THE BISBEE’S BLACK AND BLUE A BAJA MIR­A­CLE

A MUL­TI­MIL­LION-DOL­LAR TOUR­NA­MENT SERIES THAT BE­GAN WITH AN OB­SCURE CON­CEPT, AND A MAN WITH A PAS­SION NOT ONLY FOR SPORT FISH­ING BUT ALSO LIFE IT­SELF

Marlin - - Before The Strike Rigger’s Corner - BY GARY GRA­HAM

An ac­ci­den­tal en­tre­pre­neur who par­layed an or­di­nary fuel-dock busi­ness in Cal­i­for­nia into what would even­tu­ally be­come the largest in­de­pen­dently run big-game fish­ing tour­na­ment in the world, Robert (Bob) Bisbee’s re­mark­able jour­ney be­gan on March 6, 1933, and spanned 85 years.

Bisbee mi­grated from Excelsior Springs, Mis­souri, to Or­ange County, Cal­i­for­nia, where he mar­ried Aina Wil­liams on Novem­ber 1, 1960—a mar­riage that lasted 58 years—and had five chil­dren: Bob Jr., Wayne, Tri­cia, Erik and Destiney. He was also blessed with many grand­chil­dren and great-grand­chil­dren be­fore his death on June 14, 2018.

Along the way, the el­der Bisbee touched the lives of mil­lions through his pas­sion for sport fish­ing. In 1975, he leased the Shell Fuel Dock on Bal­boa Is­land, Cal­i­for­nia, and re­branded it as a 76 Union fa­cil­ity known as Bisbee’s Marine Fu­els. He also opened a mod­est tackle store, which be­came Bisbee’s Sportfishi­ng Head­quar­ters.

A RA­DIO LIFE­LINE

The tackle store was the first to set up a land-based marine sin­gle-side­band ra­dio to keep in touch with boats trav­el­ing up and down the West Coast. At the time, this was of­ten the only way for the crews to com­mu­ni­cate, by re­lay­ing mes­sages to and from their fam­i­lies, boat own­ers and oth­ers. Boats that broke down along the Baja Penin­sula could re­quest every­thing from hard­ware and en­gine parts to tackle. This ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tion was vi­tal to the off­shore fish­ing com­mu­nity’s ex­pan­sion south into Cabo San Lu­cas, Mexico; sup­ply­ing the boats head­ing to Cabo and re­lay­ing mes­sages be­came a huge part of the Bisbee busi­ness.

Dur­ing sum­mer 1981, for­mer US Air Force pi­lot Luis Cop­pola, owner of the Ho­tel Fin­is­terra in Cabo, and Bill Baf­fert, his nephew and ho­tel man­ager, met with Bisbee at his fuel dock in Cal­i­for­nia. Baf­fert’s first child had been born that year, and with his fam­ily liv­ing in Mexico, trans­port­ing goods (di­a­pers!) from the United States to south­ern Mexico was nearly im­pos­si­ble. They had dozens of boxes that needed ship­ping.

En­ter Bisbee and his sport-fish­ing cus­tomers. The co­op­er­a­tive cadre of boat cap­tains who used Bisbee’s ra­dio ser­vice to re­lay mes­sages to their fam­i­lies in the tackle shop—the last stop for boats trav­el­ing to and from Cabo San Lu­cas—were happy to de­liver di­a­pers and other sup­plies south in ex­change for a hot meal and a few cold cervezas upon ar­rival.

GROW­ING CABO

At the time, Cabo San Lu­cas was a sim­ple fish­ing vil­lage, with seven small re­sort ho­tels cater­ing mostly to vis­it­ing an­glers. Each of the ho­tels hosted a yearly tour­na­ment, ex­cept for the Ho­tel Fin­is­terra. Bisbee and Baf­fert be­came friends, and started kick­ing around an idea for a mar­lin tour­na­ment, with the ho­tel’s own­ers and Bisbee as part­ners. The Fin­is­terra would co-host and pay for the swag—a small bag with the ho­tel-logo patch— plus a few fish­ing items, along with rods and reels for the top three win­ners. And just like that, they

had the mak­ings of a tour­na­ment.

John Doughty—the owner of J.D.’s Big Game Tackle Store, a then-em­ployee of Bisbee’s—drew up the ini­tial set of tour­na­ment rules, and the Bisbee’s Black and Blue was born.

