On board the fast ferry Balearia, the anglers were greeted with awesome goodie bags as they all made their way into first-class accommodations. It was a calm and beautiful morning with flat seas and great energy on board, as everyone pumped each other up for the experience of a lifetime this weekend would bring.
At arrival, the folks were greeted by a Bahamian holding a sign “Welcome Extreme Kayak Fishing” as he guided them to the Forbes charter bus. On our journey to Port Lucaya and final destination Flamingo Bay Resort and Marina, the bus driver entertained the crew with some history of the island. Meanwhile, the thirty three kayaks were being safely transported to our destination on board another truck following close behind.
After everyone checked in to the resort, they were ready for the festivities to begin. The captains meeting was held at 5:00pm under the pavilion, which was located directly on Bahamas’ beautiful white sand beach. A quick glance of the attendees’ faces and one could see the vibe was of pure joy. Local music, free-flowing Sands beer, girls with flowers in their hair, and delicious fresh-caught conch and grouper were part of the fun. As the day turned into night, the anglers broke away from the festivities to prep their gear and kayaks. The long awaited “Battle in the Bahamas” was upon them and it was time to get serious.
Friday morning, the anglers were lined up on the beach double and triple-checking their gear before the shotgun start for the race out to the open ocean. Little did anyone know that this would be the beginning of a new era for Extreme kayak fishing. After loading up on free water and coffee, the anglers headed out into the turquoise seas where Joe Settebrino from Hillsboro Inlet Live Bait provided the guys with their pre-ordered live baits for the day.
It was a perfect morning, with not a cloud in the sky, when the fishermen faded into the glassy ocean at the 7am launch. Not long after, Winston Moss from Sands beer started loading up two big coolers of free Sands, while Joe Hector (organizer of Extreme) waited with anticipation, pacing back and forth with a VHF radio in one hand and a Sands in the other.
There was something for everyone to do on Grand Bahama Island. The anglers’ wives, girlfriends, and parents who joined us on this trip enjoyed the amazing amenities the hotel and island had to offer. Some decided to enjoy a delicious buffet at Taino by the Sea, located directly on the beach under a pavilion. Others decided to take a ten-minute boat ride to Lucaya Marketplace, to get a taste of some fresh conch salad and check out specialty shops. Some folks enjoyed taking a paddle board out into the flat turquoise ocean, while others took a snorkeling trip. It was even fun to just relax in a hammock with a Rum Runner after a swim in the lazy river pool.
Music was blasting on the beach as the fishermen started coming in to showcase their catches. The number of fish brought to the scale was astonishing huge kings, grouper, AJs, and loads of barracudas. Brian Nelli rolled up to shore, telling Joe Hector he had a surprise for him, and pulled out a 38.4 lb. kingfish and a 13.7lb tiger grouper. As the crowd circled around Brian Nelli and his catch, a bystander noticed off in the distance Drew Mixon was standing up on his kayak in a hero pose, showcasing his 32.7 lb kingfish. Everyone knew right away who the contenders were. Other highlights included Don Miley rumbling to the beach with his monster 35.9 lb. amberjack, and Dion Philipon’s 32.3 lb. beautiful yellowfin grouper.
It was an exciting first day and quite a learning experience for all the extreme anglers. Many found out rather quickly that either their gear was too light, or they needed to go deeper to weed through the barracudas. What no one knew was that history was about to be made on day two of this event.
The morning started out the same as the previous day; anglers were amped and ready to go offshore once against. After the horn blew, the anglers took off in every direction in search of monsters; some stayed shallow and fished the ledge, while others paddled for miles in search for wahoo and yellowfin tuna. Only an hour had passed when Hector’s radio blew up with a crackling voice screaming, “Marlin, marlin, marlin!” “Say again?” Hector replied, thinking “This must be a sailfish…” At that point, another voice came in confirming that an angler was hooked up to a white marlin. About ten minutes after this amazing news Captain Luther ,running one of our help boats provided by Flamingo Bay , was heard on the radio saying another angler was hooked up to a massive blue marlin.
At this point everyone on the beach was in total shock. Captain Luther had to order an additional help boat from the island to assist in the blue marlin fight. No one knew who either angler was, which added to the anticipation. One thing is for sure -both were in a heated battle to win the billfish division. Communications were strong among organizer Joe Hector, Captain Luther, Joe Settebrino, Esteban Gutierrez, and his video crew. At around 12:30pm, Joe Hector received word that angler Joe Kraatz landed and successful released his white marlin. Word was coming in that Matt Eckert (aka “Marlin Matt”) was fighting the blue marlin ,and neither he nor the monster fish were giving up anytime soon.
