The Day the Fish Won

A Bertram-Hatteras Shootout proves that fishing for points is as good as by the pound.

Day One of the 26th annual Bertram-Hatteras Shootout: Alexis Jacobs is about to haul in her 61st billfish. So what's she fretting about? Two years before, at Shootout XXIV, she'd boated a 730-pound blue marlin, only to have the catch disqualified because of injuries suffered during the fight. "I hate that we killed her for nothing," says Jacobs. This year, No. 61 is brought in with exquisite care-and released. Jacobs is ecstatic.

A lot of people have felt that way in the past about catching blue marlin. But now that they're starting to feel that way about releasing them, a change is noticeable even in the heat of competition. This year, only two were killed at the Shootout-the largest a 718-pounder. And while some would say that is still two too many, the fact remains that top honors and top money were won on points by anglers who released fish.

Of course, with only two fish weighed in, the fewest ever, this year's tournament could have been billed as the Politically Correct Shootout. In fact, anyone who remembers its 13-year run at Walker's Cay might find the entire scene a bit more sedate these days. Yet even the most partied-out veterans, those who can still summon the brain cells to recall Doc Coppedge's and Bartow Rainey's wins, can't deny that the camaraderie, the competition and the contagion of the Shootout are alive and well-as lively as the two brands for which the event is named. The almost-all-release outcome actually pumped an infusion of new energy into the scene, as you can see for yourself by visiting the dedicated Web site (www.shootoutbahamas.com). The bottom line: fishing for points can be as compelling as fishing for pounds.

The action was certainly intense. On Day One I was fishing with Kaye Pearson aboard Showpiece, his new Hatteras 68. Pearson has owned the Shootout since 2003, and he's all in favor of releasing, rather than boating, fish. Minimum length (105 inches), "benchmark" increments and under-length penalties are strictly enforced. "There's still a biggest fish category…at the moment, but 80 percent of the awards are for release divisions. It's no longer a kill tournament," says Pearson.

On Day Two I fished with Alexis Jacobs, who was in first place, having already released two blues and a white for 1,200 points. Jacobs averages about 30 days of trolling a year-days during which she also reads. "I'm so relaxed on the water," she says, sitting on her 70-foot Hatteras, Reel Obsession, just two strides from the fighting chair. "I read to stay awake. I usually go through a novel a day." Some days she's hooked up, which makes reading difficult, so let's call it a novel every two days. That's still 200 novels in about 400 fishing days. Sixty-two billfish (mostly blue marlin) and 200 novels-I still can't decide which is most impressive.

Today she's reading The Sky Is Falling by Sidney Sheldon. Two of her favorite authors are Carl Hiaasen and James W. Hall, who write about Florida and, she notes, "create larger-than-life characters based on real people." If either were to tackle the subject of big-game fishing, Jacobs herself could well sit for a fictional portrait. A native of Columbus, Ohio, she inherited a used-car auction business, the success of which can be measured by her boats: a 13-Meter Trojan, a Hatteras 67 Motor Yacht, a Hatteras 50, a Hatteras 70 and a $5 million Hatteras 68, soon to be delivered.

Jacobs started billfishing in 1992, when, as a guest aboard a Hatteras, she caught a 200-pound marlin. "I was hooked, not the fish," she says. "It's so exciting. It's so much fun. And, in the end, it's a great excuse for a boat ride." Top female angler at the 1999 Boy Scout Tournament in St. Thomas, she once caught 14 sailfish in a single day off Costa Rica. More remarkable than any specific angling accomplishment, however, is that Jacobs, whose family consists of "two cats and a dog," began offshore fishing at the age of 50. "Lady" couldn't be a more accurate description, yet there's this lust for the hunt hidden by her delicacy, and a caginess that twinkles in her eyes. When trading up for a bigger boat she'll remind a broker, "Don't forget what business I'm in."

At the start of the Shootout's final day, Jacobs is still in the lead. The tension aboard Real Obsession concedes nothing to what the Eagles and Patriots felt at the Super Bowl, to which the Shootout is often compared. Marine Max and Allied Richard Bertram Marine Group represent the two teams, and so do builders Hatteras and Bertram.

Since the first Shootout, much has changed: Lures have replaced baitfish. The boats have been on a steady diet of steroids (the smallest this year was 50 feet). As noted, new rules have been instituted to protect the Shootout's most vital component-the fish. Bertram and Hatteras both have new parent companies. Is change good? Well, both companies are building as many boats as their facilities will allow. Hatteras has 14 orders for the 64 Convertible, even as the resin has barely cured on hull number one. Meanwhile, drawing on the benefits of membership in the Ferretti Group, Bertram is reestablishing its "empire" with new models that combine high-tech and high-style elements.

Aboard the Bertram 57 Moppie, the Bertram factory boat, the morning exodus from the marina produces the same goose bumps I felt back in the early '80s. I can hear "The Ride of the Valkeries" from Apocalypse Now as the boats roar five-abreast past Matt Lowes Cay and then, in single file, wake the reef at the tip of Man-O-War, rendering tepid the horsepower on display at the Indy 500. Moppie is equipped with Anti-Rolling Gyros (ARG)-flywheels on gimbals that spin up to 5000 rpm to quell roll at slow speeds and at rest. We're trolling, and I'm in the tower in five-foot seas topped with whitecaps, but I'm comfortable.

A few minutes after high noon, Hattitude, a Hatteras 50, calls in a blue marlin release (releases are verified by photos and numbers assigned at the time of the hook-ups). Having started the day with 1,000 points, Hattitude now has 1,500, 100 points more than the Bertram Reely Tight, which released a blue earlier in the morning. And Hatterascal, the Hatteras factory boat, also released a white, climbing to 1,300 points. Jacobs, with 1,200, has fallen to fourth.

At 12:42 we hook a blue, and at 12:46, with angler John Bullo in the chair, it's released-500 more points for Moppie and for Bertram.

But that's how it ends-Hattitude holds on to win. It was a true nail-biter: a points race right down to the final second. And for families everywhere who fish together, Hattitude's victory can be counted as one from the heart. In a tournament whose boats are manned by many of the best professional captains and mates in the business, Hattitude, owned by Bob and JoAnn Vergnolle of St. Augustine, Fla., was captained by their son Rob, 37, and mated by their son Ron, 36. (Mate Mark Leto was also in the cockpit.) "We caught our first marlin in a 20-footer," says Ron, "and we've always dreamed of winning the Shootout. Once you get the bite, it never leaves you." For the Vergnolle family, Shootout XXVI was a dream come true-as it was for pro-release conservationists, offering proof that a no-kill dream can be just as competitive in any tournament.