The 19th annual Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament kicked off Wednesday evening under the big top tent at Rudee Inlet. Eighty-four boats this week will be angling for the biggest share of $813,000 in prize money. But long before the first cocktail was poured or the first plate of BBQ was served, a dedicated group was hard at work in cockpits throughout the various marinas. They don’t always get credit for their efforts but mates are key players to any team’s success.

Reese Starns, the deckhand aboard Anticipation, a 61 Spencer, was putting the finishing touches on a cooler carefully stacked with rigged baits earlier Wednesday afternoon. The ballyhoo had been prepped, rigged, lay out neatly in trays and then dusted with brining salt before being covered.

“I’ve rigged 215 dredge and hook baits for the tournament so far,“ Starns explained. “Each dredge has 30 baits and we run two dredges, so I rig enough for two days of fishing so they are ready. I’ll have to re-rig more pitch baits depending on the bite.” Dredges are wire dropper rigs that hold trolled baits close together to simulate a school of bait. Starns runs one with ballyhoo and another with mullet about 160 feet off the transom. Marlin and other game fish swim into the spread, attracted by the dredges and the anglers holding the rods then drop the bait back into the strike zone. Double, triple and even quadruple hook-up are not uncommon when packs of white marlin show up. A rigged Spanish mackerel is within reach in case a trophy marlin makes an appearance.

“We always keep a heavier rod ready in case something cool happens,” Starns explains. In addition to rigging baits, the mate also services tackle, coaches the anglers, wires/gaffs hooked fish and takes photos or video for verification of billfish releases. Once the boat returns to the slip, mates clean the boat and start the rigging/tackle process all over again for the next day.

“This is my first tournament here, so I’m excited,” Starns adds. “We always have the same crew and use 20-pound outfits for the dredge rods and 80-pound tackle for the pitch baits. I’ve fished the last three days and it has been pretty slow, so hopefully it picks up this week.”

Kevin Manning, the mate aboard Waverunner, a local charter boat fishing the tournament, was also busy prepping after working a charter earlier Wednesday.

“I like to rig some baits plain and some behind lures. I’ll have a little bit of everything so we’re ready for whatever. The fishing has been slow, but we saw two and caught two billfish in the ladies tournament this weekend so they are out there.”

A new VBBT rule this year allow teams to earn 130 extra points if blue marlin releases are photo verified, adding another duty to a mate’s heavy workload. That won’t matter. These key players are definitely up to the task and all will be instrumental in the final outcome of this week’s competition.