And the excitement begins. Two boats came to the scales Friday night to christen the 19th annual Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic at the host Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort. 2×4, a 58 Buddy Davis based in Orange Beach, brought two wahoo in and both vaulted to first and second places on the leaderboard. Mike Owens of Dothan, Alabama, a long-time ECBC participant, cranked in a 32.8-pound wahoo to claim first place. Team mate Kevin Savoy tallied a 27.1-pound speedster.

Owen said his fish ate a lure near the Spur and Nipple. The seas were rough this afternoon with plenty of floating grass. Captain Travis Dorland is the skipper of 2×4.

Ramjack, a 30-foot Grady White from Crystal River, Florida, also brought a dolphin in to weigh but that fish failed to make the 20-pound minimum. No marlin have been boated so far, although Breathe Easy and Wynsong have both reported releasing three blues apiece. Those fish won’t officially count until they are verified, however.

For blue marlin the ECBC has a minimum length requirement of 110 inches. That is measured from the tip of the fish’s lower jaw to the fork of the tail. Fish exceeding that length can be boated and weighed, while smaller blue marlin and other billfish score points in the release division. Blue marlin are worth 500 points, white marlin score 200 and sailfish and spearfish are good for 175 points. Teams can enter optional categories for higher payouts and the winnings often top six figures.

The actual releases are verified by video footage shot by the boats during the catch. Craig Martin has been an ECBC video judge for years. He is now joined by Bert Merritt, another Gulf coast tournament veteran, who comes aboard after another ECBC regular, Steve Levi, passed away unexpectedly late last year. Martin, who holds a masters degree in biology from the University of West Florida and is a former employee of the National Marline Fisheries Service, has been judging and weighing fish in tournaments since the mid-1990s. He is also a certified observer of the International Game Fish Association.

“As video judges we have a reputation to do the right thing,” Martin says. “We provide a service to this elite sport-fishing community of master anglers, captains and owners and we take that responsibility seriously. We want to qualify fish, not disqualify them, but it’s important that the crews get good video footage and come prepared so we can judge them as quickly as possible.”

Releases count whenever the swivel on the line hits the rod tip or the mate grabs the leader. The video footage must document those actions and also include the verifier (a tournament wristband), plus the time stamp from the boat’s GPS. If that information isn’t available the catch score shifts to the time the tournament ends, which could mean thousands of dollars in possible prize money. Martin says the biggest challenge is distinguishing small blues from white marlin.

“The dead giveaway on whites is the anal fin,” Martin explains. “We’ll spend as much time needed to verify the species. Whites have rounded dorsal and pectoral fins, but the anal fin has a black shading and that’s the key.”

Teams consistently winning in the release categories have dedicated cameramen as part of the crew, along with multiple cameras. Underwater cameras are often the clincher for identification, especially if the fish sounds or breaks off after it is leadered.

“If a team is organized with a clean SD card and good sequencing, we can verify four fish in 30 minutes,” he adds. “Or it might take 30 minutes for one fish. It’s a lot different sitting at this computer watching footage than actually seeing it live from the cockpit or the flying bridge, but in the end we all want to get it right and scored correctly.”

Fishing in the 2021 ECBC continues through Saturday. Boats must be under the Destin Pass Bridge by 6 pm to enter weighed or released fish. Martin and Merritt will be bleary-eyed by the time it’s all over.