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.
With new technology and a few additions, the Destin Fishing Rodeo grew by leaps and bounds during its sixth decade from 1998-2008.
When 1999 rolled around, there was a changing of the guard sort of speak. Helen Donaldson, who had served as a volunteer judge since 1979, stepped into the roll of executive director of the Rodeo after a shadowing Rhonda Braden in 1998.
“It was an exciting time,” said Donaldson, who still serves as director today. “We were just getting into the digital age … the Rodeo had a computer, but it was a learning curve.”
The Rodeo had a program written just for the event and every time there was an addition or change, the programmer would have to rewrite the program.
“But it was a lot better than handwriting everything,” Donaldson said.
And it would have been a lot of ink as things progressed.
“We had 594 fish entries my first year,” she said.
Five years later, the number of entries had grown to 901 and grown to 1,082 by 2008.
Helping to increase those numbers was the addition of new divisions.
In 2000, the Rodeo added the 25-foot and Under Division for fare-carrying vessels as well as the private boats.
Capt. John Tenore of the Dawn Patrol, a 22-foot vessel, has been a contender in the division since the beginning.
In 2001 he won for the largest speckled trout, a 4.4-pounder, and first in the Spanish mackerel division with a 4.9-pounder.
“It’s a pretty competitive division,” Tenore said of the 25-foot and Under Division. “And I think it’s great for the customer … it breaks it down for our size boat.”
Although he can venture out 25 miles, he said it has to be good conditions.
Most of the smaller boats fish within nine miles of shore.
“We can’t handle the sea conditions,” he said, like some of the bigger boats. “We’re limited by the weather conditions.”
Tenore said he likes to target trout, Spanish mackerel and king mackerel during the Rodeo, but has been known to snag a blackfin tuna or a grouper as well.
All in all, he said the 25-foot and Under Division “gets more participation for the Rodeo.”
No only did the Rodeo add new categories in the sixth decade, but it had a new venue — a couple of times.
From 1994 to 1999, the Rodeo was held at Fishing Fleet Marina behind what is now Brotula’s Seafood House and Steamer. In 2000 and 2001, it was held at HarborWalk Marina until it moved to the waterfront behind AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar in 2002, where it continues to be held today.
Starting in the fifth decade of the Rodeo, Bruce Cheves has served as weighmaster for the event and continues to call “time is” on catches today.
Cheves got his start in the late '70s when he took the helm as weighmaster for the Destin Shark Tournament.
Cheves became the weighmaster of the Rodeo after longtime weighmaster Bill Sherman retired.
“Changes in the Rodeo came when they gave me a PA system,” said Cheves, who likes to spin his fish tales.
As weigh master, Cheves said his job is to weigh the fish, tell people what boat it was caught on and what kind of fish it is. Cheves takes it a step further and tells where the fish lives, if it’s good to eat and what it could possibly do to you if it got hold of you.
One of the bigger fish that Cheves weighed during the sixth decade was an 844.4-pound mako shark brought in by Adlee Bruner aboard the Twilight with Capt. Robert Hill and deckhand Eric Hayles during the 2007 Rodeo.
“We were grouper fishing and (the mako) was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Hill said.
Hill explained the shark had been eating their fish and finally surfaced behind the boat. At that point, Hayles was able to get the shark to eat a bait in about a minute.
“I’ve got to give props to my deckhand … I’m just the bus driver,” Hill said.
The Twilight, at the time, didn’t have a tuna door to bring the shark aboard.
“We tied him off in four different places and skipped him home,” Hill said.
In addition to shark, Hill has pulled in many fish from amberjack to grouper and every thing in between since he started Rodeo fishing on his own boat in 2000.
The fish he likes to target are amberjack and gag grouper.
“There’s nothing that pulls like a huge amberjack,” Hill said. “And a big gag grouper is challenging.”
But challenge is what it’s all about.
“The Rodeo is our one month where we get to compete,” Hill said of the charter fleet. “And it extends our season.”
Although the Rodeo has experienced many changes over the years, Donaldson said there is one thing that hasn’t.
“Community support. We have so many who want to volunteer that we have to turn some away,” she said, noting when it’s all said and done more than 2,500 volunteer hours will be logged to make the Rodeo happen.