Aries is the first sign in zodiac astrology and is associated with energy and fire. Those traits also apply to Team Aries, which earned the top tournament award in the 2017 Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic that concluded Sunday morning. Owner/captain Russell Craft, angler Jeff Friedman and family members Jason, Matthew and Darin Friedman brought the largest marlin to the scales—a 668.77-pound blue marlin—that topped the next challenger by less than 15 pounds. For its efforts, the team is taking $397,925 home to Perdido Key, Florida. In true Aries spirit, the team was the first boat entered for the 21st-annual event when it signed up last fall.
“We love fishing this tournament,” Jeff Friedman says. “Bobby [Tournament Director Bobby Carter] and his crew do a fantastic job, the Golden Nugget is a great venue and we always enjoy the camaraderie and sportsmanship that’s on display here.”
Aries’ blue was boated with the fish’s bill broken off. That will sometimes occur naturally or it could happen during the fight. After a lengthy and thorough review process, the tournament committee ruled that the bill had broken by slamming into the boat’s hull (76 Viking) and allowed the catch to stand. Hollis Legg is the Aries mate.
Mollie, a 68 G&S based in Destin, Florida and run by Capt. Jeff Shoults, took second-place honors but the most money. Thomas Cornelison and his teammates earned a payout of $403.005 for the second-largest blue (654.52 pounds), top release team (four blues) and optional entries. Mollie is a perennial contender on the highly competitive Gulf big-game circuit and nearly pulled off another win at this year’s Classic.
Born2Run is no stranger to the awards stage either and angler Dana Foster, Capt. Myles Colley and crew won the third place tournament award with a 563.92 blue. The 72 Viking based in Pensacola, Florida, also scored 1,800 points in the release division for a combined payout of $242,940. Reel Addiction, a 56 Viking from Pensacola Beach and run by Capt. Scooter Porto, took third-place billfish release honors (1,800 points based on time) and $70,380. Other boats winning optional billfish money included Wild Hooker and A Work of Art. Double J (553.43) and Breathe Easy (501.43) came in fourth and fifth, respectively, in the marlin weight division. The tournament established a new minimum length of 107 inches this year (LJFL) to promote billfish conservation.
The leaderboard was constantly changing throughout the tournament due to the hotly contested swordfish division. Every weighed sword easily shattered the existing Mississippi record of 75 pounds. By the time the scales closed Saturday night, Pay Dirt, a 37 Freeman based in Tallahassee, Florida, was the big winner. Angler Scott Cothran, Capt. Ryan Kelly and the veteran team boated a 242.54-pound broadbill to earn top tournament honors and a check for $51.075.
Their catch must now be verified by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, a process that should take a few weeks. If it is certified as expected, Pay Dirt will earn an additional payout of $325,000 plus a Petro Nissan Titan pick-up. Freeman Boatworks, Hilton’s Realtime Navigator, Killer Bee Bait, Poseidon Total Fishing Outfitters and Marsh Tacky Carbon were the special swordfish promotional sponsors, along with the MGCBC.
Shockwave, a 42 Freeman (Capt. Richard Draper), was the top swordfish release boat with 7 points or one point per fish for a $9,000 check. Metal Shark 42 was second with four releases ($6,300), followed by Ellie B, also with four fish. Other boats earning money for swordfish in the optional or release divisions include Titan Up ($29,280), Wild Bill ($12,870), Burst Factor ($10,125), Ellie B ($9,180), Peacekeeper ($8,100), Sea Cruiser Tails Up ($6,570), Cajun Odyssey ($7,850) and Change Order ($5,400).
The tuna division was a seesaw battle all Saturday night as the 120-boat fleet returned to the Point Cadet Marina in Biloxi. Fourteen-year-old Ryan Cooper on CE outlasted the top yellowfin, a rotund fish that tipped the scales at 201.06 pounds. That fish earned an $81,360 payout. Capt. George Crenshaw is the skipper of the 63 Hatteras based in Point Clear, Alabama. Another teenager, Drew Marshall, fishing aboard his family’s 105-foot Broward Trader’s Hill, whipped a tuna that scaled 185.29 pounds, worth $81,360. Capt. Billy Blount is the captain of Trader’s Hill, which home-ports in Bay Point, Florida. Still another junior angler, Dylan Doubleday, fishing aboard Makaira (53 Hatteras/Capt. BJ Teems), landed the third-biggest tuna of the tournament. That fish weighed 176.55 pounds, good for $17,490.
Owner Neal Foster and his Intense team, fishing aboard a 39 Contender, ran nearly 1,000 miles round-trip to scale the top two wahoo, 80.13 and 72.7 pounds. Foster, of Mobile, Alabama, and his crew won $112,200 for their marathon efforts. A Work of Art (93 Viking) captured third place wahoo honors with a 60.82-pounder wound in by Greg Cooper. Capt. Ron Woodruff, owner Art Favre and the team won $61,590 for that fish, billfish release and a 145.95-pound yellowfin optionals. Emily Landry (Bons Amis) also earned $3,960 for a 58.4 ‘hoo.
Angler Brian Leiser, Capt. Jeff Theiry and the Orange Beach, Alabama, team aboard Hot, Black and Sticky (60 Hatteras) won the most money per pound by sweeping the dolphin division. With no other fish meeting the 20-pound minimum, Leiser and Company took home an impressive $108,000 for their 42.97-pound bull.
“I’d like to thank everyone for making our 21st annual Classic such a huge success,” says Tournament Director Bobby Carter. “We set new records for the most boats with 120 teams, a new benchmark purse of than $2 million and an almost certain new Mississippi swordfish record of 242.54 pounds. The weather was great and we had some quality fish brought to the scales. I also like to thank our fantastic sponsors and our tournament crew for making this all happen. I look forward to seeing each of you back again next year, June 4-10, 2018, to kick off our 22nd year here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”