OISFT Kicks off 30th Year

Jenny Scarborough

Dan Garrish spread wide his hands and reported having caught a drum shortly after 8 a.m.

Tide Runner and Books to be Red owner Leslie Lanier was once accused by a member of a rival Ocracoke team of "fishing like a girl." 
"I am a girl," said Leslie.
Tide Runner and Books to be Red owner Leslie Lanier was once accused by a member of a rival Ocracoke team of "fishing like a girl." "I am a girl," said Leslie.

Eight a.m. is head judge Woody Billings' favorite moment of the tournament, when a beach full of anglers wade into the Atlantic to make their first casts.

Dan likely caught the first fish of the 30th annual Ocracoke Island Invitational Surf Fishing Tournament, though everyone in the truck I was riding in believed he was telling a fish story. Trudy Austin, the official OISFT photographer, rode shotgun in the truck with Woody and me. 

OISFT is a catch and release tournament. The putative red drum was released alive the moment after it was measured by judges, leaving Dan with no evidence but his word.

An hour and a half later, on our next pass, Earl Gaskins corroborated Dan's story. The drum was 18 1/2 inches, scoring 8 points.

"I knew you didn't believe me," said Dan, who hardly believed it himself. "I thought I was going to go into cardiac arrest when I got him on. As soon as it hit the bottom, he grabbed it. We got on the board early."

A few other puppy drum were reported during the windy, drizzling Thursday morning session, and one team racked up 17 points in sea mullet.

Often one or two large fish swing the tournament, and angler John McAden isn't planning to use the slow and steady approach to victory.

Richard Perkins in a rare moment with nothing to say.
Richard Perkins in a rare moment with nothing to say.

"A sea mullet. That's not a fish. That's a minnow," he said.

Most of the rods bent toward the water were collecting sea grass.

"I've caught thirty pounds of grass. The wrong kind of grass," said Blues Brothers angler Harvey Hess III. He was among the first, but not the last, to make a similar observation.

Hess was fishing with his father, Harvey Jr. OISFT is often a family affair, with multiple generations enjoying two days of fishing and three nights of camaraderie on Ocracoke.

During one tournament, if you count the grandson her daughter, Carmen, was carrying, four generations fished on the Tide Runners team, said Joyce O'Neal.

"Momma taught me to fish," said Joyce. Her mother, Betty Salem, is no longer fishing, but still calls to ask which stations the team will be fishing, and makes her recommendations.

After 23 years on the waiting list, Jim Cavenaugh of Winston Salem joined his son, Jay, on OISFT's newest team.

"Dad's been on the list, and said he was about to get too old to fish," said Jay. Jim celebrated his 79th birthday this year. His 80 year old first cousin was also happy to be part of OISFT, after a longish wait.

The Cavenaughs were delighted to learn, about an hour into the first session, that all six anglers could have a line in the water, rather than four.

OISFT Kicks off 30th Year

"We have not caught a fish," said Jim, who had a bright smile nonetheless.

Is the tournament really about the fishing?

Richard Perkins started the Blues Brothers team, and participated in the first tournament in 1984. He arm chair directs the tournament, but hasn't fished it for years, preferring the flexibility of riding the beach and renewing the friendships OISFT fosters. Perkins made it clear that he is only responsible for the weather on the years when it is nice.

OISFT board member Marissa Gross is responsible for this year's weather, clarified Perkins.

"We've stood out there in 50 mph winds," said Joyce. Like many longtime OISFT participants, she remembers the year it blew so hard the ocean kissed the dunes, and the second day of fishing was canceled, due to the impossibility of reaching fishing stations, and the general misery.

Fred Jelinek of the Raleigh Saltwater Club.
Fred Jelinek of the Raleigh Saltwater Club.

At least one team elected not to stand in the stiff breeze and slight damp on Thursday morning. Neither Woody nor Perkins expressed any surprise to see that the empty station belonged to The Fish Lips, who are renowned for the enthusiasm they bring to the post-fishing parties at Howard's Pub.

"Sometimes they don't come to the beach," said a grinning Perkins. "The rule book is full of shit you can't do. Nothing in there says you 'got to do.'"

As Woody's truck cruised passed the Misfit Mermaids, Perkins swiveled his head.

"Damn. They're serious," he said, with equal notes of surprise and admiration. Every woman on the Ocracoke team was intent on her line in the water.

The tournament has grown in its 30 year history, but remains true to its roots. Anywhere from four to twenty teams participated in the first tournament, depending on who was asked.

Founder John A. Watkins confessed he was guessing, and said it was six or seven teams. "It was a social gathering of people that like to fish," said Watkins. "We were trying to get the season started. It turned out to be a pretty good idea."

Keep checking Ocracoke Current for more coverage and photos from OISFT.

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