EDITOR’S NOTE: For the next few weeks leading up to the October Destin Fishing Rodeo, The Destin Log will be taking a look back at the Rodeo over the last seven decades — from how it got started, to some of the big catches and prizes, to changes and even some of the personalities that bolstered it to one of the longest traditions in Destin.
By the time the fourth decade of the Destin Fishing Rodeo rolled around, 1978-1988, it was well on its way to being one of the biggest events around and one fishermen couldn’t wait for.
As a matter of fact, anglers would book a year in advance to get in on the chance to fish the Rodeo.
“We were booked years in advance. It was that important to the customer,” said Capt. Kelly Windes, who ran the charter boat Sunrise, but has since retired.
Windes said the Rodeo brought many benefits to the fishing fleet.
“First it was much fun,” he said. “Second it was good business. We promoted the Rodeo all year to try to get our people to come back to fish for the bigger fish. … Go for broke sort of speak.
“Economically it was good,” Windes added, noting most years he would run all 31 days of the Rodeo.
Windes said he might run 100 miles just for one or two fish.
“Sometimes we got them and some times we didn’t. It was the chase we were selling. People love that chance to catch a big one,” he said.
Back in the '80s all fish were open game from grouper, amberjack, and blue marlin to red snapper.
“It was very competitive. It was a lot of fun trying to come out on top of the heap,” Windes said.
And many years Windes did finish on top, having won the “Captain of the Year” award several years running before the Rodeo board just picked one out of a hat.
And with the competition heating up, the number of fish entries in the rodeo grew in the '80s.
In the 32nd Rodeo, 1980, 36 fish were weighed on day one and by the finish the total count was at 598.
In 1982, Destin Fishing Rodeo Incorporated was formed and the event was no longer run by the Destin Community Center Board.
Chairman of the board for the Rodeo that first year was Melvin Laird and Darlene Raim served as secretary.
“We had to do everything by hand,” said Raim, who still serves as a Rodeo volunteer today.
As secretary, it was her job to write down the names of the fishermen, weights of fish and what boat they fished on.
“I was in the trailer at the top of the hill,” she said of the Rodeo docks.
Raim said that Bill Sherman was the weighmaster at the time.
“He would climb up and down that post and weigh the fish. It was priceless … I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun,” Raim said.
“Now it’s all computerized. It’s a great thing what they do now, but it’s so big,” she said.
Today, the Rodeo has more than 200 spots for anglers to win a prize. In the '80s, there were less than 50 spots on the leader board.
“But it was big back then … it was a different kind of big. We didn’t have as many divisions, but they had bigger fish,” she said.
In addition to writing down the catches in the Rodeo ledger books, which can now be found at the Destin History and Fishing Museum, Raim would call the local radio station in Fort Walton Beach every day and report on who was leading in the Rodeo and who caught the biggest fish.
One of those big catches was recorded in the Rodeo ledger on Day 8 of the 36th annual event. Dr. Earl Brandon of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, hauled in a 343-pound, 8-ounce Warsaw while fishing with Windes. According to the ledger, it was a Rodeo record breaker.
“I remember that fish well,” Windes said. “I can tell you what kind of bait, what kind of tackle and what place he came off of,” he said.
The doctor pulled the fish up in about 30 minutes.
Windes explained that once you get a Warsaw pulled off the bottom, away from its home, it starts to float and then it comes up pretty easy.
“But that first 100 feet is Katie, bar the door,” he said.
Windes recalled catching six Warsaw in the Rodeo all over 300 pounds.
“We were shooting for the big one … go for broke fishing. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it for many years.”
That same year, Capt. Tommy Klosterman on the Melanie Dawn and his Alabama angler pulled in a 59-pound, 10-ounce grouper for another Rodeo record, according to the ledger.
“In 1985, we caught probably the biggest snapper that had ever been weighed in the Rodeo, a 46-pound, 8-ounce snapper,” Windes said. “It was like a freak of nature.”
Windes said they caught the snapper on an octopus, in 50 fathoms of water on a reef made from a car body that was put there to draw snapper.
The red snapper caught by Lane Nicholes of Clearwater held the All Tackle World Record for more than 10 years, Windes said.
But the red snapper was something Windes loved to chase.
“We’ve caught a lot of snapper that were 30 pounds-plus,” he said.
Today, red snapper is not even an eligible to be weighed in the Rodeo due to fishing regulations.
But there’s still plenty of fish to chase.