The scene was bizarre, colorful and teeming with life, a tableau worthy of Faulkner. A crowd had gathered around a wheelbarrow over which a hammerhead shark was ghoulishly draped. Nearby, behind a metal barrier, sweat-soaked men, blood on their aprons, wielded fillet knives against a mountain of fish. In the background, against a threatening sky, a Ferris wheel spun, its chimes tinkling through the thick noonday heat. At the center of it all, under the roof of Gulfport's Bob Rice Pavilion, wide-eyed children and grinning adults formed a serpentine line in front of a 70-foot-long bin of ice that displayed all manner of sea creatures, visual testimony to the diversity found in the waters in and around Mississippi's Gulf Coast.
The creatures came in all shapes, sizes and colors: bluefish, blackfish, red snapper and green trout (the local name for large-mouth bass). Sheepshead, oyster dogs, catfish and alligator gar. Stingray, flounder and purple-mouth moray eel. "We give prizes for 22 categories of saltwater species, and six freshwater," said Chuck Dedeaux, president of the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, which will celebrate its 56th anniversary from July 1 to 4. "A lot of work's involved, all by volunteers, but it's fun. We put up a stage, hire entertainment and try to be as family oriented as we can."
The event bills itself as the "world's largest fishing rodeo," and starting at 12:01 a.m. on the first day, as many as 5,000 entrants from a dozen or more states head to their favorite fishing holes in Mississippi's bayous, ponds, lakes, rivers, flats, barrier islands and beyond, into the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico, to compete for the titles of King Fisherman and Queen Fisherette. Just about anything that bites is fair game, which leads to a wild assortment of piscatorial bounty, from the one-pound, 10-ounce bluegill that helped Charles Hilburn of Lucedale, Miss., collect the $500 check as King Fisherman in the Freshwater Division in 2003, to the 176-pound, 12-ounce hammerhead caught by Gulfport's own Sherry Deshamp, who won $500 for being Queen Fisherette, Saltwater Division, for the fourth straight year.
All entries must be caught by rod and reel—the only exception is flounder-gigging, which employs a kind of spear—and when the fish is brought to weigh in, it must be fit for human consumption. It also can't have been frozen, stuffed with lead sinkers or shot full of fruit juice. "When redfish have been dead awhile, they lose the reddish tint around their eyeballs," says George Wright, a former weighmaster who worked for 30 years as a conservation officer for the state Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "Fishermen have been known to inject the eyeball with cranberry juice to make it look fresh. A weighmaster has to feel the fish, smell it and check its flexibility. We've had some close calls over the years where the fists almost flew."
At stake? Bragging rights and some $50,000 in cash and prizes, with a special award given for the most unusual fish. In 2003 that went to Tommy Williams of Roswell, Ga., who while fishing for red snapper out by the oil rigs caught a rare and surpassingly ugly creature called Ruvettus pretiosus, or oil fish.
The origins of the rodeo date to World War II, when Gulfport charter boat captains, lacking clients, were enlisted by the Coast Guard to help patrol the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico for German submarines, which lay offshore preying on merchant ships leaving New Orleans. While not searching for periscopes, boat captains killed time by placing friendly wagers to see who could catch the biggest fish in various categories. Mississippi's Gulf Coast, with its diverse habitat, is home to a wide variety of species, from deepwater game fish like dolphin, king mackerel and cobia, to coastal feeders like redfish, flounder, tarpon and black drum that thrive in the brackish water near the mouths of the Biloxi and Pascagoula rivers. A chain of barrier islands 12 miles off the coast protects the sound from offshore winds, creating a giant bay that's seldom deeper than 10 feet. It abounds with sharks, speckled trout and flounder. Taken as a whole, the waters around Gulfport are a sportfishing paradise.
After the war the city's American Legion post decided to continue the tradition of the captains' informal tournament by starting a full-fledged competition, and in 1948 it staged the first Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. By 1958 the event was so large and costly that the legion handed it over to a nonprofit organization of civic leaders from communities in and around the Gulf Coast that runs it to this day. Festivities include fireworks, a carnival, a beauty pageant and celebrity appearances.
But the fish have always been the stars. In 1983 Bruce Bartling of Jackson, Miss., caused a sensation when he brought in a tiger shark that was so big it couldn't be weighed on the scale at the dock. A crowd formed, and when a radio station got wind of the story, cars began descending on the pavilion, bringing traffic to a standstill. The creature finally had to be cut in three pieces to be weighed. It still holds the state record for largest shark: 885 pounds.
Most of the fish brought in are either served to volunteers or given away to charities. Others are attacked by marine biologists wielding microscopes and scalpels. "A tournament like this is like a candy shop for a scientist," says Ash Bullard, a graduate student at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, who at the 2003 event was collecting parasites for work on his Ph.D. "It's nice that some good is coming out of this carnage. Tournaments like this are not going to be around very much longer."
Indeed, fishermen who believe in catch-and-release blanch at the sight of the rodeo's catch bin, which at any given time might hold hundreds of fish. Most biologists agree, however, that the fish population in the waters off Mississippi is stable enough to survive the annual event.