EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last in a series leading up to the October Destin Fishing Rodeo. For the last several weeks, The Destin Log has looked 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.
In the last 10 years there have been several changes to fishing regulations, however, the Destin Fishing Rodeo has found a way to work around the them and keep the customers reeling with plenty of opportunities to weigh in fish for prizes.
In 2010, the Rodeo board added Shark Saturday’s where anglers who brought in the largest shark on Saturdays take home $250. However, Saturday is not the only day shark can be weighed. Anglers can bring them in any day and vie for a spot in the Mako My Day Shark Division, which is for the largest shark for the month of October. And shark is always a crowd pleaser at the docks.
Another crowd pleaser is the amberjack.
One of the largest amberjack brought to the scales for the Rodeo came in 2012 when Mark Underdahl of Pensacola hauled in a 111.6-pound amberjack aboard the private boat Strange Brew with Capt. Ken Nettles.
However, due to regulations, amberjack was dropped from the lineup of eligible fish to catch after the 2014 Rodeo.
But ’jacks are back this year.
“It’ll be fun to have a big fish you can count on,” said Capt. Brady Bowman of the Bow’d Up, who has won the Captain of the Year for charter boats the last two years.
Bowman said he likes to target big king mackerel, bull mingo and black snapper during the Rodeo.
This year, “We’re going to have amberjack, so that’s going to be a cool target,” he said.
Captain of the Year is awarded across five divisions: charter boat, under-25 foot charter boat, private boat, under 25-foot private boat, and party boats. The awards are based on a point system, where captains receive points for daily awards as well as for fish that finish on the leaderboard for the month.
What’s Bowman’s trick to winning?
“Having people that can stay out there in rough seas … and a little luck,” Bowman said.
Bowman said every once in a while they’ll run a bigger bait down trying to get a bigger fish, but he doesn’t save fishing spots just for the Rodeo.
“I mainly have a lot of regular customers coming back each year. I do have some that get sea sick, but they want call the trip and say let’s go home … they hang in there.”
And by fishing through it, they’re able to get some dailies that add up throughout the month.
Another captain that’s a regular to the winner’s circle is Capt. Cliff Cox of the party boat Sweet Jody. Cox has won captain of the year eight out of the last 10 years.
“It takes a little bit of luck, but it takes a team effort,” Cox said. “It’s not just me. I have good group of guys that fish with me … they put forth the effort and the time to do that and fish for big fish.
“We’ve placed a lot of fish over the years,” Cox said.
Just last year, anglers aboard the Sweet Jody took first place in red grouper with a 19.6 pounder, along with first and second in scamp with a 14 and a 12.4 pounder, and first and second in the mingo with a 5.8 and a 5.2 pounder. They also had a couple of second place fish, a 24.6-pound wahoo, a 6.6-pound black snapper and a 21.8-pound Almaco Jack.
“To me, it’s not about the personal accolades, it’s about my guys and my customers and the effort they put forth. Because it’s hard. It’s hard to even win a daily because you’re competing against so many other boats,” he said.
“But to see the excitement of them winning is what does it for me,” Cox added.
Another division on the board that has grown over the years and offers another place for anglers to win is the Extended Voyage Division.
“We push overnight trips during the Rodeo,” said Capt. Mike Eller of the Lady Em. “It allows us to go to fishing grounds that we can’t get to on a day trip. Plus the tuna fishing in the fall is at its peak. So it’s a combination of getting to look at some different water and go kill something big and cool.”
Over the years Eller and his anglers have done pretty good in the Extended Voyage Division.
“We like to think we hold our on, but in Destin there’s so many damn good fishermen … it’s hard,” he said.
Last year, anglers fishing aboard the Lady Em took first and second in the red grouper category with a 14.4-pounder and a 10.6-pounder. They also took second in king mackerel, scamp and big eye tuna.
But the Lady Em does more than just fish overnight, they have a little fun as well.
As tradition has it for the last 13 years, Capt. Eller takes out some of his friends, who have tagged themselves the Krew of Fools, on the night of the 30th for an overnighter.
“It’s our last hooray, the last trip of the Rodeo,” Eller said, noting the Rodeo is kind of the unofficial end of the fishing season.
“So why not blow it out … and do something cool,” he said.
After fishing, the guys come back to the docks on Halloween night, all decked out and tossing beads to the crowd. Over the years they have taken on various themes such as pirates, vikings, cowboys, superheroes, patriotic, doctors and nurses to a hippy theme.
“Girls just want to have fun,” Eller jokingly said. “We work on it all year coming up with the different themes. It’s just been something fun.”
And that’s what the Rodeo is all about, fun with a little competition in the mix.