Fishermen who had been part of South Carolina's offshore fishing scene for decades were shaking their heads in amazement as boats arrived at the docks for the opening-day weigh-in of the 2017 Bohicket Marina Invitational Billfish Tournament, the first of five events that comprise the South Carolina Governor's Cup Billfishing Series.

Thanks to radio communications, they already knew the 29-boat fleet had released 20 blue marlin and were bringing in three others that met the Governor's Cup 105-inch minimum size limit (six inches longer than the federally mandated size limit). The largest of the three was a 500-pound catch by Game On, but the tournament win went to Colby Griffin's Gryphon, which released three blues and scored 1,800 points.

Gryphon went on to win the Governor's Cup series in record fashion with eight blue marlin and 13 sailfish, all released. Overall, 2017 Governor's Cup participants released 76 blue marlin, five white marlin, two spearfish and 254 sailfish with a total of four brought to the dock, a 99-percent release rate.

As the series celebrates its 30th anniversary, the offshore angling community is hoping for a repeat when the Bohicket tournament gets underway this week. Final registration is Wednesday with anglers fishing two days Thursday through Saturday, captain's choice.

The late Gov. Carroll Campbell, who founded the Governor's Cup in 1989, would be smiling at the 2017 release results. In 1988 Campbell, an avid offshore fisherman aboard his boat Second Lady, approached fisheries biologist Don Hammond of the S.C. Marine Resources Department about developing a program that would protect the magnificent fish being caught off the South Carolina coast. From their meeting came the plan to bring together the various billfish tournaments held in South Carolina under a common umbrella and promote catch and release instead of the catch-and-kill norm of the time.

"When the Series started, everything was brought to the dock. From the series start, white marlin and sailfish were pretty much quickly removed from the list of animals that could be harvested and became release only," said Wallace Jenkins, program coordinator for the Governor's Cup.

It is a series rule that the few blue marlin that are landed have to be treated in a respectful way. Unlike early days when they often went into a dumpster or were hauled offshore and thrown away, today they are iced down almost immediately. After being weighed and examined the anglers remove the meat so it can be smoked and consumed by the fishermen and friends.

Governor's Cup participants have embraced releasing billfish tagging billfish which has given biologists a good understanding of the migratory habits.

"We've demonstrated that these fish are a common resource not only for us but also countries in the Caribbean and as far south as South America," Jenkins said. "Some of our tagged blue marlin have been recaptured south of the equator, the first time that was ever demonstrated.

"In the mid-200s we did a lot of work with popup satellite tags that showed where they went but as opposed to tag location and recapture location, we were able to track the fish as it moved around. It showed us what depths of water and what temperatures they preferred. White marlin, sailfish and blue marlin, while occupying the same habitat, they use it differently. Some are more nocturnal when they are at the surface. They prefer different temperatures. They partition up the habitat so they are not directly competing a lot of times."

For the past 11 years the series has been headed by Jenkins and tournament director Amy Dukes. They are joined by biologist Kayla Rudnay and social media director Cameron Rhodes.

Record catches

Some interesting facts gleaned from the Governor's Cup records.

- South Carolina's 881.8-pound state record blue marlin was caught by the crew of Rascal during the 2005 Charleston Harbor Billfish Tournament (now Carolina Billfish Classic) fished out of Patriots Point. It replaced a 752-pound, 6-ounce catch by Risky Business that was taken during the 1993 Bohicket tournament.

- The Bohicket tournament produced the state record dolphin, a 77.5-pound catch by Daymaker in 2008.

- In the 10 previous Governor's Cup series, anglers have released 431 blue marlin and brought just 11 to the dock.

- Some other big numbers from Governor's Cup tournaments. While the average number of boats participating in a tournament today is around 30, in 2001 the Charleston Harbor tournament had a record 102 entries. In 2006, the Charleston Harbor (56 boats) and the MEGADOCK (81 boats) tournaments released 31 blue marlin. During the 2009 MEGADOCK tournament, 74 boats released 138 sailfish.

- The Governor's Cup has been instrumental in raising funds for the construction and deployment of three large structures on the Charleston Deepwater Reef, known as the South Carolina Memorial Reef. This reef is a Type II Marine Protected Area and was designed to serve as habitat for deepwater grouper species. Bottom fishing is prohibited here but trolling for pelagics is allowed and it has been a favorite fishing spot for Governor's Cup anglers