Across much of the South, Friday night lights symbolizes high school football and cherished rivalries. But in Florida in the heat of the summer, fishing is the premier sport and the spotlight doesn’t shine any brighter than the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. That’s where the 18th annual Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic is going on and several contestants have already gotten on the scoreboard in a big way. The 79 boats competing are angling for more than $1.7 million in cash prizes.

First to back down in the slip was Pullin’ Wire, a 61 Buddy Davis based in Panama City and owned by Bryan Andrews. Marina Adams, a 16-year-old high school student from Tallahassee, was next up in the fighting chair rotation when the marlin pounced on a trolled MoldCraft black and orange Wide Range lure. The fight took four hours on a Shimano 130 Tiagra combo, but when it was over, Adams had caught her first blue ever and the boat had boated its first blue in a tournament.

“It was a bit exhausting,” Adams told ECBC emcee Scott Rossman after the weight of 505 pounds was announced. “I saw it jumping and I had so much adrenalin going I didn’t get tired.”

“We’ve been doing this for a long time and this is the first blue we’ve hung,” said a proud father, Bill Adams, afterwards. “We’re very blessed.”

Capt. Brennan Moore, Pullin’ Wire’s skipper, said they were trolling between the Steps and Patronis. Seas were flat calm and there were a few other boats around at the hook-up, but they gave the team plenty of room during the fight.

Adams’ teammate and high school friend, Colette Bell, also put Pullin’ Wire atop the tuna category with a 112.5-pound yellowfin.

“This means the world to us,” Moore said after the weigh-in. “We’re heading back out, turning and burning, to get back after ‘em.”

Owner/angler Jeff Cultan and his team aboard Triple Threat, a 65 Hatteras from Orange Beach, was next on the leaderboard. It only took 29 minutes for Cultan to subdue the blue marlin that ate a live blackfin tuna. That bait was caught by a junior angler off the bow shortly before it was bridled and sent back into the depths.

“It was an awesome fight,” Triple Threat’s captain, Destin “Chilli” Williams recalled. “It made a lot of good jumps and a few hard runs before we got it aboard. Conditions out there were perfect. Seas were less than a foot, with a strong south/southwest current and the prettiest cobalt blue water you’ve ever seen.” Triple Threat was fishing near the Marlin Rig, appropriately enough. The chunky 112-inch blue (measured from the lower jaw to the fork of the tail) tipped the scales at the Baytowne Marina at 538 pounds.

“We’re going to top off with fuel and head back out,” Williams explains. “We bet heavily on the tuna and kill divisions, so we’re trying to see if Lady Luck is on our side or not.”

Fins Up, a 54 Bertram home-ported in Orange Beach, was the third boat of the night to the scales. The official length on the off-loaded blue was 110.5 inches, yet the fish was fat through the middle. When it was finally hoisted aloft, the heft was certain—553.3 pounds, the new leader in the blue marlin weight division. Boat owner Charles “Charlie” Turner III was in the chair for the fight.

“We had a blackfin tuna out and that marlin hit it once and faded before it came back and ate. We touched the leader six times before we finally got it aboard,” Turner said. “It was exciting, fun and that’s what we do. And we’ll be back here tomorrow.” Capt. Willie “JJ” English is the captain of Fins Up. He said the fight lasted two hours on 130-class tackle. Fins Up was fishing in the Mississippi Canyon when the catch was made.

Two other blue marlin have been reported boated. Southern Charm has a 111-inch candidate in the ‘pit. Mollie also has one that the crew measured at 125 inches.

With less than 24 hours remaining until lines out, it’s a sure bet the flood lights will be glaring again Saturday evening as the stars of this game return to the docks.