Midday turned into afternoon, and one by one the fishermen started pouring on to the beach with their catches to be weighed in. Nice-sized dolphin were caught by Marcos Baldo, Micha Mixon, and Eric Digeon, with word spreading that a bigger dolphin was caught by an unknown angler and Chris Thomas lost an even bigger dolphin in a heated battle. As time was drawing near for the final weigh in, and anglers were anxiously waiting for the help boat that was holding their fish to come ashore, Joe Hector was getting worried that Captain Luther’s boat would be too far offshore assisting Matt Eckert with his blue marlin to make it back in time for the 4pm cut-off. Frantic that time was passing by, they jumped into Joe Settebrino’s boat, and raced to Captain Luther’s boat to grab the fish so they could make it back in time for the weigh in.
Racing against the clock, Settebrino pointed to Luther’s boat far off in the distance, and found it hard to believe how far this blue marlin had pulled Matt Eckert. As they pulled besides Luther’s help boat, Extreme team member Doug Perez started throwing anglers fish into Settebrino’s boat. Once Perez himself jumped into the boat with the fish, they hurried back to make it in time for the weigh in. Meanwhile, on the beach, Maria Hector (the other organizer of Extreme) observed anglers getting anxious to weigh in their catches. While she was thinking of a backup plan, the men with the fish came four minutes before weigh in time. Settebrino’s boat pulled right onshore and Joe Hector yelled for anglers to grab their fish and bring them to the scale.
A sigh of relief came over everyone as anglers’ fish were weighed in on time. An hour later, refreshed and showered, anglers, their wives, onlookers, and sponsors were making their way to the awards ceremony. Most fishermen were sunburned, exhausted but happy as can be when they walked into the awards ceremony to be greeted with a nice plate of steak and lobster compliments of the Ministry of Tourism. Free Sands beer was flowing while “Mango” was keeping the energy up with his island music sounds. After a heartfelt speech from Joe Hector, the winners were announced.
Brian Nelli stole the show and came in first, winning $5,000 cash from Turbo USA, the coveted Super Bowl-style ring from Joe Griffin Associates, a gorgeous custom fish mount provided by Global Fish Mounts, and a cup trophy from Broward Plaque and Engraving. Nelli also topped the biggest pelagic division with his 38.4lb. kingfish, winning a $1,000 check, a decked-out SUP fishing board from Adventure Sports in Ft. Lauderdale, and a beautiful Guy Harvey necklace. If that wasn’t enough, he also took home the Trash Can Slam with the most total weight of barracudas - 28.4lbs - giving him the rights to Costa Del Mar sunglasses and $250 in Yak Gear merchandise.
The second place winner was Don Miley, with a total weight of 35.9 lbs. This earned him a Hobie “Outback” kayak from main sponsor Nautical Ventures. Miley also took home a custom fish mount and Costa glasses.
Third place was awarded to Drew Mixon with his 32.7lb kingfish, bringing him a Hobie “Revolution” kayak provided by Nautical Ventures, Costas, and a custom fish mount.
Joe Kraatz ended up winning not only the billfish division with his once-in-a-lifetime white marlin catch, but also the “Biggest Dolphin” award with his 18.7lb fish. He was overjoyed to win a free entry ticket to EKFT’s “Sailfish Smack Down 2015” and a custom live bait rod from Blue Marlin Chronicles.
After all the winners were announced, a champion named Marlin Matt was still out at sea for eleven hours battling the blue monster. After Eckert finally touched the leader, the fish broke free and he was taken back to the dock via Captain Luther’s boat at around 8:30pm. Everyone rushed to the dock to give Eckert a well-deserved hero’s welcome. The screams of excitement for a man who just made history made for a moment no one will soon forget. Eckert was exhausted, but smiled from ear to ear when he saw the crowd welcoming him. Once he got off the boat Eckert and Kraatz were grabbed and thrown into the water once more to bless their luck in both hooking marlin on this epic adventure. Matt was given a beer and cigar by his wife, and Flamingo Bay Hotel awarded Eckert a four-day, three-night complimentary upgraded stay for all his hard work.
Everyone walked Matt back to the captains’ party while congratulating him over and over. The raffle started, and the prizes were worth waiting for. Everything from tons of Guy Harvey merchandise, Costa Del Mar sunglasses, a $250 gift card donated by Adrenaline Fishing Custom Rods, $300 worth of YakGear gift certificates, and so much more was up for grabs. No one left the night empty handed.
After all was said and done and the party started to wind down, the Extreme team met at the dock to congratulate each other on a job well done. “Day two is when miracles happen…” were the emotional, lingering words shared after a big bear hug between Perez and Hector.