The warm dampness in the predawn hours of a Carolina summer morning covers the more than 100 sportfishing boats in a thick blanket of dew.
Tournament staff stand under a light at the end of the dock, handing out small cups of coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts by the dozens to boat crews that emerge from the shadows to collect the free caffine and sugar fix.
Welcome to Morehead City, North Carolina and the 50th "Big Rock" Blue Marlin Tournament
Monday started like any other tournament morning for ‘Bucky’ Copleston who captains Artemis, a 50 foot custom express based at The Charleston City Marina, it started early, way early, oh dark thirty, or "oh my God why am I up" early.
I've watched the guys aboard Artemis from the air-conditioned comfort of my boat's pilot house working tirelessly for the last several weeks, preparing for the Big Rock tournament and it seems all that hard work might just pay off.
At the Morehead City Docks on this Monday morning it's dark and damp, Artemis will fish today as will 169 of the 176 boats entered in the tournament. Boats have a choice of any four of the six days to fish. Sometimes picking the right day is the difference between big fish and no fish.
The Red and Green Navigation lights pierce the darkness and glow in dewy halos around dozens of boats. Radar antennas atop aluminum tuna towers spin as diesel engines toss spray at the docks every 20 feet or so with water soaked exhaust.
The sound of diesel engines is unmistakable, but each is distinct. Cats, make that clank, clank while Detroit's on older Hatteras have a different sound, somewhat of an odd bang bang sound. An experienced boat captain can tell a Detroit from a Cummimngs two docks away.
With a tournament morning comes hangovers, donuts, coffee, diesel exhaust and confusion.
"Who are we waiting On?" "Where's Jim?" "We Ready?" "Ya lets go!"
The captain of a boat at the end of the dock takes the helm at the fly bridge as the first mate races around the dock like a monkey chasing a banana being pulled on a string.
The mate drops a dock line in the water and the captain shakes his head in disbelief. Bow line, spring line and a final stern line and the sport fishing boat lurches forward sending a few of the onboard anglers and their coffee sliding backwards, catching themselves just before stumbling over the back of the boat. And in this confusion that is repeated on boats thoughout the marina Artemis starts her very long day.
On this day offshore conditions are near perfect for the 169 boats who elected to fish on the first day of competition. Blue marlin are caught to the north and south of Morehead City as anglers tallied 16 blue marlin releases, one white marlin release and six sailfish releases.
The "bite" is on and the radios are alive with reports of fish and success.
About 10 minutes prior to the 3 p.m. cut-off time Artemis, hooks into a fish and the battle is on. Charleston angler Darryl Reyna will fight the Artemis catch for 3.5 hours before bringing it to gaff. The crew will see the leader-wire knot come out of the water and disappear five times as Reyna tires the fish out.
"We just couldn’t get her anywhere near gaffing range" said Copleston. "We didn’t want to call it a (big) fish for the first hour or so even though we knew it was big."
Three other boats, Phat Man, Tuna Trappe III and Melina, each will hold the Big Rock lead during some portion of the day.
By 7PM word had spread throughout the marina, that Artemis had a "big" fish on the boat and were on their way back.
As darkness fell the size of the Artemis fish grew. By 10PM a the local fire department had sent a truck to light up the scales with several halogen lamps, bringing daylight back the marina where a sizable crowd had gathered.
As Artemis backed down to the dock a spectator yelled "how big?"
"Big I guess" someone shouted back from the boat, as the captain Bucky Copleston brought Artemis to a stop he just smiled. Bucky new it was big, he could tell by the way the boat handled with the additional load coming back to the marina.
How big? Well as the fish was hoisted to the scales it was apparent the fish was really big, in fact when the fish was finally hoisted it tipped the scales at 640 pounds, more than 100 pounds heavier than any other blue marlin weighed in Monday.
Bucky would later say "This turned out to be the biggest fish we’ve ever caught."
Competition in the 50th Big Rock continues through Saturday with competitors on each boat fishing any 4 of the 6 days. If the 640 pound Artemis fish holds, the boat will take the more than $700,000.00 first prize and receive their winnings June 14th at the Big Rock awards ceremony.
Artemis, a 50-foot custom express boat built in Charleston by Sea Island Boatworks, is owned by Charleston businessman John Darby and captained by Bucky Copleston. Darryl Reyna was the angler on Artemis' fish. Other crew members on Artemis on Monday included J.C. Darby, Eric Burn, Robbie Freeman, Jim Bryan and Michael Provow.