'There just weren’t that many people fishing'

Early Rodeo winners take home everything from the kitchen sink to a 12-pack of beer

Tina Harbuck

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.

What started in the summer of 1948 with a small group of fishermen in the “sleepy fishing village” of Destin has grown to one of the largest fishing tournaments on the Gulf Coast.

This year Destin will celebrate the 70th edition of the Destin Fishing Rodeo, a fishing tournament that literally draws anglers from all over the United States with more than 200 boats competing for more than $35,000 in cash and prizes.

However in the early days, the numbers were a bit different.

“Charter boats … probably had about a dozen to 15 maybe,” said Capt. Tommy Browning who has fished in most every Rodeo.

Browning, now 81, got his start as a young deckhand fishing aboard the Mystery with Capt. Howard Marler, who served as Rodeo chairman for the first eight years.

“We had hand lines, didn’t have rod and reels,” Browning said during those early days.

“You’d snatch when you got a bite … me and Bruce would take turns at that,” he said. Bruce was the son of Howard Marler who later went on to get his captain's licenses as well.

According to the “Fifty Years of Fishing” book, Howard and Bruce caught the only king mackerel on the first day of the 1948 Rodeo aboard the Mystery. The mackerel caught by a lady from Mississippi weighed 36 pounds 2 ounces. Her prize was a full kitchen set including a sink, refrigerator and stove.

“We laughed about it later when she came back to go fishing with me,” Marler said in the book. “She said it cost her almost as much to get the prizes up to Mississippi than it would if she had bought them herself.”

In that first decade, the Rodeo had about 25 to 28 slots for anglers to win prizes for their catches. During the first three to four years, the grand prize for the largest edible fish was “a lot in Destin, valued at $500” donated by Destin realtor Tyler Calhoun. Other prizes up for grabs included items such as table lamps, two-burner gas hot plates, windshield wipers, rod and reels, hot water heaters, corner table, beach umbrella, cans of beer and lodging for two for a week.

There were no second place catches, it was all about the largest fish — the largest red snapper, grouper, king mackerel, Warsaw, triggerfish, pompano, bonito, Kitty Mitchell, amberjack, speckled trout and redfish. But when it came to shark, according to the 1952 Rodeo booklet, the prize went to the angler with the longest shark, not the one that weighed the most.

Official Rodeo records of the actual catches only go back to 1954, the same year the Rodeo was moved from summer to October to extend the fishing season.

On that first day in 1954, only three fish were weighed, a 22 pound red snapper and a 20-pound black grouper both caught on the Gibson Girl and a 9-pound black grouper on the Florida Girl.

The average number of entries for that year was about six fish a day.

“There just weren’t that many people fishing,” Browning said, noting there were only about 15 to 20 boats fishing in those days.

The cost for a half-day charter was $45 and gas was 10 cent a gallon, according to Browning.

“It was $65 for all day … it wasn’t much. But we made a killing. That was big money back in those days,” Browning added.

One of the highlights of the Rodeo in the early '50s, in addition to reeling in the fish, was the crowning of the Rodeo Queen.

“This is one of the last events to take place, but is perhaps one of the most colorful of the entire Rodeo,” according to the 1952 Rodeo guide book. “The queen is chosen by popular vote of the people of the Playground area, including all visitors. The queen may then pick her king to reign with her on the night of the Rodeo Ball, which concludes the Rodeo.”

Today the Rodeo wraps up with an awards banquet and the now Miss Destin, which kind of serves as queen for the Rodeo, is selected in the spring during an annual pageant.

Click to listen

The Fishing Report with The Ships Chandler and Tina Harbuck