July 21, 2002 – Teamwork by the captain, crew and anglers that saw seven blue marlin reeled in and released earned the 45-foot Sea Deal out of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, Best Boat honors in the 38th annual July Open Tournament, hosted over the weekend by the Virgin Islands Gamefishing Club.
"The observer on our boat timed us at 45 seconds to clear the cockpit. That's all the rods back in their holders, all teasers in, and all set for the boat to start backing down to catch the fish," Sea Deal angler Dee Spear explained. She and the boat captain, Grizz Skeels, are St. Thomas residents.
Fishing was hot aboard the boat from Friday, the first day out, when angler Rick Carolus released one blue marlin and fellow angler Ronnie Caraway let loose with two. Caraway's first "was my first marlin ever. It was really exciting."
Come Saturday, Carolus released another blue and so did angler Mike Webster.
"Just watching the others fight their fish and being in on all the talk afterwards in the cockpit taught me a lot," Caraway said afterward.
"We whipped him in shape early," joked Spear, who has fished on Sea Deal in the July Open for the last three years, winning Top Angler honors last year.
A quick learner, Caraway came back on Sunday with two released blue marlin to give Sea Deal its winning total of seven.
Eighteen boats and 56 anglers competed in this event, releasing more than 30 blue marlin during competition.
The July Open is the longest ongoing fishing tournament in the Virgin Islands. It started in 1964 as a one-day event that concluded with a big fish fry at the docks. At the fourth annual event, St. Thomas angler Elliot Fishman brought international attention to the Virgin Islands with a world record catch of an 845-pound blue marlin.
No blue marlin were brought to the docks for this year's tournament; all fish caught were released.
For the first time in the history of this tournament, there were observers on the competing boats, something that has been the practice for several years in the USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament (also called the Boy Scout Tournament). Observers are to ensure that all releases are legal, in the absence of actually bringing fish into the docks.
The issuing of final results for the tournament was delayed on Sunday because of controversy about whether assistance was given for one of the day's fish released on the boat Bandit. According to International Game Fishing Association rules, which govern this tournament, an angler may have no assistance when fighting a fish.
According to the Bandit's captain, Frank Pitale, a marlin struck the short rigger. The angler, Hagen Heiligbrodt, hooked the fish and started into a 4- to 5-second fight before the fish came off the hook. In the process of one of the mates clearing the deck and getting the other lines out of the water, the marlin went for one of these other baits and the angler allegedly grabbed the rod from the mate's hand. The observer noted this as an assist.
The Gamefishing Club board of directors, which resolves formal protests, ruled it was an assist and credited Hagen with five releases overall, not six. But Hagen still finished at the top angler.
Top Angler – Hagen Heiligbrodt, five fish released, Bandit, out of Texas
First Fish – Hagen Heiligbrodt, 8:34 a.m. Friday.
Last Fish – Hagen Heiligbrodt, 3:16 p.m. Sunday.
Best Crew – Sea Deal, out of Puerto Rico, seven fish released.
Best Boat, First Day – Sea Deal, three fish released.
Best Boat, Second Day – Sea Deal, two fish released.
Best Boat, Third Day – Sharky's Revenge, our of Miami, three fish released.
Third Place Team – Bandit, 2700 points.
Second Place Team – Sharky's Revenge, 2900 points.
First Place Team (for the third year in a row) – Sea Deal, 4,100 points.

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