Twenty years! In some ways two decades seems like an eternity and in others a microsecond. Still, significant anniversaries are typically celebrated with precious metals and gems, with emeralds commemorating the 20-year mark. But green baubles don’t exactly conjure up visual images of billfish. Good times, spirited competition and lasting impressions do, at least in the case of the Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament, which celebrates its 20th year this season.
It began in August 2004 with two goals: Raise funds for youth charities and marine conservation projects, plus highlight the tremendous offshore fishing Virginia Beach has to offer. By all accounts, both goals have been resoundingly met. That first year 42 teams with 231 anglers released 55 billfish and weighed a 582-pound blue marlin. The purse was $213,500 and Harbor Lights, a 56 Viking, was the inaugural VBBT champion.
Last year, 84 teams competed with 597 anglers vying for $813,000 in prize money. Fifty-five billfish were released, with two blues weighed (612.5 and 563.8 pounds). Cuttin’ Up, a 64 Viking, emerged triumphant. The overall impact of 20 years is equally impressive.
“To date we’ve donated more than $1.5 million to local charities,” explains Tournament Director Paula Owens. “We’ve also awarded $8.5 million in prize money and released 4,095 billfish. Those are some pretty significant accomplishments since this all began.”
“I’m very proud we have an invitational tournament with a waiting list of highly competitive teams,” says owner/angler Jimmy Bayne on Sniper. Bayne is also one of the founding VBBT board members. “We have a great group of guys on the board and Paula and Deirdre do a wonderful job keeping everything running smoothly. Plus you’d be hard pressed to find another tournament with this much fishing talent. If you do well here, you can compete anywhere.”
Capt. Steve Richardson, who runs the 58 Bobby Sullivan Short Rigger, fishes multiple tournaments throughout the season but he always looks forward to the VBBT. That’s why he’s fished every one over the years.
“It’s homebound and I really enjoy it,” Richardson says. “This is one of the nicest tournaments and the best run of all of them. I love the food, atmosphere, socializing. There are great people here all around.”
“I really can’t believe we made it this far,” says Tournament Coordinator Deirdre Bell Loftin with a laugh. “The biggest thing is we are truly grateful for the teams and sponsors that keep coming back to support us. We’ve had 22 sponsors with us since 2004. That loyalty and commitment year after year is really mind-blowing.”
“I have loved this tournament from the very beginning,” adds Julia Brakhage, president of Tournament Control, which has handled registration and scoring of the VBBT from the start. “The tent and the atmosphere are just so special. That’s because this event is run by people who know fishing. Working with Paula and Deirdre all these years has been so much fun. I have a lot of photos to prove it, but those are staying in the vault.”
Capt. Harvey Shiflet, skipper of Anticipation, a 62 Viking, has competed in the VBBT since the beginning as well.
“I’ve always been supportive of the VBBT,” Shiflet says. “It was a grassroots effort that many of us were involved in and it has turned into an all together great event. It’s well run and they do it right. I really like the social aspects. The tournament staff treats the crews and families right and the evenings are always fun. And the fishing in Virginia Beach is as good as anywhere in the world this time of year.”
The actual fishing aspect begins Thursday morning as the fleet races offshore to the nearby Gulf Stream and blue water eddies. Fishing hours are 8:30 am to 3 pm; boats fish two of three days with one mandatory lay day. Sailfish, spearfish and white marlin are strictly release and count 70 points each. Blue marlin catches verified by photo add an extra 130 points. The VBBT also has a trophy blue marlin category, with a minimum of 400 pounds or 110 inches (lower jaw to tail fork length) required for a weight entry.
On Wednesday night though, it is team check-in, the captains’ meeting, dinner, music, hugs, handshakes and happy celebrations. There might even be an emerald or two in the mix.