When a tournament is ranked among the top 10 in the world and the overall cash prizes are worth north of a million dollars, the competition is always stiff. So that part of this year’s Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic is the same as the preceeding dozen. Come Thursday afternoon though, 78 gleaming sportfishers, manned by some of the best crews and anglers in the sport, will motor into the Gulf of Mexico in search of the top prize. Each has a chance of encountering a gigantic blue marlin. Several in the 700- to 800-pound class have already been caught this season and the Gulf has produced its share of granders, or those topping one thousand pounds, over the years. But if there is one boat among the field that might have a slight edge, it’s the Iona Louise.

Based in Orange Beach, Alabama and owned by Joe Hudson, this 68 Hatteras simply screams good karma right now. Deb Hebert, a newcomer to the sport, won several game fish categories in tournaments last season and was the top lady angler in the 2013 ECBC. She followed that up by whipping an 843-pound blue marlin in a little more than three hours in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic earlier this month to claim the top prize. And what the petite emergency room doctor lacks in experience is more than offset by her determination and skilled crew. Capt. Larry McMillan is the Iona Louise’s skipper.

“We’re all friends with the other boats until it’s time to put the hooks in the water,” he explained before Wednesday’s captains’ meeting. “Then we’re down to business. Normally I like to be the underdog, but I guess I can’t claim that title this weekend.”

McMillan planned to keep it simple with his usual spread of bait and lures. He also planned to fish the same area where they caught the 843 since it still had favorable conditions with good current and plenty of tuna.

“I had a good feeling the last time and I have a good feeling again. We’ll see,” he said with a sly grin. “If we get another big one I’ll definitely be back in Friday night [when the scales open].”

But the other boats aren’t ready to concede just yet. Capt. Joey Birbeck, skipper on the appropriately-named You Never Know!, has already formulated his game plan. Birbeck and the Turner family team are always serious contenders. The 72 F&S calls the Sandestin Baytowne Marina home. Sandestin® Golf and Beach Resort is the title sponsor and host resort of the ECBC. Mojo Sportswear and Orca Coolers are the presenting co-sponsors for this year’s event. Visit South Walton and Wind Creek Casino & Hotel-Atmore are also 2014 tournament partners.

“We’re going to blast out and fish the Double Nipple Thursday and try to get a couple the first day. Then we’ll push off to the west to find some blue water and hopefully put a big one on the deck. Everybody is live baiting these days, so it’s proabably going to take a 700-pounder plus to win it.”

So will Iona Louise go back-to-back? Or will You Never Know! answer the call? Or is this the weekend the dark horse sprints to the lead? In this high-stakes game, it’s anyone’s bet.