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Nothing Fishy About This Success Story

Of all of the memorable moments -- and there have been many -- from the annual Bisbee Black & Blue Marlin Jackpot Tournament, Director Wayne Bisbee likes to recall the time in 1990 when actor Willie Aames, the goofy sidekick on Charles in Charge, single-handedly fought a 457-pound black marlin for 21 straight hours. Unlike in some tourneys, Bisbee anglers must hold and reel in their catch without any assistance. That means competitors can't pass the rod to anyone else -- not even for a minute.

During that fish fight, tour organizers sent another boat to refuel Aames' 31-foot day boat and deliver sandwiches and bottled water. Before the struggle was over, the tough billfish pulled Aames' vessel 23 miles out to sea off the warm waters of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. But just before dawn, the exhausted, sweat-and-urine-drenched actor returned to the dock with his prize-winning catch, earning him a tidy $200,000.

"A WORLD MARKET." Between men and marlin lies a pot of gold. Once a casual hobby, marlin tournaments have become big-money contests attracting both novice and experienced sport fishermen from all over the world. Nearly every weekend throughout the year -- in Mexico, Hawaii, the Gulf Coast, Costa Rica, the Mid-Atlantic, and wherever else these large billfish swim -- tournaments are reeling in would-be anglers with the ultimate fishing challenge and hooking them with purses that can now top $1 million.

"It used to be that contests were more regionalized," says Dan Jacobs, who runs the sportfishing group at Winter Park (Fla.)-based World Publications, which specializes in sports and leisure magazines. "Now it's a world market. Technology has made it so you can send a boat anywhere in the world or charter a boat at any location and compete."

In the world of marlin tournaments, Bisbee's lays claim to being one of the most celebrated -- and most lucrative. With its $5,000 entry fees, optional jackpot pools, and seven-figure payouts, Sports Illustrated has dubbed Bisbee's the Super Bowl of billfishing.

TELL THE TRUTH. Indeed, last year 800 anglers competing on 171 boats entered the tournament, pushing total cash winnings over $2 million. Winner David Smith caught the money fish -- a 448-pound blue marlin, earning him $1.12 million. Martha Warlaumont, one of few women anglers, took second place, netting her $724,330. In October, Bisbee's will celebrate its 25th anniversary, and organizers expect this year's purse to hit $3 million.

Because the payouts are now so spectacular, five years ago the Bisbee tournament implemented a polygraph for winners to ensure that rules are followed. "You can't police or know what's going on out there in the water," Bisbee says. Only one team has failed the test, after an angler confessed that a deckhand had touched the line. He forfeited the first-place winnings of $989,910.

When the tourney began in 1982, Cabo San Lucas was a sleepy fishing village at the tip of Baja California. The contest itself started as an informal competition among friends. Together with his father, Wayne, Bisbee and a group of six anglers who regularly sailed down to Cabo in the winter decided to pool their money and compete for $10,000. "After that first tournament, people got more interested, and it slowly grew and grew," Wayne Bisbee says.

FUEL SHORTAGE. Sensing an opportunity, the elder Bisbee began using the contest as a marketing tool for Bisbee's Marine Fuels & Sportfishing Headquarters, his boating and tackle store in Newport Beach, Calif., a regular departure point for Cabo. That made sense because more anglers meant more boats and more demand for supplies.

In fact, the contest's popularity eventually propelled it to a full-fledged business. During the first 10 years, Bisbee, who runs the tournament with his sister Tricia, says the number of boats coming down for the contest grew to double digits. However, the expanding tournament outpaced Cabo's infrastructure. The marina didn't have enough docks or the fuel capacity for all those boats.

"They couldn't keep up," says Wayne Bisbee. At one point, the Bisbees got into the fuel business just to supply the growing tournament. Eventually, the town built a multicapacity dock and fueling station. Today, Cabo is considered a world-class marlin fishing spot, and a number of luxury resorts ring its once-quiet beaches.

CORPORATE BACKERS. When Robert retired in the early 1990s, anglers continued to send in their checks for upcoming tournaments, even though "we hadn't decided if we were going to continue," Wayne Bisbee says. "It was expensive. We needed to make adjustments for a bigger tournament that was a commercial entity."

Having always relied on word of mouth, the Bisbees decided that they needed to ramp up advertising. "What we had going for us was that with $1 million in prizes, we were one of the richest tourneys," says Bisbee. We capitalized on that and solicited corporate sponsorships."

Bisbee now has about 20 regional sponsors a year that each pay between $5,000 to $10,000, which goes toward marketing. And the Bisbees have teamed up in promotional efforts with other tournaments in the U.S., Caribbean, and Tahiti.

PRICEY COMPETITION. Marlin fishing isn't for the faint of heart or wallet. Prized females can grow to 14 feet in length and more than 2,000 pounds, and can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour. Considered predators, marlins have long, thin bills used to stun, spear, and shred their prey -- and that includes fisherman. Anglers have suffered cracked ribs and flesh wounds during their struggles, when fish routinely jump out of the water. (To promote conservation, the Bisbee tourney requires that marlins under 300 pounds are thrown back. Winning catches hauled ashore are donated to the Mexican Welfare Dept. to distribute to orphans and the elderly.)

Although most contests are open to amateurs, the costs of participation run high. Purchasing a boat can run in excess of $5 million, while chartering one can cost anywhere from $600 to $3,000 a day (the average tournament runs from one to five days). Entry fees and crew costs can run into the thousands of dollars.

For those who don't want to make a long-term investment, short packages offer instructional fishing vacations. For instance, Marlin University, operated by World Publications, offers packages for varying levels -- $5,500 in Costa Rica to $7,500 in Australia.

As he prepares for the tournament's 25th anniversary, Wayne Bisbee says he's still surprised at how his family's friendly competition has helped fuel a multimillion-dollar industry. "The challenge was that we had to adapt," he says. "This was unplanned." The Bisbees have clearly made the biggest catch of all.

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