors.” Tissue samples and otoliths (ear bones) are used to determine a fish’s age while fin clippings are collected for DNA testing.
For 2013, a new three-year yellowfin tuna initiative will begin. According to Franks, the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory will be collaborating with several marine groups, including researchers from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Texas A&M University and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
The Gulf Coast Billfish Classic is open to any vessel with an entry fee of $5,000 per boat with a captain, mate and four anglers. Additional anglers are welcomed with a fee of $500 per angler. Optional entry fees can be made for any of the five divisions (marlin, wahoo, dolphin, swordfish and tuna). Additional entry fees in these divisions range from $500 to $10,000. A “Crew Division” is also available at $500, which pays out at a 50/30/20 split for the heaviest fish weighed-in.