Destin Fishing Rodeo off to big start with big fish and five shark
Big crowds, big numbers and big fish mark the first few days of the 72nd annual Destin Fishing Rodeo, even in the midst of a pandemic.
"It has been amazing ... overwhelming at times," said Helen Donaldson, executive director of the Rodeo.
On day one, the Rodeo weighed in 155 fish, a new day one record for the event.
"It was total, absolute chaos. I loved every minute of it," said Rodeo weighmaster Bruce Cheves. "It was crazy. (The boats) were lined up about 3:30 p.m. and didn't quit until it was about 8:30 p.m. ... it was non-stop chaos. It was on."
On that first day, Cheves weighed in everything from 1.4-pound speckled trout to an 81.6-pound amberjack.
But the biggest thing he's weighed in the first four days was a 218.6-pound Mako shark brought in on the Lady Em Sunday evening.
Capt. Mike Eller of the Lady Em said they were fishing about 153 miles offshore on an extended trip when the shark bit on a tuna rig.
Paul Andrade of Bessemer, Alabama, was the angler on the rod that hauled in the massive shark.
"We didn't see it hit the bait," Andrade said. "We thought it was a swordy at first and then when we started reeling it in and it started giving us a hard time. And once we got it up closer we saw what it was and it caught us by surprise.
"It had a little fight in it," he added.
Eller said he had the shark up in about 10 minutes and they were able to put a shot in him pretty quick.
"He was dead instantly," Eller said.
Not only did the shark top the Rodeo leaderboard, but it's the biggest thing Andrade has ever caught.
But his shark wasn't the only one to hit the scales over the weekend at the Rodeo.
"The last two years we have weighed one shark the whole 31 days," Donaldson said. "And now we've weighed five in two days."
The Rodeo weighed three on Saturday and two on Sunday, including a blacktip and bull shark.
But the overall number of fish brought in has been big. At close of day Sunday, the Rodeo had weighed in 326 fish.
With the pandemic, Donaldson said she really didn't know what to expect.
"It's been eye opening. Everybody seems to be having a great time," she said.
Usually during the first weekend of October and the Rodeo, Destin has a seafood festival that lines the harbor front and draws thousands to the area. However, this year the festival was canceled due to the pandemic.
But the Rodeo proceeded with the fishing tournament and the number of Rodeo T-shirt sales boomed, despite COVID-19.
Not only is Donaldson having to reorder traditional Rodeo T-shirts, but captain's shirts as well due to the number of boats entered.
In an effort to be fiscally responsible, Donaldson didn't order as many shirts, not knowing what to expect as far as participation.
However, thus far 107 charter boats have registered, 131 private boats and 50 anglers in the pier, bridge, jetty and surf divisions.
Not only have the boats showed up, but the crowds as well.
"We've had big crowds ... it's a Rodeo crowd. I don't see that anything has changed," Donaldson said.
As anglers bring in their catches, folks are still crowding into to catch a glimpse of what is being weighed in, some are wearing mask, but most are not.
As for those on the barge, the Rodeo is limiting the number people on board.
"We're rolling," Donaldson said.
The scales are open daily throughout October from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. on the docks behind AJ's Seafood and Oyster Bar in Destin.