The fleet of 84 boats, mostly sportfishers with a good number of high-powered center consoles mixed in, are racing deep into the Gulf of Mexico. After the countdown start from Destin Pass at noon on Thursday, all are searching for a long, fat blue marlin that will be worth the biggest share of $1.987 million in tournament prize money in the 20th annual ECBC.

The strategies to catch that elusive prize will vary. Live baiting or tethering a live tuna or bonita slowly off the transom has grown more popular in recent years. But trolling hard plastic skirted plugs or natural baits like a rigged dead mullet have produced previous stud winners, too. A poll of cockpits earlier this week generated some very interesting responses when professional mates and captains revealed what they would put out if they could only use one bait or lure for blue marlin.

“No question, I’d put out a live tuna rigged with a 20/0 Eagle Claw circle hook and a 300-pound Seaguar leader,” Capt. Ruston Rood on Single Barrel answered without hesitation.

“My top choice would be a white over blue Moldcraft Wide Range lure rigged with a single 11/0 J-hook,” says Andrew Woodruff, the mate on Slick Nickel, based in Orange Beach. “We’ve had good success with it all season long. I pull it from the right flat or long center ‘rigger. You could pull one anywhere in the world and be in the game.”

Capt. Chase Young on Testament, another Orange Beach contestant, likes to mix and match.

“A blue and white Islander lure with a dead ballyhoo will catch marlin anywhere in the world. It’s been proven time and time again,” he says.

“If I could only use one bait I’m going to soak a live blackfin tuna bridled with a medium Mustad circle hook and 200-pound leader,” says Corey Hurst, the mate on Breathe Easy, a Viking based in Orange Beach.

“Can I give two answers?” Capt. Dennis Bennett (Salt Shaker) asked. “If it’s a lure, I’d run a black/purple Moldcraft Wide Range with a single J-hook. If it’s live bait, I’d go with a smaller yellowfin tuna with a circle hook matched to the bait size. That might range from 13/0 to 20/0 hooks.”

Matt Driscoll, from Stuart, Florida, is the mate aboard Quantified, a 64 Spencer from Texas. Driscoll is a fan of using dredges to tease fish into the spread and his bait of choice is a “naked” ballyhoo rigged with an Eagle Claw hook.

Spencer Bond of Gulf Breeze is the young mate on Don’t Blink, a 76 Viking. Yet his top choice would be one that’s been a big-game standard for decades.

“If I’m targeting a blue marlin, I’d troll a dead Spanish mackerel with a chin weight and 10/0 hook skipping on the surface. That’s a bait that has worked for a long time.”

So what will the top blue marlin this week be caught on? The crews will certainly be queried at the scales. But with other tournaments still on the calendar, the answers might not be quite as explicit. In the heat of battle, secret weapons are usually kept under wraps.