Everyone who relies on the fishing industry owes a lot to the Destin Fishing Rodeo and the men who started the event 65 years ago. Some can even thank the month-long event for prizes unthinkable by today's standards.
Captain Robert Hanshaw, of the Miss Aegina, and his family are part of that smaller group. A common prize offered during the first few years after the rodeo's 1948 founding was the deed to property in Destin. When one early winner didn't want the plot of land he'd won on Mountain Drive, Hanshaw's father Hank jumped at the opportunity.
"He said, 'I don't want a bunch of sand spurs.' My dad said, 'I'll give you $200 for it.' He sold it to him, and that's how we got our first piece of property, off a guy who won it in the rodeo," Hanshaw told The Log.
Other prizes, all donated by local businesses, ranged from fishing lures to household appliances. In the inaugural rodeo, only one king mackerel was caught the entire competition, by a woman from Mississippi on Capt. Howard Marler's boat, Mystery. For winning the king mackerel competition, the woman won a brand-new stove, refrigerator and kitchen sink.
"She said it cost her almost as much to get the prizes up to Mississippi than it would if she had bought them herself," Marler wrote in a "Lines & Leisure" column in 1990.
The largest triggerfish in 1951 won the lucky angler $25, one windshield wiper, and 12 cans of beer.
Today, the Destin Fishing Rodeo provides far more than just cash and material prizes for the winners, though. Its most important function is keeping the charter fishing industry in business after Labor Day passes and the traditional tourist season ends. That wasn't always the case, though.
Founders of the first rodeo, local fishermen, captains and members of the Destin Businessmen's Club, were looking mostly for a way to raise some money for the Destin Community Center. They figured the best time to do that was during the summer months, the peak time of year for charter fishing. So the first rodeo began in late May and ended in early July. The next few also took place in the peak summer weeks between late May and Labor Day.
In 1954, that all changed. After a lack of cooperation among involved parties, members of the Rodeo Advisory Board, including William L. Marler, the rodeo's first chairman, John Cox and Gene Thomas, announced in March that there would not be a Fishing Rodeo that year.
That's when the advisory board called on Leonard Patrick Hutchinson, a retired Secret Service agent who had only been in Destin a couple of years. They asked him to act as general manager of the Rodeo. He accepted the position, which he would hold for 11 of the next 12 years.
After discussions with the board, Hutchinson and the other members were hit by a tidal wave of a revelation: Destin didn't need to bring in anglers in the summer; it needed to bring them in after the summer tourist rush was over. The board announced there would be a Fishing Rodeo in 1954 after all, and it would take place throughout the month of October.
Now, October and the Destin Fishing Rodeo are synonymous on the Emerald Coast. Tourist numbers still inevitably drop after Labor Day, but anglers still flock to the harbor to take part in the biggest competition on the waters of the World's Luckiest Fishing Village. In the first 50 years, from 1948 to 1998, more than 1 million people competed in the rodeo.
In 2013, the Destin Fishing Rodeo expects more than 30,000 anglers to compete throughout the month for more than $100,000 in cash and prizes. The rodeo is open to both private and charter boats. It is free to compete for those fishing on a boat registered for the rodeo.
For a list of registered boats, awards, rules and much more information, visit destinfishingrodeo.org.