E.J. Nettles' first experience in the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament is one he won't soon forget. And neither will other anglers who look through the prestigious North Carolina fishing tournament's record book.
While fishing aboard the Mount Pleasant boat Rare Breed, owned and captained by Bubba Simmons, the 16-year-old became the first youth angler in the Big Rock's 60-year history to weigh a blue marlin that made the leaderboard.
The 400.4-pound blue marlin finished seventh overall in the six-day tournament and didn't win any money, but on the day it was caught (June 13) it put Rare Breed in third place and in position to win nearly $175,000.
The tournament was won by Honey Hush with a 518.5-pound blue marlin, worth $735,875. The total purse was $2.5 million. This year's Big Rock tournament had 183 entries, and Nettles said when he was fighting his blue marlin they counted 70 boats off to one side.
"I didn't even know what to say when we got back to the dock and that came across," said Nettles, a rising junior at Wando High School. "I've been fishing with Bubba for several years and started mating for him last year. We were supposed to fish the Big Rock last year but blew an engine. We put together the same plan for this year and it ended up coming through."
Nettles' catch, his second blue marlin and the first one he had brought in to be weighed, came perilously close to not qualifying for the leaderboard, which has a 400-pound minimum.
"It was very rough when we had it next to the boat and when we were trying to get a measurement, the fish actually bit through the line and chafed it off. Then the hook came out and we just had one dude hanging onto it," Nettles said.
"We were struggling because it was rough and the fish was going nuts. It was close so we brought it onboard and put a tape measure on it. The fish was 109½ inches long and we did all the measurements and used the calculations and it was supposed to be around 480 pounds."
Nettles comes from a well-known Charleston fishing lineage. His father, Andy Nettles, has been a standout in the king mackerel circuits while his grandfather, Aaron Nettles, has been a regular in billfish tournaments in South Carolina.
Nettles said he didn't go to the Big Rock tournament thinking he was a youth angler since South Carolina Governor's Cup Billfishing Series events recognize fishermen 16 and older in the adult category. But 16-year-olds are youth anglers at the Big Rock.
A South Carolina boat holds the record for the heaviest blue marlin caught in Big Rock history. Summertime Blues, owned by Ron Wallschlager of Kiawah Island and captained by Al Johnson, won the 2000 Big Rock tournament with an 831-pound blue marlin.
Nettles will get another chance at catching an even bigger blue marlin beginning Thursday in the Carolina Billfish Classic, although he will be fishing aboard a different boat, Tighten Up.
The Carolina Billfish Classic, which is fished out of Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina in Mount Pleasant, is the third of five events in the South Carolina Governor's Cup Billfishing Series. Weigh-ins are 5-8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 5-7 p.m. Saturday.