Records were snapping faster than a #64 rubber band on the left ‘rigger tag line after a strike. Ninety-one teams entered to fish the 2018 Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic and the overall purse is expected to be well beyond the $2 million mark before the fleet leaves Thursday at noon. Both are new benchmarks in the 16-year history of this popular Gulf contest.

That impressive dollar amount is complicated, however. All teams enter at the base level of $6,000 and that money is divided among those who catch the biggest fish in the weight divisions, which include blue marlin, tuna, wahoo and dolphin. Boats can also enter the special release division for an extra two grand, as well as the $300 Crew Division, which pays out based on a combination of weight and release points to the top crews. And then there are the optional jackpot entries and this is where strategy and calculation comes into play.

By participating at these optional levels, teams are basically betting on themselves that they will catch the largest fish in that category, or at least the largest fish among those who put extra money on the line. The various jackpots go from $500 up to $10,000 in the blue marlin and billfish release divisions, plus $500 to $5,000 in the game fish categories. Choosing which levels to enter varies. Some boats bet across the board regardless, while others take risks based on various factors.

“We pick and choose depending on the weather, the tournament and how many teams are entered in particular species,” says Art Favre, owner of A Work of Art, a 92 Viking based in Orange Beach, Alabama. “We always bet heavy on billfish and up or down on the meat fish at those levels where there’s not as much competition.

“There’s no such thing as a sure bet, though,” he adds. “You still have to find the fish and bring them to the dock. It takes skill to play this game, but it never hurts to have a little luck.”

“You can win good money in the calcuttas [optional jackpots]. It just depends on who bets,” says Joe Hudson, owner of Iona Louise, a 68 Hatteras also from Orange Beach. “We fish to our strength. If we have family and grand kids aboard, we keep it fun and simple. We’ll either live bait or troll. But I always bet big in the catch and release division because you don’t have to run back in if you land a big fish to weigh it. You can keep fishing and save time and fuel. But generally I always bet more money in the bigger tournaments because the rewards are bigger.”

Even though the owners are putting up the money, the crews usually have a say in the betting strategy.

“On our boat (Share-E, a 72 Viking from Venice, Louisiana), what we put in the optionals is according to our fishing plan,” says the boat’s skipper, Capt. Mike Roberto. “It all depends on Plan A and the expected conditions. This week is gonna be a huge check for somebody. You can win the season right here, right now.”

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets!