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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