If you want to hear about the day the guys on the fishing boat Sensation landed a giant marlin and danced to Tina Turner because they were sure they won $3.5 million, only to find out they didn’t, first you need to know about Ashley. Bleau and the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament in Morehead City, NC
Bleau, 45, is a self-described “Down East redneck” for whom business attire is board shorts and bare feet. Like many people on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, he grew up hoping he would one day own a boat, and last year he bought a beauty: Sensation, a 52-foot custom fishing boat with a cabin for lounging and a lower bunk. He used the boat to build his charter company, Sensation Sport Fishing.
In June, he entered it in the Big Rock tournament, joining 270 other boats that set sail for six days in hopes of winning millions in prize money and having his achievement etched forever in the Big Rock fountain at the Morehead City harbor. .
Since 1957, the Big Rock tournament, run by a non-profit charity, has attracted anglers from all over, including Michael Jordan, who competes on his fishing yacht, Catch-23.
“If you grow up here and care about fishing at all, Big Rock is your Super Bowl,” Bleau said.
Bleau’s captain was Greg McCoy, 56, who left his previous job in part because the boat he commanded was owned by the woman he divorced. McCoy’s only dedicated crew member was Darrin Cox, a 21-year-old in a camo hat that no one calls Darrin. He goes by Scooter.
Bleau found fishermen willing to pay for 24 shares in the boat at $3,013 per share, with different guys assigned to different days.
The shareholders on Sensation agreed that the people on board for any prize catches would share 70 percent of the payout among themselves. Bleau, McCoy and Scooter would take 10 percent each.
The first boat to bring in a marlin weighing more than 500 pounds would win the Fabulous Fisherman award, worth $739,500. The prize for catching the largest bluefin tuna in total was $2,769,400. The potential haul, then, was $3.5 million if you won both prizes.
The Sento planned to leave Morehead City at 5 a.m. each morning of the tournament and look for a place to drop their lines before the 9 a.m. start. Under the rules, the fishermen would have until 3 pm each day to hook a fish, and they could fight it as long as it took to reel it in. Boats had to radio in to tournament officials when they had a fish on the line. They also had to provide video of their fights with fish afterwards to confirm that the catch was legitimate and that there was no cheating. Winners had to take polygraph tests.
Many of the boats going out into the Atlantic had large, dedicated crews and fancy sonar technology that could find a fish in the water below and lock onto it and follow it around.
Bleau’s boat had none of those things. To find marlin, McCoy relied on instincts and knowledge honed over 20 years at sea. Earlier this year, he and Scooter battled a 600-plus-pound bluefin tuna for 11 hours. They made it right up to the boat, then the line snapped and the fish was gone.
“Broken my heart,” Scooter said.
On the first day of the Big Rock, the swells were eight to 10 feet high, and four of the nine people on Sensation spent most of the morning vomiting. Jordan’s Catch-23 didn’t even come out.
Three boats managed to land blue marlin that day, although only one weighed more than the minimum 400 pounds. On Day 3, Sea Wolf brought in 408.1 pounds and Predator 459 pounds. On Day 5, two more big bluefin tuna came in, including one from the Sushi boat at 484.5 pounds.
Sensation had one day left — Saturday, June 17 — to catch a prize-winning fish.
As the boat headed out to sea that morning, Scooter, not usually one for bold statements, made a prophecy: “At 2:13 pm, we will hook a marlin, and it will win.”
The morning passed quietly. McCoy looked for “ribs,” places where warm and cold water met. They can create lines of sea grass and debris where baitfish like to hide. There would be a fish there, he thought.
Sento dropped the lines and trolled. At the end of one particular line was a Black Bart Super Plunger with a blue and silver head and streaks of red and purple.
Scooter’s 14:13 came and went. Pisces don’t wear watches.
But two minutes later, the line with the Black Bart exploded from the reel. “Success like you wouldn’t believe,” McCoy said later. Line raced from the rod with a shrill whimper. Something was on the line, and it was big.
