73rd annual Destin Fishing Rodeo kicks off with party, meeting and new weighmaster, for now

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

The boats have been registered and the captains have had their meeting and kickoff party.

All that’s left to do is fish the 73rd annual Destin Fishing Rodeo. 

About 100 captains and mates came out Wednesday night for the kickoff party at AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar, home of the Rodeo, to register and get an update of any last-minute rule changes for the October fishing tournament. 

“It’s tradition,” said Capt. Taylor Bankston of the charter boat Get the Gaff, who was standing in line with many others to register his boat. 

Destin Fishing Rodeo Executive Director Helen Donaldson introduces Amber Helton, who will serve as weighmaster while Bruce Cheves is out sick.

“Even if I don’t catch something, but I do expect to, you still enter,” Bankston said. 

At the end of the night, the number of boats entered in the 2021 Rodeo was 206, split right down the middle with 103 charter boats and a 103 private boats. 

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Rodeo board member John Brashears went over some last-minute rules with the captains and changes on the leaderboard such as no triggerfish and no red grouper. Instead, shark has been added to replace the triggerfish in all the major boat divisions across the board.

Also, the last day to catch a lane snapper will be Oct. 18 and the last day to bring in a flounder is Oct. 14 because of recent closure announcements. Those fish will remain on the leaderboard, but closed on the respective days. 

Capt. Michael Raim registers his boat Wednesday evening at the kickoff party for the Destin Fishing Rodeo. Sitting from left are Raim, Marion Palmgren and Angela Kalthoff. The Rodeo has 206 boats registered for the month-long tournament.

Helen Donaldson, executive director of the Rodeo, reminded the captains they must declare in advance on overnight trips.  

Donaldson also introduced an old but new addition to the Rodeo: Amber Helton, Miss Destin 2005. She will stand in for weighmaster Bruce Cheves, who is out sick. 

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Donaldson, who’s been in touch with Cheves daily, said he has a niece who is a nurse keeping tabs on him. 

“It’s very emotional for me,” Donaldson said of her concern for Cheves as well as doing the Rodeo without him. 

The crew at AJ's Seafood & Oyster Bar served up everything from sushi to shrimp and salad during the Destin Fishing Rodeo kickoff party Wednesday night.

“I’m scared,” she said, noting this is the first Rodeo in her 23 years as director that Cheves hasn’t been there to do it with her. “His head is like a vault of information. I’m sure I’ll be calling him every day … asking what do we do next?” 

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In the meantime, Helton, who is by no means new to the Rodeo, will serve as weighmaster. 

“I’m nervous but so excited. It’s 73 years of the Rodeo,” Helton said. “I want to be a part of it in every way that I can.”  

Destin Fishing Rodeo board member John Brashears goes over some last-minute rule changes during the captains meeting.

Helton served as Miss Destin in 2005. During the years since, she has served as a Rodeo judge, who records the information of the catches, and also has worked in the merchandise trailer selling T-shirts. 

For Helton, being the weighmaster is just another way to be involved in the Rodeo. 

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Since Donaldson asked her to do it, Helton’s been reading the Rodeo book and updating herself on all the rules. She even gave Cheves a call. 

Helton said the first thing Cheves asked in that rough, gravelly voice was, “Do you have your own knives and hooks?” 

Amber Helton, Miss Destin 2005, will serve as the weighmaster for the 73rd Destin Fishing Rodeo while Bruce Cheves is out sick.

Helton smiled as she talked about the conversation 

But when it all was said and done, Cheves told Helton, “I think you’ve got this. The thing that matters most is that you’ll do great.” 

“When he said that … that was his blessing. I feel privileged that I can do it,” she said. 

Helton will serve until Cheves returns. She knows she has big shoes to fill but is looking forward to the Rodeo. 

The Six Piece Suits band entertained the crowd at the Destin Fishing Rodeo kickoff party Wednesday night.

“I’ll greet you with a smile and celebrate your catch,” she said. 

The Rodeo scales will be open daily from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. on the docks behind AJ’s throughout October.