BILOXI -- It was all about the boats Thursday as the 20th Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic tournament got under way with a boat parade and a dash out into the Gulf to hook the biggest fish.
The nearly $1.7 million in prize money is the biggest purse ever and 21 more boats are entered this year -- the most since 2005's Hurricane Katrina -- thanks to a social media boost.
At an average cost of $3 million to $4 million -- and 81 boats -- that's about $300 million in boats in Biloxi this weekend.
Emeril Lagasse was there aboard his boat Aldenté -- written with a red chili pepper for an accent. It combines the name of his wife, Gulfport native Alden Lagasse, and his passion for cooking.
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The vessel You Never Know out of Road Harbour, British Virgin Islands, was docked at Point Cadet Harbor near Wild Hooker, a boat based in Kona, Hawaii.
"This is some of the best fishing in the world," said Allen Stuart of Lafayette, La., who was aboard the Wild Hooker. He said the competition will be unbelievable.
Shane O'Brien of Kona said with the distance anglers travel to get the big fish and then race back in to the scales, "it adds a whole new challenge when you're 200 miles out."
For those wonder just what is a billfish, they're the Lamborghinis of the ocean -- sleek, muscular, blazingly fast large predators that also sport a sword-like or spear-like upper jaw. Think swordfish, sailfish, marlin and spearfish.
The tournament is hosted by Golden Nugget Casino Biloxi. Bobby Carter, tournament director and one of its founders, said it draws so many participants because of the location, people, fishery and because everything is in one spot. The boat owners stay at the hotels, eat at the restaurants, play at the casinos and shop at area stores.
"They love the way they are treated here," he said as he wandered down the docks, shaking hands and smiling as one boat owner shouted out, "You do a first-class job."
Every year the boats, the fish and the fish tales get bigger, he said, and he credits Biloxi and the Biloxi Port Commission with helping to make the tournament successful.
Ron Woodruff, captain of the $10 million A Work of Art out of Orange Beach, Ala., said he's been to all but one or two of the Biloxi tournaments. The 92-foot Viking owned by Art Favre won the honor of leading the boat parade.
Sun Herald was invited aboard A Work of Art and given a tour. About a dozen color-coordinated rods and reels, custom built for about $25,000, were in place and awaiting the first cast. The big galley with granite counters was stocked with steaks and barbecue and equipped with a grill for tasty burgers and chicken. The boat has a large salon, air conditioning, six bedrooms and eight bathrooms. Its bridge is outfitted with video displays for the fish finder, navigation system, night vision and security cameras.
"It's the command center," Woodruff said of the bridge.
About five of the boats are local, including the Cheeseburger out of Pass Christian, named for Shaggy's restaurants.
Shaggy's co-owners Rimmer Covington Jr. and Ron Ladner just returned from fishing for marlin in the Virgin Islands and Covington said, "I've fished all over the world and this is the best."
Covington said he turns the wheel, not the reel, adding the others on the boat will first try for blue marlin. "Everything else is a bonus," he said.
At 3 p.m. Friday, when the scales open at Point Cadet Marina, the focus will turn to the fish and those who land the biggest catch. Saturday is like a rock concert, angler "Smitty" Smith said, as the boats return and each catch brings a round of cheers and photos.
Smith was preparing the 40-foot Havana Run out of Cypremort Point, La., for the competition and said four anglers, the captain and two mates will start fishing 100 miles out. If they get a big catch early, they'll bring it back Friday.
"You don't want (the fish) to sit on the deck for too long," he said, because it will lose weight. The last of the boats will race back Saturday with their catch before the scales close at 8 p.m.
Check back throughout the weekend for more reports, photos and videos from the Billfish Classic.