A blue marlin roaming the Pacific Ocean can attain a body weight measuring over a half-ton. That girth is packed into a sleek, hydrodynamic body that can reach lengths of 16 feet. When swimming after prey, it can accelerate to nearly 70 mph. A black marlin, of similar proportion, can reach speeds close to 80 mph. When all that momentum zeroes in on a baited lure trolled behind a boat, the result could equate to the catch of a lifetime. And if you happen to hook into a black or blue off Los Cabos, Mexico, during the Bisbee’s Black & Blue Tournament, that fish could be worth millions of dollars.
Bisbee’s Black & Blue, which this year runs October 22-26, is advertised as the richest sportfishing tournament in the world. Anglers from all 50 states as well as up to 18 other countries come to Cabo San Lucas at the bottom of Baja California to try for the seven-figure jackpot. In 2006, the prize money totaled $4,165,960, the largest payout in fishing tournament history. Last year, the top boat hauled in nearly $2.4 million—all for catching a single fish—which is why for many tournament anglers, Bisbee’s is the ultimate competition.
“The major appeal of the Bisbee’s Black & Blue is that it is the worldwide, main event of marlin fishing,” says Colin Sarfeh of Pelagic Gear, which sponsored last year’s winning team. “Location, consistent fishing results, and an event that seems to grow larger by the year make Bisbee’s the place to be in October. And don’t forget the money. It’s no coincidence that Sports Illustrated hailed this tournament as ‘The Super Bowl of Fishing’.”
Beer Muscles and Bar Bets
The Bisbee family still runs the Black & Blue, which started back in 1981 thanks to Bob Bisbee, now 80 and the family patriarch. He owned a fuel dock and tackle store in California, and originally set up the tournament to promote his business to the West Coast fishing circuit; many boats from the Newport area and the California coast made their way south to Cabo in the wintertime. But that’s not the whole story.
“In all honesty it was beer muscles flexing at the local bar,” says Wayne Bisbee, Bob’s son who now serves as the event’s director. “They were sitting around saying, ‘I can fish better than you,’ and the next thing you know there’s serious money involved.”
The first tournament consisted of six boats fishing for a total of $10,000 in prize money. Over the years the purse has added a few more zeroes to the bottom line and the number of fishing teams has swelled considerably. Last year, 106 boats with 740 anglers showed up in up in Cabo to hook a winner.
Historically, the Black & Blue was once known as more of a party tournament than a serious fishing event thanks to the density of bars and nightclubs just off the marina in downtown Cabo San Lucas. “Teams used to stumble out of the bars and untie their boat just in time for the shotgun start,” says Bisbee.
But as the tournament evolved into a big-money venture with the potential for million-dollar payouts, most of the fishing teams today focus on the actual fishing. “In the last eight to 10 years the prize money has gotten so insane that they take it more seriously,” he says. Then he adds with a grin, “On tournament days at least.”
Cabo San Lucas sits at the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, a long sliver of land separated from the mainland by the Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez). The Gulf is home to one of the richest marine ecosystems in the entire world, harboring humpback, killer, and gray whales, as well as giant whale sharks, manta rays, and many species of sea turtles.
At the tip of the Baja Peninsula, water from the Gulf mixes with the Pacific Ocean, creating an abundant convergence of marine life. Strong Pacific currents swirl around the tip of the peninsula, trapping large concentrations of nutrients and baitfish in one giant eddy composed of several large reefs as well as underwater canyons and mountains. All of these things combine to create the perfect feeding grounds for large pelagic predators such as blue, black, and striped marlin.
The once sleepy commercial fishing town of Cabo was “discovered” as a sportfishing destination in the 1950s, and the big-game fishing for billfish became so legendary that the area earned the nickname “Marlin Alley.” The largest blue marlin ever caught at the tournament weighed 993 pounds; the largest black marlin weighed 645 pounds.
For years, the only practical way to get down to Cabo was by boat, giving the prospect of fishing there an air of affluence since you had to have a vessel that could handle big seas on the multi-day trip south (see “Power Players,” page 47). You still do, if you plan on bringing your own boat, but Cabo has a thriving charter fleet that takes advantage of this amazing fishery. And during the Black & Blue, a good crew is what you need for a shot at the prize money.
On tournament days, more than 100 boats mill about offshore, just outside of the harbor. The crews go over last-minute bait and equipment checks and make sure everything is secure. The captain scans his electronic charts and GPS with a plan in place to sprint to where he thinks his team will have the best chance to hook a marlin. The anglers, the ones responsible for handling the rods and fighting the fish, stand on deck with butterflies in their stomachs and a nervous edge akin to a football player before a championship game.
The lure of a big payday draws some of the best fishing crews from all over the world. (As one participant joked, “Just try getting a fishing charter in Kona [Hawaii] during the Black & Blue. They’re all in Baja.”) Some teams show up weeks before to do some pre-tournament scouting, and they all put down hefty entry fees for the chance at the big reward.
The Black & Blue runs over three days and differs from many billfish tournaments because the competition is comprised of a series of daily jackpots. There are six jackpot divisions, ranging from $500 to $10,000. A team fishing a jackpot must pay for that level over all three days. For example, entering the $500 daily jackpot costs a boat $1,500; the $1,000 jackpot requires $3,000 and so on. There are also top tournament prizes, as well as a separate jackpot division for other gamefish such as dorado and tuna. A boat can enter one or all of the daily jackpots—the bill for entering the whole enchilada runs $71,500.
The team that weighs in the heaviest fish each day wins whichever jackpot it entered. If no one catches a qualifying fish—a marlin must weigh at least 300 pounds to count—the jackpot money rolls over to the next day. When this happens, the pots for a single fish can soar.
This is what happened last year when one team on the boat Frantic Pace caught a 465-pound blue marlin on the second day of the tournament. That fish turned out to be the only marlin landed during the entire three days of fishing. Since Frantic Pace had entered into all of the daily jackpot levels, they swept the entire prize board, winning a grand total of $2,396,800. A huge number, yes, but well short of the record payout of $3,902,998 won by a boat named Bad Company in 2006.
At 8 a.m. on October 23 all that prize money will be on the line, as the Black & Blue officially begins with a shotgun start—all boats have to remain behind an invisible starting line in the harbor and open their throttles as soon as the official start is broadcast over the radio. From there the captains point the bows of their boats to famous fishing areas like Iman Bank or Gorda Bank, or their own secretly scouted spots, in hopes of landing a worthy fish.
By 5 p.m., all the boats without a catch will be feverishly trolling for a bite and hoping they have time to race back to the harbor by 9 p.m. where they weigh their fish at the Island Global Yachting Marina, the nerve center for the entire event. As many as 5,000 people will show up to watch the weigh-ins, adding to the tourney’s arena-sized atmosphere.
This year, Wayne Bisbee estimates that the Black & Blue could have 130 boats and more than $3 million in total prize money, an enticing lure to hundreds of anglers, all hoping to land a marlin big enough to take it all.