Bisbee was in­trigued. His boat was al­ready in Cabo San Lu­cas with son Bob Jr. on as cap­tain; the younger Bisbee quickly re­cruited ad­di­tional boats to par­tic­i­pate in a loosely run tour­na­ment sched­uled for May 1982. The con­cept for the tour­na­ment was to help pro­mote the fuel dock and tackle store back on Bal­boa Is­land in Cal­i­for­nia. The first tour­na­ment had a whop­ping six boats. Un­fazed, the event re­ceived tremen­dous sup­port from Bob’s bud­dies, who would later start the Mar­lin Club in Cabo. Bill Doner, who ended up pur­chas­ing and re­fur­bish­ing Fin­is­terra’s Tor­tuga Fish­ing Fleet,

“FISH­ING WAS OFF THE CHARTS. BILL­FISH WERE STACKED UP, WITH THEIR TAILS STICK­ING OUT OF THE WA­TER, LOOK­ING LIKE A PICKET FENCE A FEW MILES IN FRONT OF THE ARCH AT LAND’S END.”

also gave Bisbee his sup­port, and the mod­est event went off with­out a hitch. Jack Wil­liamson, fish­ing aboard Bob’s own boat, won the $10,000 purse. “My team won the first tour­na­ment,” Bob said, “so I won my money back.”

“Fish­ing was off the charts,” he con­tin­ued. “Bill­fish were stacked up with their tails stick­ing out of the wa­ter, look­ing like a picket fence a few miles in front of the arch at Land’s End.” The news of the great fish­ing spread rapidly and, to sat­isfy the de­mand, Bisbee sched­uled an­other event. And by the time De­cem­ber rolled around, the num­ber of teams had more than dou­bled to 13.

“THE BISBEE’S BLACK AND BLUE TOUR­NA­MENT PAY­OUTS WILL EX­CEED $100 MIL­LION BY THE 40TH AN­NIVER­SARY. SO FAR, WE’VE HAD 16 CHECKS OVER $1 MIL­LION, FIVE OVER $2 MIL­LION, AND TWO OVER $3 MIL­LION.”

Over the years, the dates were grad­u­ally moved back to late Oc­to­ber to con­form to Cabo’s sea­sonal weather. Like the tail wag­ging the dog, the tour­na­ment that was first spawned to raise ex­tra rev­enue for Bisbee’s orig­i­nal busi­ness and to pro­mote the Ho­tel Fin­is­terra and its Tor­tuga Fleet slowly mor­phed into a full-fledged Bisbee fam­ily af­fair. As the di­ver­sity and num­ber of teams from around the world in­creased, the jack­pot for­mat—ori­ented to­ward a bet­ting struc­ture and ever-in­creas­ing cash prizes—at­tracted more par­tic­i­pa­tion.

The Bisbee fam­ily’s tour­na­ment be­came a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to the de­vel­op­ment of Cabo San Lu­cas, and as the des­ti­na­tion be­gan to trans­form from a re­mote, un­de­vel­oped get­away for South­ern Cal­i­for­nia boat own­ers, it be­came one of the most talked-about world­wide fish­ing events and des­ti­na­tions.

In 1990, the Plaza Las Glo­rias be­came tour­na­ment head­quar­ters, and the re­cently hired gen­eral man­ager of the ho­tel, Clice­rio Mer­cado, co­or­di­nated the lo­gis­tics with Bob Bisbee un­til 1993. By then, Mer­cado was the lo­cal face of the Bisbee’s tour­na­ments, han­dling most of the day-to-day chal­lenges. He is no stranger to com­mu­nity ser­vice, hav­ing worked six years as vice pres­i­dent in charge of con­struc­tion. An ac­tive Ro­tar­ian, Mer­cado still works with many char­i­ties, in­clud­ing Smiles In­ter­na­tional Foun­da­tion, Reel Life Ad­ven­tures, the Stars and Stripes Char­ity Tour­na­ment, and Mir­a­cle Foun­da­tion, as well as other gov­ern­mentspon­sored com­mu­nity fish­ing tour­na­ments.

WAYNE’S GAME

In 1995, Bisbee turned over day-to-day tour­na­ment op­er­a­tions to his son Wayne. “It got too big for me, and every­thing switched to com­put­ers,” Bob Sr. lamented. “Tri­cia and Wayne do a won­der­ful job se­cur­ing spon­sors. I never had spon­sors and didn’t ad­ver­tise in any mag­a­zines. Orig­i­nally, all the prize money came from the tour­na­ment en­try fees.”

Wayne also cher­ished the value of fam­ily, and

within two years, had re­cruited his sis­ter Tri­cia for the po­si­tion of vice pres­i­dent and di­rec­tor of spon­sor­ships. She went from part time to full time in 1997. This al­lowed them to ex­pand their tour­na­ment foot­print with a sec­ond event, us­ing a mod­i­fied for­mat that in­cluded mar­lin, do­rado and tuna. This be­came known as the Bisbee’s East Cape Off­shore Tour­na­ment, and the 20th an­nual event was hosted by the Ho­tel Buena Vista Beach Re­sort in 2019.

The pop­u­lar­ity of the low-key, mul­ti­species East Cape event com­pelled the brother-and-sis­ter

team to in­tro­duce the Bisbee Los Ca­bos Off­shore Tour­na­ment in 2002, to be held just prior to the start of the Black and Blue tour­na­ment.

The three events in the two venues pros­pered, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the in­jec­tion of en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm brought by the grow­ing Bisbee group, which ex­panded the events by net­work­ing and crosspro­mot­ing tour­na­ments with other suc­cess­ful tour­na­ment di­rec­tors.

“The re­sults have been very pro­duc­tive, re­sult­ing in teams par­tic­i­pat­ing from around the world,” Wayne says. Three gen­er­a­tions of Bis­bees con­tinue their in­volve­ment to­day. Wayne’s cousin Carey Bisbee came on board in 2002 as event quar­ter­mas­ter when he was in­vited by Wayne and Tri­cia for a va­ca­tion, and ended up with the re­spon­si­bil­ity of han­dling all of the lo­gis­tics, en­sur­ing that all items re­quired for an un­der­tak­ing of this mag­ni­tude are in place and on time. Carey also keeps an eye on the younger gen­er­a­tion while they are in Cabo San Lu­cas.

Wayne’s son, Blake, and daugh­ter, Jor­dyn, along with Tri­cia’s chil­dren, Paige and Jamie, pitch in at the dif­fer­ent tour­na­ments, work­ing wher­ever they are needed. Staff mem­bers Jack Teschel and Burt Mer­ritt from Pen­sacola, Florida, han­dle the weigh sta­tion, and David Gar­cia of CatchS­tat takes care of the scor­ing. Rich Chris­tensen, videog­ra­pher and owner of RK Creative Pro, has doc­u­mented and pro­duced shows for the tour­na­ments for more than 18 years; brothers Axel and Felipe Valdez, own­ers of Ho­tel Bue­nav­ista Beach Re­sort, and Jill Chris­tensen han­dle the of­fi­cial tour­na­ment ra­dio and man­age a small army of vol­un­teers.

“Bisbee’s Black and Blue tour­na­ment pay­outs will ex­ceed $100 mil­lion by the 40th an­niver­sary,” Wayne mar­vels. “So far, we’ve had 16 checks over $1 mil­lion, five over $2 mil­lion, and two over $3 mil­lion.”

THE RECORDS SPEAK FOR THEM­SELVES

When the tour­na­ment of­fi­cially be­gan in 1981, the $10,000 prize seemed mea­ger by to­day’s stan­dards. How­ever, as par­tic­i­pa­tion grew, the cash prizes be­came sim­ply as­ton­ish­ing. Twenty-two years later, in 2003, the first seven-fig­ure check of $1,165,230 was awarded to the team fish­ing aboard Que Sera for a 656-pound blue mar­lin landed by Brady Bunte. They were one of 148 teams reg­is­tered that year.

In 2006, the largest sin­gle pay­out in sportfishi­ng his­tory was awarded to An­thony Hsieh’s Bad Com­pany. South­ern Cal­i­for­nia-based cap­tains Steve Lass­ley and Pete Groes­beck, along with James Kingsmill, Keith O’Brien-Mor­ton and Andy Horner, were all part of the six-an­gler crew who earned a record tour­na­ment pay­day of $3,902,997. The over­all pay­out that year—$4,165,960—was also the largest to­tal purse in tour­na­ment his­tory any­where in the world.

Nine years later, in 2015, Ken Cofer’s Tran­quilo team re­ceived a check for $2,511,462, and the records con­tin­ued to fall. In 2018, Chinito Bonito rewrote event his­tory, tak­ing home the sec­ond­high­est pay­out of $3,004,900.

