Dan Hibbeln and the Southpaw boat became a fixture atop the podiums during the Florida West Coast Triple Crown Series by relying on fishing around oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana. That strategy let Southpaw breeze to a victory in the three-event series last year.
This year, however, a name change in the series (to Florida West Coast Bluewater Series) brought with it a boundary change. Anglers can’t go farther west than the western tip of Florida. As a result, Southpaw and her crew needed to find a new plan to defend its title.
A popular destination is right at the continental shelf where the depth shifts by thousands of feet in the northwest part of the gulf.
“They call that the corner of the steps,” said Hibbeln, the Southpaw captain.
They set up about 30 miles south of the shelf after leaving Bradenton Yacht Club on Tuesday to take part in the Crosthwait Extreme Billfish Classic, the opening leg of the series, and trolled for about 35 hours across three days, waiting for the marlin to bite.
The catch this year wasn’t as fruitful as in 2016, but Southpaw once again leads after one leg of the series. Southpaw scored 520 points with a pair of white marlin catches to edge Haulin’ Grass’ 511. Twisted Bills rounded out the top three in Palmetto on Sunday with 370 points.
19Points Southpaw leads by after the first leg of the Florida West Coast Bluewater Series.
The second leg will be the Sarasota Slam, which takes place Aug. 1-5 out of Marina Jack in Sarasota. The Billfish Series wraps up with the Old Salt Loop Tournament from Aug. 15-19 out of St. Petersburg.
The new boundaries seem destined to keep this year’s competition closer through all three rounds rather than the start-to-finish rout it was last year. In 35 hours of trolling, Southpaw had six bites from marlin and pulled in only two. One particularly frisky blue marlin cost them about 350 yards of line, Hibbeln said.
“We had several real shots,” Hibbeln said. “We really could’ve had a lot more points if we caught one or two more.”
The Crosthwait Extreme also handed out a number of trophies for the heaviest catches in a handful of “funfish” categories. Haulin’ Grass topped the tuna division with a 23-pound catch. Seahawk pulled in the biggest dolphin at more than 18 pounds, Team Galati caught the only wahoo at nearly 15 pounds, and Team Hooker reeled in the two biggest swordfish at 85 and 82 pounds.
We had several real shots. We really could’ve had a lot more points if we caught one or two more.
Dan Hibbeln, Southpaw captain
Hibbeln and his team won, though, by ignoring the individual fish trophies and going all in on marlin.
Southpaw began fishing Wednesday night, but didn’t get a single bite until Thursday afternoon, when the five anglers faced a doubleheader of white marlin, catching one and losing another. They made their second, and only other catch, that evening before losing three more throughout the rest of Thursday and Friday.
When Hibbeln pulled back into the yacht club Saturday, he pulled out his checkbook and made a $5,000 donation to the series. He’s been doing competitions like these in the area since 1986, when he won the old Triple Crown with his father.
The tournament was bigger in the 1980s than it is now, when nine boats competed in the first leg this week. But it’s something Hibbeln wants to see continue even when he’s no longer competing in it himself.
“We want to see them keep going,” Hibbeln said. “It’s a way of giving back, getting people to keep fishing. You like when you win money, but if you’re a tournament fisherman for any length of time, it’s not about the money. It’s about having fun fishing.”