Jorge Villegas will win $10,000 in cash and prizes for taking two categories as a kayaker; Neil Barbour's bluefin was, well, a fish no one came close to beating
BY MIKE STEVENS
WON Staff Writer
SAN CLEMENTE -- The inaugural WON Big Fish Challenge came to a close on midnight on Labor Day as the overall leaderboard took its final shape and the grand-prize winners were announced on WONBigFish.com. In some species categories, the overall leaders were constantly changing from one week to the next. In the case of the winning tuna, once it was caught, just about everyone involved in the 10-week event pretty much knew that it wasn’t going to be bumped off, and a qualifying dorado (two of them actually) wasn’t caught until the final week.
While good numbers of quality bluefin tuna – including a handful over 100 – none came close to the 257.7-pound monster caught by Neil Barbour in week 6 on a live mackerel west of the 9 Mile Bank. While a couple tuna were weighed in after that to claim weekly prizes in that species category, no one came within 100 pounds of the “Barbour Bluefin” at any point in the Challenge. Along with the huge grand prize package that goes to the winner of each species category (details below), Barbour will also receive an insulated fish bag from Reliable Fishing Products for popping the biggest overall fish of the event.
NO ONE CAME CLOSE to threatening Neil Barbour’s 257.7-pound bluefin tuna caught in week 6.
TWO FOR TEAM SEWER – Jorge Villegas took the halibut division with this 40-pound flattie, and a 32.4-pound white seabass won him that species category, too. Yes, he gets TWO grand prize packages for his effort.
“At the beginning of the tournament, I decided to target nothing but big bluefin,” said Barbour. “Fish of this size have never been seen in our waters in my lifetime and may never again. In the last six weeks, we have landed six bluefin over 200 pounds in my new Parker 25-foot center console provided by Kevin Kelly at West Coast Marine, along with a dozen more in the 150 range. Targeting any of the other species was not an option. I had a great time fishing in the event and looking forward to participate again next year.”
Ulisses Figueroa clearly had his sights set on the yellowtail category took and he took the weekly prize with qualifying forkies in three different weeks. Fishing exclusively out of 22nd Street Landing in San Pedro, the 37-pound mossback he fooled with a surface iron aboard the Native Sun at Catalina was enough to lay claim to the grand prize.
“I went in to this event clearly for the yellowtail, said Figueroa. “I fished hard up and down the coast to scratch up what I did, and on the last week of the contest, I managed to get some days off from work, so I took a trip on the Native Sun out of 22nd Street landing and that did it. I a got a 37.5-pound yellowtail on my favorite way to catch them, surface iron! It was an awesome event that kept me on the edge the whole time. I caught my first dorado on the surface iron, too bad I didn't buy into that division, and my first yellowfin. Hopefully next year this event is held again, and for sure I will buy into all categories.”
That fish wasn’t the only one to win at the buzzer as the top lingcod and dorado of the WON Big Fish Challenge were also registered in week 10. Scott Sawa’s 23.5-pound ling-o-saur probably could have eaten the one that was holding the top spot before it. Sawa was fishing from his own boat, the Diehard and weighed his grand-prize-winning ling at 22nd Street Landing.
"Early on in the tournament, I was fishing with the intention of just winning one of the weekly prizes,” said Sawa. With just mediocre catches of a 14-pound halibut and a 5.5-pound ling that I submitted, and getting knocked off during week 8, I decided to go after the lingcod category and around mid-August, my lingcod quest began. First, on a 2-day aboard the Pacific Islander, then a couple of days on the kayak and finally, after close to a year of not using her, I took my boat out to help me accomplish my goal of catching a ling bigger than 12.9 pounds, which was the leader.
"Having never targeted just lingcod, I hit up a reliable source for some locations to catch ‘the one,” and after three trips, I put my friend and fellow competitor Bill Gehring on a 14.5 pounder which moved him into the top spot, and a week later, with just three days left in the tournament, I managed to catch the one that I was looking for, a 36-inch, 23.5-pound lingcod! I have to say that because of this tournament, I fished a lot more than I normally would have.”
The dorado slot that was left vacant through the first nine weeks of the Challenge was finally occupied by a modest 7.9-pound mahi that was knocked off by a 10-pound model that was weighed in at Dana Landing Market and Fuel dock the next day. That fish was caught by Mike Emerton aboard the Ashley Dawn south of the 43, and it was good enough to stand as the grand prize winner once the dust settled at midnight on Labor Day. While each previous week closed at midnight on Thursday, week 10 was extended to include the entire three-day weekend.
“The plan of attack after talking to my neighbor who had been south of the 425 and had caught a 25-pound dorado was to hit the corner and head south just looking for kelp paddies and possibly tuna,” said Emerson. “I headed south for two hours with no paddies in sight, then changed gears and headed back up north to the 302 when my daughter saw a decent-sized paddy loaded with birds. We made a couple passes and it was loaded with dorado and yellowtail, and we hooked up with several of each. The largest was a 10-pound dorado, which was weighed in. Two days later my neighbor was at SCI for the bluefin bite and overheard on the radio two guys who decided to leave the grounds early in search of paddies since the biggest dorado weighed in was only 10 pounds and they were sure they could beat that!”
