73rd annual Destin Fishing Rodeo begins with big fish and big crowds

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

Big crowds and big fish marked the first few days of the 73rd annual Destin Fishing Rodeo. 

“We’ve been blowing and going,” said Helen Donaldson, executive director of the Rodeo.

Prior to Friday morning, 206 boats had registered for the Rodeo. However, by end of day Sunday, the numbers were up. Charter boats entered in the month-long tournament went up from 103 to 114, while the private boat registration went from 103 to 139. Also, 46 anglers have put their paperwork in to fish in the pier, bridge, jetty and surf division. 

“We’ve had incredible crowds every day,” Donaldson said. 

Parker Williams, who was fishing aboard Get The Gaff with Capt. Taylor Bankston, puts his redfish back in a bucket. His a 5.6-pound redfish was good for a free rod and reel and certificate at the Destin Fishing Rodeo. He also placed second on the leaderboard.

“And people have been so kind to Amber (Helton). She has done such a fabulous job at being weighmaster for her getting thrown in here at the last minute,” Donaldson added.  

Helton is standing as the official weighmaster of the Rodeo until longtime weighmaster and fish-story telling Bruce Cheves returns. Cheves has been out due to sickness. 

More Rodeo talk:RODEO RECORD: Capt. Kelly Windes and crew haul in 'freak of nature' grouper

“I’ve had so many people come and tell me what a great job she has done,” Donaldson said of Helton. 

Donaldson also bragged on Miss Destin 2021 Kaylie Sparks. 

“Our Miss Kaylie has done a great job. We’re so proud of our Miss Destin,” she said. 

Destin Rodeo Weighmaster Amber Helton made a "flat Bruce" of weighmaster Bruce Cheves who is out sick. She has the flat Bruce with her daily at the Rodeo.

Sparks was a little shy to handle fish at first, but has taken to serving as Miss Destin quite well. 

“And the crew on the barge … we’ve fumbled and bumbled through, not having Bruce, but we’ve figured it out,” Donaldson said. 

Helton even called Cheves at home and let him hear the crowd via a phone on Saturday. 

More:RODEO RECORD: Big John hauls in big fish for the record books

Cheves, in his gravelly voice, said “let me hear somebody scream.” 

And the crowd gathered at the docks obliged with a big yell. 

As for big fish, the day started out Friday with a 19.2-pound king mackerel caught aboard Destin Inshore Guides and then just went up from there. 

William Payne, 84, pulled in this 44.2-pound amberjack while fishing aboard the Seahorse with Capt. Dean Cox. Wishing him well was Miss Destin 2021 Kaylie Sparks.

Capt. Tommy Carter on the Blue Runner II came in with a 35-pound wahoo, but was knocked to second on Saturday when Capt. Phillip Blackburn on the Backdown 2 came in with a 40.2-pounder. 

Apparently the Gulf of Mexico was a bit rough Saturday. 

“Crappy” was how Blackburn described it. 

More:RODEO RECORD: Breiz hauls in big wahoo on Don't Hate, 'fish of a lifetime'

However, the first day was a big day. Capt. Mike Graef on the Huntress came in with a 25.2-pound blackfin tuna caught by an angler from Texas. The tuna was still holding first at the end of Day 3. 

Blackfin tuna have been coming in left and right. Just minutes after the Huntress weighed in, Capt. Kyle Lowe on the Special K backed in with a 23.2-pound blackfin tuna caught by a woman for first place in the Ladies Division. 

The 25-foot and Under Charter Boat Division even got in on the blackfin tuna action. 30A Light Tackle came in with an 18.2-pounder for first place on the board. 

This is all that was left of an amberjack that the Twilight pulled in on Friday, the first day of the Destin Fishing Rodeo. The amberjack head weighed 39.2 pounds. It suffered the bite of a shark.

One of the bigger catches of the day was brought in by William Payne, 84, on the Seahorse with Capt. Dean Cox. Payne hauled in a 44.2-pound amberjack for first place in the Senior Division. 

Capt. Todd Allen on the Big John and his group came in with a huge gag grouper, 41.2 pounds, caught by Troy, Alabama, angler John Martin, 67. 

More:RODEO RECORD: Bull dolphin puts up bigger fight in boat than in water

Capt. Trey Windes on the Outta Line backed in with a 53.4-pound amberjack caught by a woman. 

Not long after, Capt. Robert Hill on the Twilight backed with a 52-pound amberjack for a second place on the leaderboard in the Ladies Division.  

Hill said they had to deal with sharks throughout the day stealing their fish. As a matter of fact, they brought in what was left of one of the amberjack they hooked up with. All that the shark had left was the head. 

Jim Sutton of Navarre shows off his 85.2-pound amberjack he caught while fishing with Capt. Trey Windes on the Outta Line. Wishing him well is Miss Destin 2021 Kaylie Sparks.

When Helton put the head on the scales it weighed in at 39.2 pounds and wowed the crowd. 

At the end of day one, 92 fish had been recorded. 

Day 2 brought more big amberjack and a few yellowfin tuna. 

More:RODEO RECORD: Strange Brew crew sets record in 2012 Rodeo with big 'jack

Capt. Preston Mueller on the Home Grown weighed in a pair of amberjack 51 and 53 pounds. Capt. Allen Staples on the 100 Proof came in with a 57.2-pound amberjack and a 45.4-pound grouper caught by Ann Haley of Tennessee. Her catch is in first place in the Ladies Division. 

“My muscles are sore,” Haley said after tangling with the grouper. 

Capt. Mike Eller on the Lady Em brought in a 65.4-pound yellowfin tuna 

Outta Line came in again Saturday with some big amberjack. This time Capt. Windes had a 64.2-pounder caught by a lady angler and an 85.2-pounder by a senior angler. 

Day 3 saw more big amberjack and even a big barracuda, with other fish in the mix.  

Ann Haley of Tennessee shows of her 45.4-pound grouper caught aboard the 100 Proof with Capt. Allen Staples. Her catch is a leader in the Ladies Division. Wishing her well is Miss Destin Kaylie Sparks.

When time was called at end of day, the fish count was 216 entries. 

“It’s been really good,” Donaldson said. 

Not only has the fishing been good, but the every-day running of the Rodeo as well. 

“My girls in the office, I couldn’t do it without them,” Donaldson said of Marion Palmgren and Angela Kalthoff. 

"We haven’t had a day to just go, 'Ah,'” Donaldson added. 

The Destin Fishing Rodeo runs throughout October, with weigh-ins daily on the docks from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. behind AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar.