With an abbreviated fishing window courtesy of Tropical Storm Cindy, the 36 boats competing in the 15th annual ECBC opted to stay offshore Saturday night. None returned to the festive backdrop of the Baytowne Marina, where the sponsors were busy showcasing their products, food and libations were abundant and swag was flying over the barricades faster than a buzzing drone.
With nearly $625,000 in cash prizes on the line though, all teams will be eyeing the clock to ensure they make it back before Sunday’s deadline. The scales close at 10 p.m., although any boats in the que beforehand will still be allowed to weigh their catch.
Once the boats start lining up, a crackerjack team goes to work in a choreographed drill that makes hoisting thousands of pounds of cold, wet, slimy finfish look like the conveyor belt at a UPS shipping hub. Each team member has a dedicated job, all under the watchful eye of weighmaster Jack Teschel, who has guided the weigh-ins for the past 11 years. The all-time record was 114 fish in a single night and the tired crew finished just before 1 a.m.
“The key to a smooth weigh station is synchronization,” Teschel explains. “Everybody needs to be on the same page, from handling, to weighing, scoring and finally saving the fish for charity. Harbor Docks cleans all the fish and the meat is donated to Harvest House to feed the under-privileged in the area.”
Before a marlin is offloaded, Teschel boards the boat and does a preliminary measurement to make sure the entry meets the minimum length. A dozen burly fish-handlers then wrap a guide rope around a marlin’s bill and the fish is carefully eased out the boat’s transom door and into the water. The layout at the ECBC is unique so by floating the fish to a submerged ramp, the catch is protected against damage. A second official measurement is then taken and the tail tag or angler data information card is handed over. Terri Teschel, Jack’s wife, uses that information to write up the photo display board before it goes to live scoring for updates. Another group then enter the information for the Jumbotron leaderboard, video verification and the tournament smartphone app, staffed by Shannon Varden Heuvel, Kelly Cumpton, Alex Githens and others. Those standings are then passed on to Julia Brakhage at Tournament Control for the official scoring.
The scale used to actually weigh the fish is certified every year by the System Scale company. Certification is within one-tenth of a pound up to 2,000 pounds. There are redundant back-ups to each component and all the equipment is thoroughly cleaned and stored in a climate-controlled environment afterwards. Two different tail ropes are used to ensure a safe connection.
Released billfish count too. Teams bring video proof of the catches to the ECBC video judges Steve Levi and Craig Martin. They carefully screen the footage to verify the species and successful release.
Master of ceremonies Scott Rossman, the long-time sports director for WJHG-TV, the NBC affiliate for Panama City Beach, keeps the crowd informed and entertained as the evening progresses. He’s assisted by tournament analyst Jim Roberson. Cameramen from 850 Productions shoot footage for the post-tournament video and a live video feed records the proceedings for the tournament web site. There are also numerous local media reporters on hand to document all the action.
Despite the planning and experience there are the occasional glitches, like the time a potential state record yellowfin tuna was brought to the scales. The fish was too long for the gantry, so Teschel had to put together a shorter tail rope to weigh the fish. In the end, it set an ECBC tuna record but missed the state mark.
“It was a little drama in the process, but it was well worth the wait,” Teschel recalls with a grin.
On Sunday, the process starts all over again, starting at 4 p.m. and is open to the public. Muscles will be tested and the pace is guaranteed to be hectic. But when it’s all over, each and every qualifying fish will have been carefully recorded—and celebrated—on a grand scale.