There was a noticeable vibe at Wednesday night’s captains meeting for the 19th annual Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic. Cockiness was front and center. But so was laughing, hugs and handshakes. After last year’s unusual circumstances, it’s readily apparent life is getting back to normal and for this week, that means big-game fishing on one of the sport’s top stages. And being timid won’t cut it with the stakes so high.

Eighty-eight boats will blast off from Destin Pass at noon in search of the winning blue marlin, worth a six-figure payout. Other billfish will score release points, while the heaviest tuna, dolphin and wahoo will be hoisted at the scales at the Baytowne Marina. Conditions are shaping up for a hectic weekend.

“The existence of the FADs (Fish Aggregating Device) south of Destin creates a new phenomenon this year,” says Tom Hilton, president of Hilton’s Realtime Navigator, a popular offshore forecasting service that is studied intently prior to any tournament. “They are well established now with some pretty blue water all around them and good current. That also applies to Thunderhawk, Blind Faith and Na Kika rigs to the west. Sea conditions will be really good with waves two feet or less. Add it all up and we’ll see plenty of action.”

“We’re going in as strong as ever in the marlin division and release,” says Capt. Chad Wold, who is working the ‘pit of All In, a 55 Viking based in Orange Beach, Alabama. The team took third place in the release division in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic, held earlier this month. “Hopefully we get to kill one this weekend,” Wold adds. “Normally it takes an 800-pounder to win this tournament. The weather is going to help a lot. We’re gonna go look for some pretty water and a nice grass line somewhere and see what we can do.”

Neal Foster and his crew aboard Intense, a new 44 Contender powered by quad Yamaha outboards, will reach prime water quickly. The boats are allowed to start fishing immediately after the noon flare start, but many will run west, often more than 100 miles. Foster does that typically in his quest for wahoo although he’s changing tactics this time.

“We’re putting 200 to 300 baits in the boat, running south and see what happens,” the ECBC regular explains. “We’ll be around some of those deepwater rigs with all the rest of them. You just never know. All it takes is one bite and we do have a flying gaff on board.”

Presented by the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, the ECBC is always a popular stop on the Gulf big-game tournament circuit. Optional entries are still allowed up to noon, but the pot is already more than $1.25 million and will certainly grow. With the final preparations underway, it’s time to put up or shut up and the cocky teams will be betting on themselves.