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One fish, two fish, big fish, blue fish

Whitecaps takes two blue marlin to win KWLA Tournament

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Truly great fish tales are about a lot more than what’s on the end of the line. 

For the women aboard the fishing vessel Whitecaps at the Big Rock Kelli Wagner Lady Angler Tournament on June 8 in Morehead City, they now have a story to rival that of any produced by their brothers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, sons and husbands.

With not one, but two marlin hooked and counted, Whitecaps, a 52-foot Buddy Davis Express owned by Steve White of Wilson, claimed the top prize of $81,525 in the 22nd annual KWLA, which attracted a record field of 167 boats this year, further enhancing its reputation as a premier single-day billfish tournament. For White, who has been fishing in the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament for decades, this was a special thrill.

“They’re going to engrave our name in the granite there in Morehead!” White marveled. “The Lady Angler is the largest one-day billfish tournament in the country! One hundred sixty-seven boats and these girls won it! It’s absolutely wonderful for the girls!”

The “girls” included his granddaughter Collins White as well as his niece Wortley Forbes Whitehead, each of whom landed a blue marlin estimated to weigh well in excess of 400 pounds before they were released. Collins’ fish was thought to have weighed more than 500 pounds and, if so, would have placed high in the 61st annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, which started two days later.

“We were thinking we probably could have done that as well,” Collins said. “It was extremely satisfying bringing that fish all the way to the boat!”

The rest of the Whitecaps KWLA team was Stephanie White Smith, Steve’s daughter and Collins’ aunt; Lauren Forbes Good, Wortley’s sister and Stephanie’s cousin; Blythe Bracey; Eliza Pittman Stephenson and Crystal Barnes Boykin. Carter White of Wilson — son of Steve and father of Collins — was there to provide moral support and technical expertise with more than 20 years of experience fishing in the Big Rock tournament.

Even he was astounded that Whitecaps was able to bring in two blue marlin in one day.

“It was just a good year,” he said. “They were thick this year and we were just in the right place at the right time. It was just a really good tournament.”

The crew of the Whitecaps for the seventh straight year in the KWLA and the Big Rock was captain Scott Wiggins of LaGrange and mates Danny Smith of Kinston and Mark Jones of Snow Hill.

COLLINS UP FIRST

Despite the forecast for stormy weather, the boats that traveled to sea that day only had to deal with overcast skies and a bit of rain. For the most part, the water was calm but there was nothing to indicate what was going to happen.

“We had no idea we would catch anything,” Stephanie Smith said.

After a ride of more than three hours to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, the lines went into the water. It wasn’t until just before noon that the first marlin struck.

“I saw this fin right behind the boat just come up and everybody screamed!” Smith said with a laugh at the memory of the bedlam. “We threw the food. It went flying in the air!”

The plan was to put Collins White in the angler’s chair first. After all, she is 22 and a student at UNC Wilmington and, more importantly, had brought in a blue marlin before. She landed a blue marlin in the 2017 Big Rock when Carter White’s 417-pound blue marlin had put Whitecaps in third place early in the tournament. While, that blue marlin, estimated to be around 300 pounds, didn’t count since it was hooked while the lines were being taken out of the water, it did give Collins the experience she would need in this year’s KWLA.

“It’s pretty surreal and definitely amazing,” she said. “Those ropes that go from the rod to the cushion seat and from the cushion seat to the to the sliding chair, on my right side in particular, the ropes kept snapping during the fight. They broke four or five times. So it got ‘real’ then and I couldn’t take any breaks. It was just me against the fish. My dad had to stand behind the chair for backup in case the fish succeeded in taking me for my last swim!”

The struggle with the blue marlin went on for more than an hour. Collins said that she was reaching exhaustion but came to the conclusion that it was either her or the blue marlin.

“At that point I pretty much decided that I was either going for my last swim or that fish was coming in the boat!” she said with a laugh.

The fish was finally brought close enough for mates Smith and Jones to grab it and make it an official catch and measure it for an estimate of weight, which was between 450 and 500 pounds.

“It was a big one,” Carter White said. “It looked like it was at least 500 pounds. We didn’t weigh it and it was hard to tell but it was bigger than the one I reeled in a few years.”

Since all the fish in the KWLA are catch-and-release, it didn’t matter how big the blue marlin was, only that it was caught. That gave Whitecaps 400 points and a good shot at the grand prize. However, they would probably need to catch some other fish and nothing else was biting.

‘GET IN THE CHAIR, WORTLEY!’

The afternoon wore on until the final half hour of fishing, around 1:40 p.m., when another line started to sing with a fish on the other end. Whitehead said she was unaware that it had already been determined she was the No. 2 in the lineup.

Smith said that the order was the youngest (Collins White) first and then the most fit (Whitehead).

“I had no idea that they had made the plan,” said Whitehead, a Wilson native and Wilmington resident. “I just heard them screaming, ‘Get in the chair, Wortley! We’re hooked up! Get in the chair!’”

Whitehead said that she had once caught a sailfish on one of her numerous deep-sea fishing expeditions but had no idea what to expect from a blue marlin, considered the top prize of many sport fisherman.

