The first boat to the scales never relinquished the lead. Can’t Deny It, a 48-foot Viking, couldn’t make it back in time Friday night to weigh their fish. So the team made sure they were first in line by docking in the weigh slip all night. Once the scales opened at 4 p.m. Saturday, the crew of fish-handlers quickly off-loaded the blue marlin. As Weigh Master Jack Teschel announced 699.2 pounds, the team of high school buddies erupted in an ecstatic scrum. Eighteen-year-old angler Will Beard was in the middle of the frenzy.

“I released my very first blue marlin earlier before we boated this one,” he explained. “The fight was about one hour and 45 minutes on a 50 Wide in the chair. It was fun and I took my customary dip in the weigh slip afterwards and managed to scrape my leg. But it was worth it.” Capt. Bo Keough of Orange Beach and mate Todd Terreson, guided the young team to the top finish in the 2018 Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic. Keough said the fish ate a chugger lure and was caught 120 miles south of Destin. The boat was all alone working a weed line when the big blue hit. In addition to the smaller blue release, Can’t Deny It tallied a white marlin release and boated eligible wahoo, dolphin and tuna in this year’s contest.

Perennial contender Breathe Easy was next up. Rick Olsen of Fairhope and his Alabama teammates only needed 45 minutes to boat their entry caught on a live bait near the Titan Rig. The seas were choppy with up to three feet swells. Olsen’s blue registered 518 pounds.

“It’s a total team effort,” he said after the weight was announced to the overflow crowd at the Baytowne Marina in Sandestin. “The guy in the chair only turns the handle. The rest of the crew does the real work.” Capt. Patrick Ivie is the skipper of the 68 Viking based in Orange Beach.

Local favorite and celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, Capt. Brad Benton and Aldente, a 70 Viking, was the third boat to back into the slip with a blue marlin wrapped in ice. Benton said they boated the blue Friday evening and ran straight back to the Independence Hub rig and trolled five minutes before hooking a big yellowfin. The team also released two other blue marlin, including one that was estimated to be 200 pounds bigger than the one landed. But that initial fish was Lagasse’s first marlin entry in the ECBC, despite competing in it for several years.

“This is our back yard, so we’ve been waiting a long time for this moment,” Lagasse said. “I didn’t realize it was that big at first. We tried to leader it 10 times before we finally got it in. It was very strong and wore me out.” Lagasse’s blue weighed 475.7 pounds. The team’s yellowfin also made the leaderboard at 168.6 pounds.

Another local boat, You Never Know, also found a cooperative blue at the Independence Hub. Sydney Turner-Bankston whipped her 640.8-pounder after a short but spirited fight. The 72 F&S is run by Capt. Joey Birbeck of Miramar Beach.

Reel Fire was the last to weigh in the blue marlin division. The 70 Viking based in Biloxi pulled the dead fish aboard after a 2-hour battle that angler Connor Ferrara termed, “an easy fight.” Reel Fire’s fish was hooked near the Olympus in choppy four- to five-foot swells on a live tuna. The 665.2-pounder vaulted the team into second place.

The tuna outcome was a seesaw battle all night. But Katie Gonsoulin aboard Done Deal locked down first place with a 190.2-pound yellowfin beaten in less than an hour. That mark missed breaking the all-time tournament record by less than one-half pound. Seth McGonigal on Jubilee scored the top wahoo (63.8 pounds), while Wes Kennedy on Ultimate Lure was the top dolphin angler. His fish tipped the scales at 42.9 pounds. Dana Foster, owner of Born2Run, a 72 Viking skippered by Capt. Myles Colley, was the top release angler with four blue marlin to his credit.

More than $2 million in prize money will be awarded to the 2018 winners Sunday morning at the awards brunch, sponsored by Wind Creek Casino & Hotel-Atmore. The brunch begins at 10 a.m. at the Baytowne Conference Center.