This popular sport fishing competition in Morehead City attracts anglers and fans from all over the world to the North Carolina coast.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Dylan Ray
When it comes to landing one of the biggest fish in the world off the North Carolina coast, it takes a skilled captain, an angler with endurance — and sometimes, straight luck.
The Big Rock competition started small. In the spring of 1957, a group of Morehead City fishing enthusiasts partnered with local businesses to gather a cash prize for whoever could catch a blue marlin off the Crystal Coast. Up to that point, the billfish had only been rumored in the waters.
It took months, but by mid-September, Raleigh angler Jimmy Croy, fishing aboard the Mary Z with Captain K.W. “Bill’’ Olsen, caught a 143-pound blue marlin. They radioed back to shore on their way to the harbor, and when they arrived, a raucous crowd had gathered.
This fishing contest became an annual tradition; over the years, the rules became formalized and the prizes grew. In 1972, the competition was renamed Big Rock, after a prime spot in the gulf stream for finding blue marlin. Now in its 65th year, it enlists about 200 boats and nearly 1,600 competitors — and the purse is in the millions. For many in Raleigh and along the coast, it’s a much-anticipated tradition.
“When I was a kid, my mother would deliver me to the tournament, and I would watch the guys bring the fish in,” says Tommy Bennett, a Morehead City native, longtime Big Rock board member and past president of the organization. “Fighting a blue marlin was always a dream.”
The competition attracts both full-time anglers and avid amateur fishermen. For some, Big Rock is one stop on a circuit of fishing contests from Bermuda up the East Coast.
“All the competitors are there, and it may be the first time they’ve seen each other in eight or nine months — they look forward to it,” says Bennett. Boat captain Neil Sykes agrees: “The competitions are really fun — aside from the possibility to win money, you get to see friends you don’t get to see a lot.”
The big prize is for the heaviest blue marlin. The competition lasts six days; each boat fishes four of them. Every day, the leaderboard changes, so boats know not to bring in a 400-pound marlin if, say, third place already weighs in at 500 pounds.
The catch: you can’t weigh the fish until you get to shore, which adds to the drama. (You can measure them, and experienced fishermen can ballpark it on deck.). Ninety-five percent of the fish that are caught are released.
Sykes, who lives in Virginia Beach, is the captain of the Merceneria, a 72-foot Viking whose owner, Chad Ballard, won the grand prize last year. Ballard pulled in the 572.6-pound blue marlin on the first day. “It made for a long week!” says Sykes, who says he’s been fishing these waters all his life.
“We look for eddies where water splits off from the gulf stream, where temperature breaks hold fish.” The captains talk amongst themselves about where people were catching the day before, sharing tips — or not. “Everybody’s friends, but sometimes people get a little more tight-lipped,” Sykes says.
Raleigh resident David Pirrung has fished the Big Rock for decades alongside his friend JJ Johnson and their captain, Jay Watson, on the Widespread, a 51-foot Crown Marine. “We all like to hang out together, we’re strategic about the fishing, but we like to have fun,” he says. He credits Watson for knowing where to fish: “He makes the decisions!”
As Pirrung’s three sons have gotten older, they’ve joined the team — and made some amazing catches. “Each of my kids has killed a fish in the last three years,” Pirrung says. In fact, it was Pirrung’s son Cole who caught the winning fish in 2021, a blue marlin that weighed in at 656.5 pounds.
The way the Widespread team does it, once a fish hits, one angler gets the rod. “If anybody else touches the pole before the mate gets the leader, it’s not a clean catch,” Pirrung says. It took Cole four hours to reel in that winning marlin. “His hands were totally destroyed, but we knew it was a winner,” says Pirrung. “I called my wife in Raleigh and said, You probably need to come down, we’re going to be partying.”
Fish have to weigh in by midnight. For the Widespread, it was a race to the finish. The fire department sent trucks to light the dock, where an enthusiastic crowd had gathered.
“When we pulled into the dock, there were people all over,” says Pirrung. “Hundreds of people behind the docks staring at you, microphones and cameras in your face…. it’s a lot!” says Sykes
(Unfortunately for Luke, Cole’s brother, that fish knocked his 479.2-pound marlin out of third place. But along with their other brother Connor, who placed in 2019, the three young men are the only three brothers to have each boated and weighed a blue marlin at Big Rock. “Jay is top-notch. My family and I know very little about marlin fishing, we just know how to pick a good captain,” laughs Pirrung.)
Big Rock also includes a Lady Anglers competition for female fishermen, a Junior Anglers element and the Big Rock Hero program to pair active-duty military with fishing boats.
Big Rock hosts parties and other entertainment during the competition, and the boats themselves are an attraction, from large center console boats to sport fishing boats to small ones with outboard motors.
Sometimes, there are celebrities. “The first year Michael Jordan came here, he weighed in a blue marlin. He’s been back to the scales since, and there’s a crowd like I’ve never seen,” says Bennett.
“You don’t need a ticket, you just show up and it feels like a big family reunion, people fill out the restaurants and go to the beach, and when they weigh the fish, folks cheer like they’re at a football game.”
Further from shore, folks can follow along on social media or the internet. “For about 10 days of the year, the entire world of sport fishing is focused on North Carolina.
People are on their computers listening to Randy Ramsey give the blow-by-blow playby-play of the tournament,” says Bennett. “You can watch your buddy weigh in from your computer in Raleigh.”
The organization has also made strides in conservation, creating weight limits to release fish that won’t make the grade to reduce the number of blue marlin brought to shore. “They only pay for first, second and third, so you’d feel like an idiot if your fish were 50 to 100 points under,” says Pirrung. “Nobody wants to kill a blue marlin that’s not in the money.”
They’ve also made charitable giving a huge component of the competition, donating $7.5 million to area charities as of 2022. “It’s a first-class operation; they do a lot of good things for Eastern North Carolina,” says Pirrung.
Bennett’s particularly proud of how the competition has invested in infrastructure like helping build the Big Rock Stadium in Morehead City (where, appropriately, the Morehead City Marlins play, along with youth leagues and college tournaments) and buying land for the Crystal Coast Hospice House.
Big Rock is more than a fishing competition: it’s a community booster and a family event. As Pirrung’s sons graduate college and start their careers, he expects they won’t be able to take a week off for the tournament any more. “But JJ’s got kids that can start cranking soon — so we’ll keep going out,” he says. “The fishing is great, the catching is a bonus.”
Especially if you can get back to Morehead City in time to weigh in.
This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.