The game of landing a giant fish is to reel like crazy when the line goes slack and let the fish take the line when it wants. The boat captain has to maneuver the craft to keep the line from snapping and keep pressure on the fish and the crew and rest of the team can offer encouragement but the job of bringing the fish is with the person in the chair.

Whitehead, a yoga instructor, said that the battle with the blue marlin was “really intense.”

“You get so tired that you think you’re going to give up and then you think, ’No, this fish isn’t going to win — I am!’” she said.

She credited the rest of the team and crew, as well as Carter White, who held onto her seat to make sure she didn’t get yanked into the Atlantic Ocean.

“All the girls fishing with us were amazing,” she said. “You really do have to get cheered on and helped and I couldn’t have done it without them for sure!”

When her fish finally surfaced, the hook was lodged in the side of its mouth, meaning that Whitehead had to work harder to reel it up sideways. 

“By the time she got it in, it was barely hanging on,” Carter White said.

Smith and Jones were able to get the hook out and estimated the fish to weigh between 375 and 400 pounds, but, more importantly, it was another 400 points for Whitecaps.

But with the boat well outside the range of cell phones, no one aboard knew for sure if they had won anything.

TRIUMPHANT RETURN

“We thought everybody was catching fish,” Smith said. “We thought that if we caught two, surely everybody out here’s catching a bunch. We were just excited that we had caught a billfish and had no idea that we had won anything.”

But when the boat drew within sight of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, everyone’s phones started buzzing with texts and messages that Whitecaps had, indeed, won the tournament. Two other boats caught one blue marlin each while runner-up El Cazador, which had the first blue marlin release of the KWLA, added a 7.4-pound dolphin.

The tournament title and the $81,525 belonged to Whitecaps.

“It’s definitely the biggest deal for me so far, personally,” Collins White said. “I’m very grateful that we got to share that experience together and have a little family bonding going on.”

UNCLE JIMMY’S HELP

There might have been some extra help from an old friend. Jimmy Pittman, a good friend and longtime fishing partner of Steve White and the father of Eliza Pittman Stephenson, passed away last fall. Whitehead said that his absence was noted on the dock just before Whitecaps took off that morning.

“I told Eliza that you knew he would have been there with Uncle Steve to see us off,” Whitehead said. “We hugged and even cried a little on the way out that morning.”

When it started to rain, Wiggins, the boat captain, was flustered at discovering that he had left his raincoat behind. But someone told him there was probably one somewhere in the cabin and, after some digging, Wiggins emerged with an old raincoat that once belonged to Jimmy Pittman.

“I think Jimmy Pittman was watching over us a little bit,” Collins White said.

Also, Whitehead was later told that the rod and reel on which she landed her first blue marlin once belonged to her father, Vance Forbes. He sold all his equipment to Steve White just a few months ago when he sold his boat.

MEMORABLE WEEK

Even with the quick turnaround after returning to the dock, the group was able to get dressed and celebrate at the annual Big Rock Captain’s Party. 

Whitecaps’ two-fish day sparked a memorable week at the 61st annual Big Rock, which saw a tournament-record 914-pound blue marlin taken by Top Dog take the top prize. 

Steve White said that it takes experience and ability for the boat captains to find the eddies in the depths of the Gulf Stream where the big blue marlin lurk, as well as good boats and the right bait. With more than 15 years experience fishing together, Wiggins, Jones and Smith — known as “Little Danny” to all — were indispensible to Whitecaps’ success.

But, as Steve White reminded with a grin: “There’s an art to it and there’s a science to it and then there’s always luck!” 

Whitecaps picked up a second-place prize in the Daily Dolphin category on June 14, adding $2,000 to its take, and caught and released a blue marlin and a white marlin.

Winning the prize money was going to help ease the pain of the high cost of fuel (up to $1,000 a day) as well as the entry fees, but the bigger prize was having a fish tale of a lifetime with your family and friends.

“To go out to sea and be together as a family and when you get to win a tournament on top of it, that’s just the icing on the cake!” assured Whitehead.

BIG ROCK RUNDOWN

The Maryland-based boat Top Dog handily took the top prize for blue marlin at the 61st Big Rock. Second place went to Wolverine of Port Huron, Michigan, with a blue marlin weighing 588.9 pounds.

The Kannapolis-boat Goombay counted among its team members Wilson native Will Pittman, the brother of Whitecaps team member Eliza Stephenson Pittman and son of Jimmy Pittman.

Goombay claimed the Daily Release WTA prize of $56,525, on Saturday, June 15.

After winning more than $600,000 in prize money at the Big Rock last summer, Carterican, a boat owned by brothers and Wilson natives Jamie and Lee Smith, didn’t fare quite as well this year.

Carterican, which won the Fabulous Fisherman prize of $500,000 in 2018, did take first place in the Daily Gamefish category with a 32.4-pound dolphin on Tuesday, June 11. 

Sweetums, of Southlake, Texas, claimed the Fabulous Fisherman loot with  the first blue marlin of more than 500 pounds with a 545.4-pound catch Monday morning at 10:31.

Annie O of Atlantic Beach won the Weekly Billfish Release prize of  $142,375.

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