Level Playing Field

The 39th edition of the Pirate’s Cove Billfish Tournament kicked off Monday evening with refreshments, catching up with old friends and a discussion of the rules. As in years past most of the format remains the same. Only trophy-size blue marlin are eligible in the billfish weight division and the majority of the scores will hinge on white marlin, sailfish and small blues being released. There is one wrinkle, however. In an effort to level the competition, an optional entry division was created for boats using Omni sonar.

Omni sonar units are sophisticated electronic devices that allow detailed multi-directional scanning of the depths below and around the vessel. Omni technology is still relatively new and not cheap. Many larger, newer boats are adding it, but older boats are often prohibited due to cost and installation accessibility. Skilled operators can pinpoint and distinguish the species of individual fish and that can prove to be advantageous. So the PCBT board decided to add a special jackpot category for those who wanted to use it without penalizing others that didn’t. A handful of boats entered early but all chose to drop and fish without it this year.

“Our boat (Desperado—VA) has Omni, but I don’t have very much experience with it yet and that makes a difference,” says Capt. Justin Ratcliff. “I need a Millennial to teach me how to interpret the images. We’ll go wherever the money is though and right now most of it is in the non-Omni division.

“The technology is coming, just like auto-retracting doors, Seakeeper gyro stabilizers and other advances,” Ratcliff adds. “Omni can make a difference. You can see schools of tuna, bait and individual marlin. You can also follow a shark around for an hour if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Pirate’s Cove always coincides with the August full moon and that window usually produces some really big blues. So Omni boats could have potentially used that technology to hone in on the winning fish.”

Captain Jordan Croswait is running Carolina Girl, a 54 Hatteras that doesn’t have Omni on board.

“Technology is just a progression,” he says. “Twenty-knot boats used to be fast, but now we have 40-knot boats. Not everyone has that type of sonar, but it’s becoming more common and will eventually be smaller in size and cost less so more boats will add it. There are some mixed feelings about the new rule. I install Omni sonar at our shop (Croswait Marine), so I get it that some owners want to have the best technology available. At the same time, the optional entry leveled the playing field for those who don’t have it yet. Like everything, tweaks will probably be necessary in the future. I do appreciate the effort and thought process the tournament went through to make the competition more mutual, though.”

At Monday night’s captains meeting, Tournament Director Heather Maxwell gave a preliminary breakdown of the entry split and offered boats the option of switching or withdrawing from the Omni division before registration closed. All those entered chose to do so. Fishing begins Tuesday morning at 8:30 and continues through Friday. The boats will compete three of four days, with one mandatory lay day, albeit all without Omni sonar.

Instead, the outcome will be decided by old school local knowledge, angling skill and luck. And that formula has been winning tournaments for a long time. Thirty-eight years, in fact.