On Thursday, Georgetown’s Jim Johnston and his crew aboard Big Sky headed out to an area south of the Georgetown Hole, 50-60 miles offshore, and proceeded to target their favorite species – blue marlin – aboard the 59-foot Spencer custom-built yacht.
Just like he has over the past half-century, Johnston had a thrilling adventure to share from the big-game trolling trip.
“We had bait on the depth recorder and anticipated a bite,” recalled Johnston. “There was a dolphin in the (trolling) spread, and a marlin came in after the dolphin. It was a really good fish.”
The trip was an important one for Johnston, who was pre-fishing for a landmark tournament that is near and dear to his heart – the 50th annual Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament.
“We were blue marlin fishing trying to get our act together,” said Johnston. “I think we’re dialed in on the blues. Whether it works or not we’ll see next week.”
Nothing would thrill Johnston and his family-oriented crew aboard Big Sky more than to win the 50th annual rendition of the oldest billfish tournament in the state of South Carolina and one of the oldest along the East Coast.
Johnston, who turns age 73 on June 1, is the only angler who has fished in the first 49 tournaments, and is gearing up for No. 50.
The tournament, founded by the late Wallace F. Pate in 1968, will be held next week at longtime venue Georgetown Landing Marina, beginning with Wednesday’s Captains Meeting. Fishing follows Thursday through Saturday (May 25-27) with boats fishing two of three days, captain’s choice.
“I’ve got to make it another week and then I’ll have fished another one,” Johnston said with a laugh Friday morning. “I’ve had a few close calls where it looked like I was not going to be able to fish but somehow pulled it off. I never had 50 on my mind but now that I’ve gotten to 50, I’m thinking 60.”
Johnston has been much more than a participant in the storied history of the tournament, beginning with the inaugural event in 1968 staged on the waterfront behind the former Nautica Marine building on Front Street.
The tournament moved to Belle Isle Marina from 1978-81 and then found a permanent home at Georgetown Landing Marina beginning in 1982.
Then 24 years old, Johnston fished in the first tournament with longtime fishing buddy Bony Peace aboard the boat, After You.
Rough seas forced the first tournament to be postponed and, with the event rescheduled for late August 1968, only sailfish were caught.
The blue marlin showed up during the second event, in 1969, and Johnston was in the middle of the action, serving as the angler on the first blue marlin ever caught in the tournament, a 216-pounder brought aboard Bonanza, a 23-foot Formula.
In 1974, Johnston and Peace won the tournament aboard Jackpot, a 31-foot Bertram, then Johnston made it back-to-back victories in 1975 aboard Sugar Tango.
For numerous years, Johnston and Peace teamed to run the tournament, and in 1977 they saw a need to stem the tide of virtually all billfish caught being killed and brought to the dock.
“Bony and I were the ones that introduced the release part of the tournament where you could win it without having to kill a fish,” said Johnston.
Now, releasing billfish on a points system is the standard in the tournament and all South Carolina Governor’s Cup Billfishing Series events.
Another highlight came last year, when Johnston and crew weighed in a 460.1-pound blue marlin in the 49th edition of the tournament. Big Sky finished second in the cash award category and his nephew, Tripp Johnson of San Diego, was the angler on the fish.
The blue marlin was also caught on a venerable lure made in the 1980s by Pate. It was a special catch for Johnston.
“It’s great I’ve fished in all of them but Wallace Pate is the man that had the vision to get this thing started,” said Johnston. “He loved blue marlin fishing – he even built his own lures, called changers. No two of them are alike.”
Each crew at the Captains Meeting Wednesday will leave with one of Pate’s classic marlin lures, with a special prize available.
“We’ve got enough that we’re going to give every boat one of his lures,” said Johnston. “The first boat that’s in the tournament that catches (a marlin) on one of his lures wins $2,000.”
Marshall Truluck is a long-time general manager of Georgetown Landing Marina, starting when the facility was built in 1982 through 1998.
One memorable event in the marina’s history came in Sept., 1989 when Hurricane Hugo roared through the lowcountry and obliterated the building and docks. Truluck was involved in building the marina – again – and said the crews working to rebuild had one driving force.
“We didn’t have anything left, and that was our goal to have it back together and host the tournament in May of 1990,” said Truluck earlier this week. “We were fortunate to pull that off.”
The tournament has been a mainstay in the S.C. Governor’s Cup Billfishing Series since the brainchild of a former Governor, the late Carroll Campbell, came to fruition in 1988.
With the Governor’s Cup in its 30th year, the Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament has built a reputation for excellent blue marlin fishing and genuine Southern hospitality among competing crews.
“It’s special, very stable, never changes, and (the staff) always treat people well,” said Truluck, who was the tournament director from 1982-97 and Chairman of the Governor’s Cup Tournament Committee from 1988-97.
“Someone (who fishes the series) from Charleston told me years ago, the Georgetown tournament is run like a business because you have to, but it feels more like a homecoming when you come there.”
Gregg Holshouser: email@example.com