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If, as the saying goes, it’s better to be lucky than good, the owners and crew of the fishing boat Carterican found that it’s best to be both last week at the 60th annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament.
The Carterican, owned by brothers and Wilson natives Jamie and Lee Smith, didn’t win the tournament with the biggest blue marlin but it did the next best thing. With time running out on the final day of the six-day event Saturday, June 16, the Carterican capped a rollercoaster week by landing a blue marlin that was big enough to bring back to the dock on the Morehead City waterfront to be weighed. The fish, a female, tipped the scales at 500.9 pounds, which was just enough to make the Carterican and its 10-man crew the winner of the Big Rock’s Level V Fabulous Fisherman contest and its $501,500 prize. That prize goes to the first boat that enters the contest and brings in a blue marlin that weighs at least 500 pounds.
“It ends up being like one can of Miller Lite or Coca-Cola!” marveled Lee Smith, who served as the Carterican’s captain, at the slim margin of victory. “It’s cool the way things come together sometimes. You get lucky.”
However, the Carterican’s prize catch was only good for third place — and an additional $127,500 — behind tournament winner Honey Hush and runner-up Fender Bender. But here’s where some of the Carterican’s luck came into play. The Honey Hush, which landed its tournament-winning 518.5-pound marlin Tuesday, didn’t enter the Fabulous Fisherman contest and, therefore, wasn’t eligible for the half-million-dollar prize.
“I’ve always said that I wanted to win the first fish over 500 (pounds), the Fabulous Fisherman, since they started doing that a few years ago,” Jamie Smith said. “I never, ever expected to do it. It still doesn’t seem like it happened but I’m very humbled that we had the opportunity to go out and that ol’ big girl bit our line!”
Winning the Fabulous Fisherman contest, finishing third overall and collecting some $634,000 total prize doesn’t begin to tell the whole story of the Carterican, the Smith brothers and their crew.
“We have finished the Big Rock now for three years and we’ve caught blue marlins every year and this one just happened to do everything right at exactly the right time,” said Lee Smith. “I know there’s a lot of guys who have been fishing this tournament for a lot longer than us. We’ve been fishing for a long time for blue marlin so we did put our skills to the test but obviously there’s a margin of luck that’s involved in it and we just felt like, for some reason, Saturday we had the lucky lady with us and we were able to get the right fish at the right time.”
YEAR OF DESTINY
The Smith brothers grew up in Wilson, fishing with their father, Les, and spending summers fishing at Atlantic Beach with their dad and grandfathers.
Lee and Jamie bought the business, Rid A Pest, their dad founded and Jamie runs the Wilson office and Lee takes care of the one in Morehead City. The brothers, however, are not professional fishermen, like many contestants in the Big Rock, considered the “Super Bowl” of billfish tournaments on the East Coast.
Several of their crew members are just friends and fishing buddies, including Stacy Creech of Wilson, who fished with the Smiths since they bought their first boat years ago.
“We fished together before they bought the Carterican,” Creech said. “I told them that if they ever fished the Big Rock, I’d like to fish with them.”
So for the third straight year, Creech and some of their other fishing buddies, headed out of Morehead City for a week of fun at the Big Rock.
The Carterican’s luck was apparent right away when the boat caught and released a 350-pound blue marlin Monday that earned it 400 points. However, in a trend that would continue throughout the week, the catch came 10 seconds too late to be the first catch of the day and earn the $5,000 prize that it brought. Still, the fish put the Carterican in tie for first place with Wall Hangar of Raleigh.
But the luck didn’t hold up for the Wilson-based boat, which caught nothing Tuesday, the second of four days it was allowed to put lines in the water of the six-day event. But the luck for the Carterican and the other boats that paid the $5,000 entry fee for the Fabulous Fisherman contest was apparent when Raleigh-based Honey Hush, captained by Chuck Lindner of Morehead City, brought in its 518.5-pound blue marlin. However, word quickly spread that Honey Hush didn’t enter the Fabulous Fisherman contest.
“We were excited that the Honey Hush caught a fish because the captain’s from the Morehead area and is one of the local guys, but we were excited that the Fabulous Fisherman award was still out there,” Jamie Smith said.
But Lady Luck soured on the Carterican on Wednesday when the boat exhibited “fuel issues,” Lee Smith said, on the way and he turned it around and headed back to the dock, burning one of their “lay days.”
It didn’t help, Jamie Smith said, that 30 billfish were caught by tournament boats that day.
“So we were a little bit bummed out,” he said.
But Thursday brought another change of fortune as the Carterican scored the first release of the day and earned the Gregory Poole Equipment Daily First Release $5,000 prize.
With just one day to fish out of the two available days, the Smiths left the decision up to their crew as to whether to go out Friday or Saturday.
“We’ve got a little bit of a democracy and I let people make decisions and some of them wanted to spend time with their families,” Lee Smith said.
“It turned out to be the right thing to do because we decided to spend the day with our families on Friday,” Jamie said.
THE BIG DAY
Going out Saturday was indeed the right thing to do as a record seven blue marlins were weighed that day. The Carterican was the fourth vessel to boat a fish and it came late in the day.
“Saturday rolled around and we knew it was all or nothing,” Creech said. “It was a typical billfishing day — kind of slow and not a whole lot going on. As the day wound down, you realize that we’re going to finish out another year — it’s been good but we’re going to go home, not empty-handed, but not where we wanted to be.”