At the Western Outdoor News office it was pretty frustrating to print photos of anglers with local dorado for weeks, but these guys were not preregistered in the Challenge For 10 bucks, any one of them would have been in the game, and every one of those fish would have bested the 10-pound dodo that weighed in on the final weekend for a grand prize package. While it was best to be registered prior to week 1, anglers could jump in at any time and sign up for all six available species categories, or individual fish of their choosing.
Of course, the possibility of an individual angler winning multiple grand prizes was there, and that is precisely what kayak angler Jorge Villegas accomplished with a 32.4-pound white seabass he whacked in week 4 and a ridiculous 40-pound halibut brought to scale in week 8. The seabass was caught on a greenback mackerel on a dropper loop in La Jolla and weighed at Dana Point Fuel Dock, and the flattie was caught on the same setup but logged in at 22nd Street Landing in San Pedro. This means Villegas is taking home two grand prize packages, which is downright obscene. Talk about minimum investment for maximum award; this guy wasn’t even paying for sportboat tickets or burning gas.
“I signed up during week 4, and because it only made sense, I signed up for all of the categories, and signing up on a smartphone was extremely easy so thanks for making that easy for us!,” said Villegas. “One day, I decided to take my chances and make the 200 mile round trip trek to La Jolla, and despite the fact that I missed my exit, luck just happened to be on my side that day. I landed my first two fish, a 32.4-pound white seabass and a 24.7-pound halibut, both of which were landed approximately an hour of each other. Knowing that La Jolla can put out some quality yellowtail, I struggled for the trifecta but was unsuccessful. Weeks 5, 6 and 7 were pretty uneventful for me, and I knew that there was a strong possibility that my 32-pound white seabass could be knocked out of the top spot at any time. My luck changed again during week 8 when I landed my 40-lb halibut. In my mind I knew that this fish would be hard to beat. In week 9, I decided to make another 200 mile round trip trek to La Jolla and try my luck again. This time I was successful in landing a 21.2-pound yellowtail only to have it knocked out of the top spot with a 21.74-lb yellow that same week. I've fished and won a few tournaments but nothing as big as this one. I'd like to say thanks to WON for putting on one heck of a tourney, and also to the sponsors, the other fishermen and everyone that worked behind the scenes to make this happen. This is definitely a win that I will never forget.”
Plan on doing it again next year. Same time, same format (we might tweak it a bit), same website wonbigfish.com. It's fun, it's inexpensive, and maybe we will add a kids division, which many people suggested.
The winners of each species category win the following:
- $500 CASH courtesy of Yamaha Outboards
- Avet Reel - level wind MC-CAST Model JX
- Cousins Rod
- Costa Sun Glasses
- Global Fish Mount of your winning fish
- Plano Tackle Bag
- Foodsaver Titanium G800
- 12 spools of HI-SEAS (Clear & QUATTRO) fluorocarbon (20-60 pound)
- 3 spools of IZORBRAID (40-, 50- and 65-pound test)
- 5 half-pound spools of ANDE monofilament (20, 25, 30, 40 & 50)
- GAMAKATSU hook assortment
- FRED HALL SHOWS lifetime pass
- 976-BITE Fish Reports one-year sunscription
- TERRAFIN temperature charts and more- one-year subscription
- Overnight open-party fishing trip
- Jon Petty Goldsmith Jewerly
- 85-Quart Esky Cooler
- Marine Service $500 Service Certificate
- FISHWORKS clothing $150 Gift Certificate
- Event-specific Studio Abachar artist print of winning fish $340
It was basically the Southern California fishing version of the Showcase Showdown on the Price is Right, and with two of everything including things like the Esky cooler and FoodSaver, not to mention a total of $1,000 in Yamaha cash, it’s going to be an extra-merry Christmas for friends and family of Jorge Villegas this year!
There were also multiple participants who won a weekly prize package two or even three times and not always on the same species. Weekly winners (biggest fish per category each week) scored Big Hammer swimbaits, Hi-Seas fluoro, three packs of Gamakatsu hooks, a Winn Grip rod wrap and Fishworks T-shirt. There was also an Avet Fish of the Week bonus where one weekly winner of the pre-selected (rotating) species category each week would also take home an Avet reel.
Just to recap how the WON Big Fish Challenge worked, it was a 10-week event with six winners each week (one per species) and one overall winner in each category for the biggest of each species caught at the end of the Challenge. It’s an “individual tournament” in which each participant needed to be registered separately and have their own log in and password for submitting each entry to WONBigFish.com. Entrants could register for whichever species categories they wanted for 10 bucks a pop, or enter all six at a discounted rate of $40. Fish could be weighed in at easily accessible locations throughout coastal SoCal.