Overall, it’s a fairly level playing field for the teams competing in the 15th annual Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic. Granted, some boats have more range and speed. Others have crews with decades of experience in the central Gulf of Mexico. All utilize satellite imagery, glean every bit of intel they can and fish with the best tackle money can buy. So how does that explain why a handful of boats consistently finish in the top money tournament after tournament? Because they do the little things it takes to win.
“There are two to three tricks we do that make a difference,” says veteran charter skipper, Jeff Shoults, who runs Mollie, a 68 G&S based in Destin. “But I’m not going to tell you what they are,” he added with a sly grin. “The competition is really keen among the boats that live bait and I don’t want to give up that edge.”
Mollie differs from most of the other boats since she usually has a different group of anglers chartered for every event. Some, like the one fishing this year’s ECBC, have booked for several years so they know the boat’s routine. But Shoults and his skilled mates keep everyone engaged and focused regardless of the time spent together.
“Crew familiarity and camaraderie are a big part of this game,” Shoults explains. “It’s all hands on deck for live baiting, from catching bait to watching for strikes. When we are lure fishing the mates have the anglers clear grass off the lines and stay active during the boring times. You can’t catch a fish if you’re asleep in the salon, so we always have one or two anglers ready on the back deck.”
“It all boils down to the deckhands. They are the backbone. Good mates can make a bad skipper look great or a good skipper look bad, depending on how they go about their business. It’s a team effort and everyone plays a part.”
Breathe Easy, a 68 Viking owned by Matt McDonald and run by Capt. Patrick Ivie, is another regular contender on the competitive Gulf circuit. Breathe Easy earned the Gulf Coast Triple Crown Championship last season with several dominating performances. The boat is at it again in 2017 by landing a 501.75-pound blue after an epic battle in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic earlier this month. Mates Nick Knoepflein and Ryan Fields have been fishing with Ivie for years.
“The chemistry of the team is the main thing,” Knoepflein says. “Everybody needs to get along and hit on all cylinders at the same time. If you have that cohesiveness, the rest is just fishing. You have to go out and find the bite.”
Instincts that come from experience play a role as well. “Everyone aboard knows what needs to be done without someone having to say it,” Fields adds.
“Live baiting is pretty cut and dried,” Knoepflein says. “The tackle is all the same and everyone is doing pretty much the same thing. You can’t make ‘em bite. You just have to make it happen when they do.”
And when teams do those little things, the intangibles of skilled execution and teamwork, good things usually do happen.