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.
In 1959 Buddy Gentry’s boat the Sailfisher was the 13th charter boat in the Destin fleet.
Today, the Destin fleet has more than 125 vessels plus many more private boats that will participate in the 70th annual Destin Fishing Rodeo this October.
Needless to say the fleet and Rodeo fishing has changed over the last seven decades.
Gentry, now 77, was 18 when he got his captain's license and his first boat.
“At one time I was the youngest captain in the state of Florida. I had a write up in the paper,” he said, noting he went to Mobile, Alabama, to take the captains test that was an oral exam back then.
In the '50s and '60s, Gentry said most of the boats were parked behind people’s houses that lived along Destin harbor. His boat the Sailfisher, a 38-footer built in Valparaiso, was docked behind their home, which sat just to the east of the current Harbor Docks Restaurant.
As a matter of fact, he said his first memory of Destin was swinging from an oak tree at their house in 1945.
Gentry started deckhanding when he was 13 for Cecil Woodward who lived nearby.
But in 1962, Gentry’s life took a turn when Capt. Bruce Marler caught the first blue marlin out of Destin aboard the Wahoo.
“Bruce Marler changed my life when he caught that ole big blue marlin,” Gentry said. “I was going to be a doctor. I was in pre-med at Auburn.”
But he fell in love with offshore fishing.
“All of sudden we realized there might be blue marlin out there,” Gentry said.
He tells of how he and a handful of captains such as Bobby Walker, Johnny Dukes and David Marler all ventured out with their single engine diesel boats and found a whole new world of fishing.
“We went to the offshore edge and we saw more fish than we dreamed of … we could have caught all kinds of fish,” Gentry said.
In 1962, red snapper and king mackerel were the Grand Prize fish of the Rodeo. There was a Special Award for Warsaw, Sailfish Prize, and a Major Award for species such as grouper, black snapper, Kitty Mitchell, amberjack, dolphin, bonito, wahoo, little tuna, scamp, barracuda, Jack Crevalle and cobia. There was also a Special Category for pompano off the pier, bridge and surf, plus a Sportsman Trophy for the first marlin and tarpon entered.
It wasn’t long after that a Billfish Division was added to the lineup in the Rodeo.
And capturing all those early catches on film was Arturo Mennillo.
“Dad did it mostly to help promote the Rodeo,” said his son, Tony Mennillo. “The Rodeo was always an exciting time.”
He said his dad worked closely with Leonard Hutchison to help get the word out about the Rodeo.
“He’d send images with captions to the newspapers in Tennessee, Alabama … wherever the fishermen were from,” Mennillo said.
Mennillo served as the official photographer for the Rodeo in the early days until the mid-60s.
In the 1963 Rodeo, Gentry and his anglers were contenders bringing in photo-worthy catches. They brought in a 6-foot 6 3/16-inch sailfish, a 6-foot-6 ¾-inches white marlin and a 28 pound 12 ounce wahoo.
Back then, the sailfish and white marlin were measured instead of weighed.
After college, he bought another boat, a 48-footer with twin diesel engines, and named it the Marliner.
“Nobody in Destin had anything like that. I hate to brag, but this thing was the queen of the fleet when it hit Destin,” he said.
The Marliner would go about 10 knots and it was set up to go overnight for offshore fishing.
And it paid off in the 1965 Rodeo. Jim Berry of Kentucky pulled in a 304-pound blue marlin aboard the Marliner to win.
In the 1966 Rodeo, Donald Grob of Chattanooga, Tennessee, landed a 424-pound blue marlin on the Marliner with Gentry.
Gentry said about 20 years later he got a call saying that his record was broken. He said he laughed not realizing that the marlin had been a Rodeo record for all those years.
However he does recall the day they caught the big blue marlin.
“I still remember that fish, because it was so scary when I stuck him. You don’t want to be looking down the mouth of one of those things when you stick him. He was pointed right at me,” Gentry said.
They got the marlin on the boat and got back to the Rodeo scales that were located at East Pass Marina, which was next to today’s Boathouse Restaurant on Destin harbor.
“That blue marlin drew a hell of a crowd,” Gentry said.
Today, the Rodeo continues to draw huge crowds with folks from all over trying to catch a glimpse of what comes in from the deep.
RODEO THROUGH THE DECADES: Capt. Tommy Browning on the first decade of rodeos >>>