Bleau got it all on video. Scooter brought the baton to the shareholder who then took his turn in the chair – Bailey Gore, who owns a basement waterproofing company in Boone. Bare-chested and wearing sunglasses, Gore stretched himself into a low squat to let his legs and back do the work.
When the marlin jumped, they knew they had a good one. “If we can catch this fish,” McCoy recalled saying, “we’ll win the Big Rock.”
After more than an hour of fighting, the fish made one final dive, descending to 1,000 feet, trying to get away. Then the line got heavy and stopped moving. McCoy, who has caught about 15 blue marlin in his life, said the marlin likely had a heart attack and died. (Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, confirmed in an interview that fish can die from overexertion during a fight.) Their task now was to haul the fish up without breaking the line. Hour by hour they blew it.
Once they boated it, Bleau said, they knew they had won. The fish was a blue-black monster, its mouth frozen open in surprise.
McCoy started for home, going 24 knots to cover the 55 miles back to shore. He moved Tina Turner and the crew danced and drank and took pictures with the fish. Bleau called his daughter. Scooter envisioned the boat he’d buy with his $350,000 cut — probably a white 28-foot center-console Contender, “something cool and fast,” he said. McCoy told him he would introduce him to a financial planner so he could make the right investments.
They pulled into the harbor in the dark around 11:15 pm. Word spread of their big catch, and people packing the waterfront restaurants and bars cheered them on as they drove into Morehead City. A huge crowd packed Big Rock Landing.
The tournament weigh-in, Randy Gregory, who is a marine biologist, boarded the boat and inspected the fish. He quickly recognized a problem. The Marlin had a bite on its tail, apparently from a shark, and a piece of flesh was missing from its tail fin.
Under the rules, any fish that was mutilated during the fight would be disqualified. When a fish is injured, the fisherman has an unfair advantage.
Ideally, “when you fight and land this fish, you’ve fought 100 percent of the fish,” said Big Rock president Emery Ivey. in a facebook video after the tournament. The guys on Sensation fought 100 percent of this marlin, minus a few chunks.
McCoy said he noticed “flaws” on the fish, but said he’s seen much worse in his career. “It never crossed my mind that it would be disqualified,” he said. “That might be me not reading the rules right, but I’ve read them a hundred times.”
Sensation’s victory was in doubt. But out of respect for the crew’s efforts, Ivey said, officials chose to announce the weight: 619.4 pounds. It was the first fish over 500 pounds, and the largest overall at 135 pounds. The crowd screamed in celebration, but tournament officials said they needed to think it over and sent everyone home.
That night, they brought in more biologists and experts to examine the fish. Their conclusion: It had indeed been bitten by a shark, or some other predator, during the time it was hooked on the line.
The next morning, they announced that Sensation’s catch had been disqualified.
“No one was pulling for those guys harder than we were on the Big Rock board,” Ivey said in an interview. “You know, they’re a hometown boat. Everyone knows who they are. But the rules are the rules, and to maintain the integrity of the tournament, we must enforce the rules as they are written in our rule book.”
Bleau officially protested the decision and retained legal counsel. Neither he nor Ivey would discuss any potential lawsuit. Bleau’s argument is that previous Big Rock marlins came with bites and were still counted as qualified results. Some people point to the 2019 winner, a 914-pound marlin caught by the fishing boat Top Dog, for example. But Ivey said that fish was only mutilated after the fight was over, when the fisherman hauled it into the boat.
Bleau has a lot of support in Morehead City. His daughter made T-shirts identifying Sensation as the Big Rock People’s Champion and sold over 1,000 of them.
It turns out that losing $3.5 million to a poorly timed shark bite is the kind of thing that makes fishermen examine their real principles.
“I’ve never been about the money,” McCoy said. “I wanted my name on that Big Rock fountain. I have since I started fishing here. And I thought I did it.”
The other day, Scooter was talking to a friend on another boat, saying he felt like he won the tournament.
“But you all didn’t win,” said another guy on the boat. He was part of the crew on Sushi that caught the winning bluetinson.
Scooter shrugged and said, “We caught a bigger fish.”