A $1 million guaranteed prize purse raises the stakes in South Florida tournament fishing
From A-list celebrities to fantastic food and entertainment, few would argue that legendary football coach-turned-broadcaster Jimmy Johnson hosts one of the world’s finest sport-fishing tournaments. The Jimmy Johnson’s National Billfish Championship has quickly become one event that’s not to be missed in a season packed full of high-profile sailfish tournaments.
But Johnson is not one to rest on his laurels either. This year, Johnson and his title sponsor at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino upped the ante and offered a guaranteed prize purse of $1 million, in addition to the giant NFL championship-style rings and entrance into Johnson’s Ring of Honor of past winners — hallowed ground, worthy of any serious tournament angler’s attention.
The week’s festivities kicked off with a welcome party at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, on March 4, 2017, before moving down to Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill restaurant in Key Largo. Events included a celebrity pro-am tournament, along with the two-day National Billfish Championship and one-day National Sportfish Championship.
But with the champion’s rings and the lion’s share of the cash on the line, all eyes were on the National Billfish Championship. Participants from across the Southeast came to battle it out among one another to see who would join Johnson’s Ring of Honor, and two days of tough fishing determined the victor.
The team aboard Astra Sails/ HookBling emerged as this year’s top dogs with 19 sailfish releases. Capt. Greg Graham relied on his local knowledge and years of experience to lead team members John McTurk, Mike Levy, Madison Roberts, Brad Zimmerman, Will Osthe, Steve Smith, Morgan Cadell and Andi de Young to victory. And it was indeed a sweet one, with $416,250 in cash for the winners.
“We put all our faith in Capt. Greg,” says McTurk, owner of the Mercurypowered Sea Vee 370Z, Astra Sails/ HookBling. “He’s been fishing out of Ocean Reef for 20 years on both private and charter boats, so he’s the one if you want someone running your boat in a big tournament. And it also really helps that we’re more like a big family team: There are no big egos, and we all have confidence in each other’s abilities.”
McTurk says that spotting the free-jumping sailfish proved to be a big key in their win. “Floppers were huge for us on Day One,” he reports. “We released a quadruple-header around the first one we saw. Then with only six or seven minutes before lines out, we saw another flopper inshore and caught three more from that one that put us in first place for the daily.” Threadfins and sardines produced the bites, while their goggle-eyes went untouched by sailfish both days. Incredibly, the team caught 19 sailfish from 20 bites in two days: They went a perfect 13 for 13 on Day One and six for seven on Day Two.
“You get butterflies looking at all the other boats that are the best in the world,” he says, “so it’s pretty incredible to win a tournament like this.”
In second place was another familiar name in sailfish tournament circles: Capt. J.C. Cleary and the 60-foot Spencer, HellREYzer, owned by Rey Acosta. The team released 17, worth $265,250 for their runner-up finish.
The Owl’s Nest team, fishing aboard their 72-foot Merritt, released 13 sails on their way to a third-place finish for Capt. Matt Tambor. Stephanie Choate aboard Miss Britt, the new Contender 39 Fisharound, was the event’s top angler and top lady angler as she continued her impressive string of individual tournament honors.
The Jimmy Johnson’s National Billfish Championship raised more than $75,000 for various charities through the celebrity pro-am event and fundraising efforts at the tournament awards dinner. Event beneficiaries included the Tranquil Shores Foundation and Fishing for Muscular Dystrophy.
Capt. Greg Graham relied on his years of local fishing knowledge in the Florida Keys to lead the Astra Sails/HookBling team to the win in the high-stakes event.
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