$15 mistake could sink $912,825 payday

Staff WRITERJune 21, 2010 

Angler Andy Thomasson and Captain Eric Holmes with the 883 pound Blue Marlin caught by the boat "CITATION" on the first day of the 52nd Annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament.

BIG ROCK BLUE MARLIN TOURNAMENT

Marlin fishing is a big-money business, from the multi-million dollar boats to the million-dollar-plus purse in tournaments like Morehead City’s Big Rock.

Still, the deep-pocketed fishermen and hired hands aboard need the same $15 North Carolina recreational fishing license everyone else does.

That lesson could cost one boat hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A record-setting blue marlin that would have won almost $1 million in last week’s Big Rock was on the verge of disqualification today as tournament officials investigated whether one of the boat’s hired crewmen failed to purchase a license.

Andy Thomasson, hauled in the record-setting 883-pound blue marlin aboard the Hatteras-based Citation last Monday, the first day of the weeklong tournament. He waited all week for a bigger fish to be caught. None was, and the Citation claimed $912,825 in prize money.

But there was no presentation during Saturday's awards banquet and Sunday morning, the Big Rock released this cryptic statement: “The Big Rock board of directors withheld presentation of blue marlin prize money until an alleged rules violation by the top team has been totally researched and a decision made regarding this alleged violation.”

A spokesperson for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries confirmed that Peter Martin Wann, 22, of Alexandria, Va., was cited for fishing without a license on Sunday, which carries a $35 fine and $125 in court costs.

“The mate in question was cited Sunday after the Big Rock had notified our marine patrol that there were some concerns,” NCDMF spokesperson Patricia Smith said.

Citation owner Michael Topp told WITN-TV that captain Eric Holmes, while taking the polygraph examination required of all Big Rock winners, said one of his mates never produced proof of his license. Topp told the television station Big Rock officials then confronted the mate.

Big Rock tournament director Crystal Watters said a final decision was expected by 5 p.m. today, but shortly before that deadline, the tournament issued a statement announcing the investigation remained ongoing.

Mates are the working class of the sportfishing fleet, baiting lines and wrangling caught fish onto the boat. Some are well-compensated confidants of the captain who are trusted to handle occasional charters on their own, while others work for meager pay and whatever tips they can scrounge.

Taking away millions of dollars over a mate's license may seem like a harsh punishment, but the Big Rock sticks to its rules for a reason. For example, the tournament allows boats to fish on only four of six days. Last year, some boats paid a second entry fee after the first two days were fruitless, re-entering the tournament for the final four days and essentially buying two extra days of fishing.

That loophole was closed this year, but with so much money on the line, any weakness in enforcement is ripe for exploitation. Even in the case of a record marlin, boated otherwise by the letter of the law, there’s no room for interpretation. What’s left here are the makings of a joint collaboration between Hemingway and O. Henry.

The marlin Thomasson, a retired Army officer from Richmond, Va., brought to the scales on Monday was 355 pounds heavier than the second-place fish and broke a 10-year-old tournament record by 52 pounds. It was almost twice as heavy as last year's winner.

“The fish never got out of the water,” Thomasson said as the fish was weighed, according to the Big Rock’s website. “It was a hard fight and when it was all over with I was weak in the knees … and the arms too. For a 63-year-old man, it was about all I wanted to handle.”

For a week, it stood up as the first-prize fish -- throughout the entire tournament, but perhaps not once the tournament was over. If the Big Rock acts as expected later today, a 528-pounder caught Wednesday by John Parks aboard Carnivore will be the winning blue marlin.

Thomasson knew the marlin on the end of his line, one he fought for three hours, was a big one. He could never have known two things: It was big enough to set a record and win almost $1 million, and that a week later it could all mean nothing, for the want of a $15 license.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or (919) 829-8947

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