By Charleigh Kennedy
I was six years old the first time I experienced the Pensacola International Billfish Tournament. I still remember standing on Palafox Pier as the boats came into dock. I watched in awe as the fishermen, crusty and sun-burnt, lugged their quarries onto the pier and hoisted them up by hooks and pulleys — their sharp, hard beaks longer than my entire body.
I remember the orange light of sunset glinting off the billfish’s iridescent flanks. It was such a spectacle. Growing up in Pensacola, I have seen a lot of fish. I spent many summer afternoons fishing with my dad, entering tournaments or taking our boat out on the water to catch dinner.
Right before I would cast my line, I’d look over at my dad and proclaim loudly, “This is it, dad. I’m going to catch the big fishy!” My dad would look back at me, laugh and say, “Quit your hootin’ and hollerin’, child. You’re scaring them all away!”
Much to my dad’s surprise, I did not scare all the fish away. The Pensacola Bay Area boasts some of the best fishing along the Gulf Coast. The area’s estuaries, including Perdido and Pensacola bays, provide nutrients that support one of the region’s most prolific recreational fisheries and many of the region’s most popular big-game fishing tournaments.
June is the peak of saltwater fishing season and hosts four annual tournaments. The Flora-Bama Yacht Club Fishing Rodeo kicks of the season June 10-12. This multi-species tournament, based in the coastal village of Perdido Key, features 38 categories, multiple competitive divisions and boatloads of prizes. Registration is $45 for adults and $25 for kid’s 12 and younger.
The 46th Annual Bill Hargreaves Fishing Rodeo runs from June 16-19 and is open to anglers of all ages. Participants can weigh in up to 26 different saltwater species. The tournament ends with a Father’s Day Fish Fry, award ceremony and silent auction where anglers alike can reel in cash prizes, medals, trophies and more.
The next weekend, June 25-26, brings the Pensacola Bud Light Fishing Rodeo, based at Flounders restaurant, on Pensacola Beach. The tournament is one of the largest in the region. The event includes a free Junior Rodeo, where anglers aged 16 and younger can test out their skills on the water. From the King Mackerel Challenge to various bonus prizes, anglers will be sure to leave this rodeo with prizes in hand.
The excitement doesn’t end there, though. The 45th Annual Pensacola International Billfish Tournament is June’s capstone fishing event. The tournament, based at Downtown Pensacola’s Palafox Pier, is a qualifying event for the World Billfish Series and the IGFA World Qualifier. As such, it attracts some big names.
It also attracts plenty of little ones — like my six-year-old self. Seeing those big fish hanging at weigh-in on the last day of the tournament gave me some big dreams. I spent many summer days wishing I’d reel in one of those 15-foot marlin and watch as passersby stood in awe of my catch hanging up at the pier.
Of course, that never happened. More often, the fish at the end of my line was of the cut-bait variety. No matter how small the catch, though, my dad would always make me feel like I’d won the tournament. I’m still hoping that, one day, I’ll finally catch that “big fishy.” Until then, you’ll find me down at Palafox Pier, watching the boats come in.