DeCock

$1 million prize may be the one that got away

Staff WriterJune 22, 2010 

The Big Rock marlin tournament usually lasts six days. Two days after the last fish was caught in this year's edition, the 52nd, tournament officials still hadn't named a winner.

A record-setting blue marlin in line to win almost $1 million was on the verge of disqualification Monday as Big Rock officials investigated whether one of the boat's hired crewmen failed to purchase a North Carolina coastal recreational fishing license - $15 annually for residents, $30 out-of-state. Not having the license is not only illegal but a breach of tournament rules.

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 prepared to claim $912,825 in prize money.

But there was no celebration during Saturday's awards banquet in Morehead City. 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."

Monday afternoon, the Big Rock released a second statement, announcing that the investigation was continuing in consultation with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and the Attorney General's Office. A spokeswoman for the Division of Marine Fisheries confirmed that Peter Martin Wann, 22, of Alexandria, Va., was cited Sunday for fishing without a license, 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 spokeswoman Patricia Smith said. "They had notified us Saturday night, and our agents interviewed the fisherman on Sunday."

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 station Big Rock officials then confronted the mate.

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 more than $900,000 over a fishing 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.

Record-breaking catch

The marlin that Thomasson, a retired Army officer from Richmond, Va., brought to the scales 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 after bringing the fish to the dock to be 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 disqualifies the fish, 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 a week later it could all mean nothing for want of a $30 license.

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

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