But then the “ol’ big girl” bit. She hit one of the flat lines off the back of the boat and dropped it before immediately seizing the other.
Cole Ammons, the angler whose turn it was to be in the chair, jumped in it and started the battle.
“A few more yards and she started jumping,” Jamie Smith said. “She jumped the most I’ve ever seen a marlin jump. It jumped every which way — jumped to the left, jumped to the right, away from the boat and turned and came back towards the boat. She jumped a tremendous amount and, at the time I saw the fish jumping, I said, ‘That’s a really nice fish, guys!’”
When the fish got close enough for Jamie Smith to record it via his underwater video camera, mate Charlie Hoffman declared that it was big enough to boat. The blue marlin, graciously, gave up without much of a fight at the end, which proved to be important.
“We were able to bring her in the boat without having to put a gaff in her, which would have lost weight,” Lee Smith explained. “To have that opportunity and the way that everything went together so smoothly. The boating of the fish happened in about a minute and a half from our decision to take that fish and bring her in the boat. She never kicked, she never got aggressive or violent in the boat. She gave up and we brought her in. We thanked her for that and we’re just extremely thankful and blessed that she did that and we were able to come off the way we did in the time frame that we boated her. I think we were about 30 minutes from hook-up to putting her on the deck of the boat. Obviously, it was something that none of our team will ever forget.”
With time left and nobody sure if the marlin was a 500-pounder, there was a quick discussion about whether to head in or stay and try to hook up another blue marlin when, as fishermen say, they were biting. With the notion that some of the boats were going in with fish they might normally release earlier in the tournament, the decision was made to head to shore.
The fish, brought aboard the boat through a transom at the back, had to be kept wet and wrapped in a blanked so it wouldn’t dry out and lose weight on the nearly three-hour drive home. That journey was fraught with excitement for the crew.
“All week we had talked about winning the Fabulous Fisherman,” Creech said. “We didn’t focus on winning the tournament as much as we did (the Fabulous Fisherman). … We just knew there was still hope.”
When the Carterican finally arrived at the dock, the crew was greeted with a sight none of them will ever forget.
“The amount of people that cheered and went kind of nuts over our fish and our team,” Lee Smith said. “To be able to weigh a fish and have that opportunity and everybody was so excited that the Carterican was able to bring a fish in. …
“For me, that’s as close as I will ever get to some type of rock-star status. The dream is to weigh a fish in the Big Rock, no matter how it places.”
Creech summed up the experience by saying, “I guess they say your life is summed up by a few good moments. When we started to back into the slip and it started to sink in, even though we didn’t know we were winning, the hair on my arms stood up.
“I told those guys, ‘We did it. No matter how it plays out, we’re going to weigh a fish today!’”
When the fish was hoisted up on the scale, Jamie Smith said he snuck a peek at the digital numbers.
“It bounced back, you know, 499, 501 and a half,” he said. “I was going, ‘Oh my! Oh my!’ … Then he turned around and said, ‘500.9,’ and the crowd erupted and all of us erupted and cheered.”
But while that put the Carterican in temporary possession of the Fabulous Fisherman prize and third place in the tournament, there was another boat, the Islander, that had radioed in its catch ahead of the Carterican. However, the Islander, captained by Bobby Schlegel of Greenville, reported Bruce Paul on thebigrock.com, had broken a prop the day before and another boat, Hatteras Fever, was in its stead. It didn’t matter, however, as the Islander/Hatteras Fever catch weighed just 429 pounds.
Jamie Smith, who was was cleaning the boat with the crew at its slip in Atlantic Beach, got a call from a friend, relaying the good news.
“When he told me, of course, I yelled down the dock, ‘429 pounds!’” he said. “Of course, there was another eruption of cheers!”
The crew, along with their families, headed back over to the dock at Morehead, this time as confirmed Fabulous Fisherman prize winners, where the reception was more raucous.
“Everybody was screaming your names and cheering at you. Man, it almost felt like being a rock star!” Jamie Smith said.
On top of that, the Smiths learned that the Carterican was the winner of a drawing for one of six Rolex watches given out in honor of the 60th Big Rock. Part of their prize money was 250 silver dollars, which was the prize at the first Big Rock tournament.
Finally, to cap the luckiest of days, Lee Smith bought lottery scratch-off tickets for the crew, saving the last one for himself. He won $500 dollars on the day his boat’s 500.9-pound blue marlin won them $501,500.
Honey Hush ended up winning the tournament and its first-place prize of $753,875, but Carterican’s haul was just as impressive.
“I don’t if winning would have been any better,” Creech said.
The entire experience left the Smith brothers and Creech downright giddy.
“A lot of things fell in place that week,” Creech said, adding how well the crew got along. “Nobody fusses on the boat and everybody has fun. … Sometimes I think the good Lord just reigns down on you.”
Lee Smith was quick to thank his family and friends and especially the employees at Rid A Pest in Wilson and Morehead City.
“We were gone all week and they handled our business for us while we were gone for the week and supported us all week, being right there for us,” he said. “We feel like we caught that fish for our friends and our families as much as we did for the money we got.”
His brother agreed.
“I felt very humbled by the entire experience by so many of the people who showed so much love and support for us,” Jamie Smith said.