Destin Fishing Rodeo names top captains at 73rd annual event

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

More than 100 fishermen and friends gathered at AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar Friday evening for the 73rd annual Destin Fishing Rodeo awards, putting the final stamp on the month-long fishing tournament. 

During October, about 300 boats, big and small, brought in 1,093 fish that made the leaderboard. And there were almost that many that were just a pound or two short of making the board. 

Amber Helton, along with Weighmaster Bruce Cheves and Miss Destin 2021 pose for a photo at the Rodeo Awards on Friday night at AJ's Seafood and Oyster Bar. Helton filled in for Cheves the first three days of the Rodeo as weighmaster.

Some captains took customers fishing just four or five days, while others went most every day in October, but five captains left their mark, many times on the Rodeo leaderboard, earning them the Captains Award for 2021. 

More:It’s a wrap: 73rd annual Destin Fishing Rodeo is in the books

The Captains Award, which is awarded in five boat divisions, is determined by an accumulation of points. Each captain receives 20 points for a first-place finish on the leaderboard, 10 for second place, seven points for a bonus or weekly award and one point for a daily award. 

When it was all said and done, the top five captains in their boat divisions were Cliff Cox, Robert Hill, Scott Whitehurst, Andrew Dover and Guy Santucci. 

Capt. Cliff Cox of the Sweet Jody has now won the Captain Award 12 times. Wishing him well is Miss Destin 2021 Kaylie Sparks.

For some it was the first time to receive the honor while others were old hands at receiving the accolade. 

Winner of the Captain Award in the Party Boat Division for the 12th time in the past 14 years was Capt. Cliff Cox of the Sweet Jody.

But Cox is quick to credit his team. 

More:Destin Fishing Rodeo wraps up first week

“It’s teamwork. I just drive the boat around, they do it,” he said pointing to those gathered around the table at the awards ceremony. 

Cox said some of his “Rodeo people” have fished the tournament with him for the past 20 to 30 years. 

This year, Cox and his crew fished 21 out of 31 days and managed to bring in the biggest mingo of the entire Rodeo, a 5.4-pounder on Day 9 caught by Jared Bond of Crestview.  

Out of 20 available slots in the Party Boat Division, the Sweet Jody took 12. They swept the grouper, scamp, mingo and almaco jack entries, taking first and second each species. The Sweet Jody also got on the board in the Offshore Division with a 4.8-pound triple tail for a first-place spot and in the Deep Drop Division with a 36-pound Warsaw. 

Four in a row. This is the fourth consecutive time and fifth overall that Capt. Robert Hill has won the Captain Award in the Charter Boat Division. Also pictured is Miss Destin 2021 Kaylie Sparks.

Another repeat captain was Capt. Robert Hill, who took the Captains Award in the Charter Boat Division. 

This was Hill’s fourth time in a row to win the award, fifth total. 

“It’s all the deckhands,” he said, giving credit to Travis Marlin and Scott Burke. “We had unbelievable weather … overall, it was great.

More:73rd annual Destin Fishing Rodeo weighs in sharks to mingo in first 10 days

“But it was the hardest year because of the sharks and the competition,” he added. 

On the first day of the Rodeo, Hill and his crew came in with just the head of an amberjack, which weighed in at 39 pounds. Hill estimated that the amberjack, if not snapped off by a shark, would have easily been a 100-pounder or more. 

As for the competition, the race for the Captains Award in the Charter Boat Division was close with Capt. Mike Graef on the Huntress and Capt. Allen Staples of the 100 Proof hot on his heels. 

Rodeo board member John Brashears hands out one of the many plaques given out Friday night to a winning angler.

“The last two fish we weighed were crucial,” Hill said.

On the last day of the Rodeo, Hill came in with a 145 and a 144.4-pound yellowfin tuna to take first and second in the Extended Voyage Division. 

The Twilight took first in grouper with a 54.4-pounder and first and second in scamp with a 20.8 and a 19.4-pounder. They also had the Ladies' largest grouper, 53 pounds, and the Juniors' largest amberjack, 74.2 pounds. In the Deep Drop Division, they had the largest snowy grouper, 23.4 pounds, and the largest yellowedge grouper, 28.4 pounds. 

More:Destin Fishing Rodeo was a "family tradition" for Kelly O'Connor, Miss Destin 1982

Hill said his most memorable fish this Rodeo was a catch and release of a roughly 500-pound blue marlin while looking at the condos on the beach.

“That’s how close in we were,” Hill said. 

How does Hill win the award consecutively? 

“I worked for Kelly (Windes) for so long and got used to winning. He taught me to be a winner,” Hill said.

Capt. Kelly Windes has since retired, but won the Captains Award many times during his time at the helm. 

Capt. Scott Whitehurst of On The Bite won the Captain Award in the 25-foot-and-under Charter Boat Division. Also pictured is Miss Destin 2021 Kaylie Sparks.

Capt. Scott Whitehurst of On The Bite won the Captain Award in the 25-foot and Under Charter Division. 

“I like seeing it ink,” Whitehurst said looking at the program. 

Whitehurst has won the award six or seven times, but it’s been about three or four years since he’s been at the top. 

“I like to be in first and second,” Whitehurst said. 

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

He and his customers fished 26 of the 31 days and captured nine spots on the leaderboard. 

On the last day of the Rodeo, he took over three places on the board with two big black snapper, 9 and 8 pounds, and an 18.6-pound almaco jack. 

One of the fish he was most proud of was the 6.2-pound speckled trout on Day 13 of the Rodeo. 

This is Capt. Andrew Dover of Muscle Memories third time to win the Captain Award. This year he won it in the Private Boat Division. Also pictured is Miss Destin 2021 Kaylie Sparks.

“Didn’t have to worry about that one no more,” Whitehurst said. 

In the Private Boat Division, Capt. Andrew Dover on the Muscle Memories won the Captain Award, again. 

“We’re three for three,” Dover said. 

“For three years we’ve entered and three years we’ve gotten it. We definitely gotta try. Can’t not go for it now,” Dover said, as he was sporting last year’s winning belt buckle. 

This year, the crew fished the Rodeo 10 days as opposed to just six last year. 

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

They took first and second in blackfin tuna and mingo. They also earned first in the black snapper with a 6.6 pounder. 

The catch they were most proud of was a 45.6-pounder caught by Tony Dover of Mary Esther, Andrew’s dad. 

“We thought it was an amberjack, but we got a big surprise,” Andrew said.

It ended up being a grouper that placed first on the leaderboard. 

New to the winner's circle for the Captains Award was Destin’s Guy Santucci aboard his 25-foot-and-under Private Boat, Coastline Tree. 

Capt. Guy Santucci and his son Guyver accept his Captain Award in the 25-foot-and-under Private Boat Division. Wishing him well is Miss Destin 2021 Kaylie Sparks.

“Pretty cool … never got that before. Pretty lucky,” Santucci said. 

Santucci placed first and second in grouper and scamp. They also had second in mingo. 

Santucci said he only fished four days throughout the month. 

Captains weren’t the only ones recognized; the mates were as well. 

Travis Marlin and Scott Burke of the Twilight won for the charter boats, while Randy Copley, Jason Audet and Robert Chastain of the Sweet Jody for party boats. 

Capt. Allen Staple and his mates Caleb Brown and Robert Michaelson of the 100 Proof won the first-ever Brant Kelly Memorial Award for the largest amberjack of the tournament, a 107.4-pounder.