‘It’s our home tournament, the whole community gets involved’

By on August 10, 2023

Pirates Cove Marina. (Photos courtesy the Pirates Cove Billfish Tournament)
The most recent winner, Captain Charles Foreman and the the crew of Country Girl. (Photos courtesy the Pirates Cove Billfish Tournament)
Captain Ron Barker on the far right with rest of Desperado the second year they won in a row in 2020. (Photos courtesy the Pirates Cove Billfish Tournament)
Marlin doing it’s survival dance in the water. (Photos courtesy the Pirates Cove Billfish Tournament)
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Pirates Cove and Alice Kelly Billfish Tournaments get underway this weekend

The anticipation is palpable at Pirates Cove Marina and throughout the fishing community as the Outer Banks gears up for the 40th annual Pirates Cove Billfish Tournament (PCBT). The event is not only one of the longest standing fishing traditions on the Outer Banks, it also features the Alice Kelly Memorial Ladies Only Billfish Tournament, the largest lady angler tournament in the world.

The tournaments take place from Aug. 12 to 18, with the 34th annual Alice Kelly Tournament kicking it off with registration on Aug. 12, followed by the tournament the next day. Onlookers can expect to see upward of 1,000 female anglers on decked out, decorated boats, dressed in colorful costumes, blasting music, popping champagne and celebrating getting out on the water and competing.

Last year, 950 women and girls competed in the tournament. And it’s all for a good cause, with 100% of the proceeds going to The Interfaith Community Outreach – Cancer Program. Alice Kelly, who died of cancer in 1989, founded the Outer Banks Cancer Support Group, which was subsequently absorbed and expanded by Interfaith Community Outreach.

“People look forward to it all year,” said Kelly Huckleberry, 34, who has competed in the Pirates Cove Tournament since she was 11 years old, starting out on her dad’s boat as a kid. Now she competes in the Alice Kelly event each year with her sister and a group of lifelong friends. Three years ago her team won $35,000 in the dolphin jackpot.

The Alice Kelly Tournament is followed by the main event, the PCBT, with registration for that on Aug. 14 and the tournament running from Aug. 15-18, when anglers come out to compete for big cash prizes, a pot of about 1 million dollars and awards celebration on Aug. 18.

Throughout the week, you can find live entertainment, dancing, fashion shows, raffles, celebrations, kids camps, and activities for the whole family throughout the marina, and according to the Pirates Cove Staff, the enthusiasm and passion is unmatched. It is Pirates Cove busiest week of the year, and many describe it as a mixture between a fishing tournament and a festival.

“I joke and say it’s our Catalina Wine Mixer,” says Pirates Cove staff member Laine Dinwiddie.

According to Tournament Director Heather Maxwell, it’s a feel-good festival because it’s all focused on charity, family, and releasing the fish back into the water, which is not always typical for the larger billfish tournaments around the world.

“It’s a tournament created for fishermen, by fishermen,” said Maxwell. “The PCBT has changed with the times to make this one of the most challenging, yet fun tournaments on the circuit.”

Between the Alice Kelly and the Pirates Cove contests, about $100,000 gets donated to the Interfaith Community Outreach organization and a variety of other local charities that can apply to receive the money through a grant process. Maxwell explains that you do not have to be a registered nonprofit to apply for the grant.

“You pretty much must be local, that’s the only requirement,” she explained.

According to Maxwell nothing matches the atmosphere on that morning when everyone registers for the PCBT. “Everybody’s out on the docks and everybody is just like old home week. People that you haven’t seen for a while are all catching up because a lot of the other tournaments are very spread out,” said Maxwell.

Rob Barker, captain of the Desperado, who won two years in a row in 2019 and 2020, agrees that it’s that hometown, familiar feel that makes the tournament special.

“It’s a great feeling,” declared Barker. “You know, there’s lots of tournaments on the East Coast, some bigger, some smaller, but I guess the fact that it’s in our backyard, and it’s our one week to have a tournament for the year makes it special. It’s our home tournament. And the whole community gets involved.”

Maxwell says the energy is electric on the morning when the tournament kicks off.

“We’re up at 4:30. We have biscuits and coffee every morning before fishing. And you know, it’s really cool. It’s dark when you get there and then the sun comes up and the boats pull out and it smells like diesel fuel, and you know it’s just nice,” noted Maxwell.

Billfish are a group of saltwater predatory fish, known for their long, pointy bills and substantial size and include sailfish, swordfish, and marlin. When it comes to the PCBT, the majority of fish caught by the competitors are the white and blue marlins.

According to Maxwell, the crews have a spread of bait that they troll behind the boat to coax the billfish to get close. But she says that any fisherman will tell you that one of the most difficult things for any angler is actually hooking that fish. “And once you do, brother, there goes the show. It is the most amazing thing in the world to you know to watch a billfish. And they jump and they fly in the air and then they go down deep and it’s just, it’s a battle of your life. It’s amazing,” Maxwell asserts.

The tournament operates on a point system. Teams get points for catching fish and for releasing fish—which is why the event has about a 99% release rate. “So we’re very, very conservation oriented, which is I think it’s a wonderful thing,” explained Maxwell. The only time a crew will kill a fish and bring it in to be weighed it in the event it is so massive they think it might win the tournament.

The way anglers release the fish is to gently cut the line and the hook they use is made to dissolve. Before they release it, the boat crew will take pictures and video of the billfish as it swims beside the boat and send it to the tournament committee without ever taking it out of the water. The committee looks at the footage to determine what kind of billfish it is and how many points are allotted for the catch and release. At the end of the tournament, on the teams that win money, a member of the crew takes a polygraph test to confirm they followed all the rules.

There are seven categories, including one common category, that all of the boats must enter that will determine the top boat, and then various other categories that the boats can decide to enter, including daily jackpots where even if a team catches the most fish for just one day, it has the possibility of winning more than $100,000.

Maxwell explains that other tournaments might have larger purses, but at Pirates Cove, the glory is a big part of the payoff.

“If you win Pirates Cove you really, really did do something,” she declared. “It’s pretty neat. We live in a special place.”

To learn more about the Pirate’s Cove Tournaments visit pcbgt.com

See what people are saying:

  • Dave

    Tight lines guys and gals !!!

    Friday, Aug 11 @ 6:23 am