GONE BUT NOT FOR­GOT­TEN

Bisbee’s fam­ily and staff has watched the Black and Blue evolve from just a small mar­lin tour­na­ment into what Sports Il­lus­trated once hailed as

the Su­per Bowl of fish­ing.

On Mon­day, Oc­to­ber 22, 2019, Bob’s wife, Aina, their chil­dren, and the ex­tended Bisbee fam­ily and staff, as well as sev­eral hun­dred friends, ob­served Bisbee’s fi­nal wishes with a cel­e­bra­tion of his life at the Baja Cantina in Cabo San Lu­cas, which con­cluded with Marco Ehren­berg propos­ing a round of ap­plause to honor Bob. The ap­plause thun­dered and echoed through­out the ma­rina com­plex for sev­eral min­utes. Then, Aina and Bob Jr. joined the rest of the fam­ily aboard the Bisbee tour­na­ment boat to scat­ter the pa­tri­arch’s ashes into his beloved Sea of Cortez in the shadow of the arch at Land’s End. A fleet of boats rang­ing in size from 20 to more than 80 feet fol­lowed to say their fi­nal good­byes as the ashes of this highly re­garded man were lov­ingly cast into the sea.

“This event means quite a lot—not just to me, but to an­glers ev­ery­where,” Wayne Bisbee ex­plained be­fore the 2019 tour­na­ment. “If you think about it, th­ese days most things don’t last for this long. Es­pe­cially some­thing that started with six boats and a bunch of guys from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia com­ing down to Cabo to have fun catch­ing mar­lin for a week.”

The Bisbee fam­ily shares a sense of hu­mil­ity that is wrapped in shock and awe at the mag­ni­tude of the le­gacy that Bob Bisbee Sr. left be­hind. They refuse to rest on his lau­rels, or to let past fail­ures dampen their en­thu­si­asm. Fine-tun­ing the pro­gram is a con­stant for the Bis­bees, who re­al­ize all short­com­ings can re­sult in huge suc­cesses with the right mind­set. They’ve proved it.

Wayne, Tri­cia and Carey Bisbee, along with Clice­rio Mer­cado, have carved out their niches while al­low­ing other fam­ily mem­bers and staff to fol­low suit. All have grav­i­tated to the part of the ex­trav­a­ganza in which they ex­cel, while al­low­ing oth­ers to find their own unique places.

Look­ing to the fu­ture, the en­tire team is fol­low­ing in Bob Sr.’s foot­steps. Their le­gacy has united them in a goal that they are pass­ing down to the next gen­er­a­tion, adding fun and pizazz to each tour­na­ment edi­tion. The re­sults are a megabusi­ness that con­tin­ues to ex­ceed ev­ery­one’s ex­pec­ta­tions. Bob Bisbee would be proud.

ABOUT THE AU­THOR

Gary Gra­ham has fished South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the Baja Penin­sula, and be­yond us­ing light tackle and fly from es­tu­ar­ies, in­shore to off­shore. Au­thor, pho­tog­ra­pher and con­ser­va­tion­ist, his works have ap­peared world­wide in nu­mer­ous pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing Mar­lin. He also has au­thored two books on salt­wa­ter fly-fish­ing.

“IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT, TH­ESE DAYS MOST THINGS DON’T LAST FOR THIS LONG. ES­PE­CIALLY SOME­THING THAT STARTED WITH SIX BOATS AND A BUNCH OF GUYS FROM SOUTH­ERN CAL­I­FOR­NIA COM­ING DOWN TO CABO TO HAVE FUN CATCH­ING MAR­LIN FOR A WEEK.”

When Bob Bisbee first ven­tured to Cabo San Lu­cas, Mexico, there were just a hand­ful of charter boats and a few small ho­tels, which catered mostly to vis­it­ing mar­lin fish­er­men.

The Bisbee’s tour­na­ment shot­gun start (right) is leg­endary. In 1984, the en­try fee was $800 for a team of four an­glers, and the cash prize was $20,000 (below). The op­tional side bets raised that amount to well over six fig­ures.

While live-bait­ing has al­ways been an ef­fec­tive tac­tic for big mar­lin off Cabo, many of the re­cent Black and Blue win­ners have been caught on lures.

In 2019, Tran­quilo was one of three teams earn­ing over $1 mil­lion in the Bisbee’s Black and Blue (above). Bob and his wife of 58 years, Aina (op­po­site, left). His en­dur­ing le­gacy has rewrit­ten the his­tory of sport fish­ing, and it con­tin­ues to live on through his fam­ily.

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