August 2, 2011 Facebook TwitterMore...

Hatteras Pinfish Tournament is all about catching the biggest smallest fish


“We picked the smallest fish you could catch and turned it into the biggest smallest fish!” say the organizers of the second annual Pinfish Tournament that just concluded at the waterfront in Hatteras village.

Last year, Kelsey Aiken of Hatteras, a senior at East Carolina University, and his former roommate, Greg Nachman, a Richmond native and graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, decided it was time for a genuinely fun tournament, one that didn’t require an expensive boat, lots of equipment, or a hefty entrance fee. 

Their entry fee is only $25 for the Pinfish tournament, and all of it goes into the awards pot.

Their goal was to have something on the docks to laugh about with people of all ages, in particular kids.  All they wanted was to get everybody together for “enjoyment.”

They have wildly succeeded!

Both men have pinfished for a long time and decided it was time “to put some money into it.”  So the idea of a Pinfish Tournament was brewed as they worked in the summer at Jeffrey’s Seafood at Hatteras Harbor and fished together in the marina during their off time.

Last year’s tournament, the first, drew 50 participants.  This year there were 72, all fishing in the marinas of Hatteras village from the docks and the finger piers only -- no boats allowed. 

It was a mixed group of kids and adults, locals and visitors, including a retired English teacher and a philosophy professor from New York who had spotted the poster and signed up.  Those two women were at one or another of the marinas every day at 6 a.m. and caught more than 100 pinfish since July 15.

The month-long competition runs from July 1 until 3:00 p.m. on July 31 and ends with a pig-pickin’ (the whole hog, of course) and the most unique awards ceremony I have ever seen.

Many of the competitors were sporting 2011’s new T-shirt designed by Brantley Gwin with the help of “Miss Trish” Dempsey, a noted artist and mother of last year’s first-prize winner, Jake Dempsey, and this year’s third placer, Beau.

It is a great design, true to the spirit of the competition, but I do miss the original, hand-painted and fish-printed shirts, inspired by the guys’ former teacher, “Mr. Jim” Lyons who taught them to print fish when they were in the second grade.  They also attribute much of their love of nature and outdoor activities to his continued mentoring.

But they decided to move on up in the world with printed T-shirts since they weren’t looking forward to another all-nighter making 72 of them.

The awards ceremony ... what can I say about that?  Not the usual, that’s for sure!

Hanging from a wooden platform was the winning pinfish.  Kelsey Aiken pointed it out to me and exclaimed, “Hey man, that’s a big pinfish!”  All 186 grams!

We are used to seeing the occasional huge, tournament-winning blue marlin or trophy giant bluefin tuna hanging there, so it was appropriate for this biggest smallest fish to take its place of honor too.

Aiken and Nachman stood on the platform, high above the crowd, with very original trophies and cash prizes.  Nachman’s father, “Mr. John,” made three painted, wooden fish on wooden blocks for the big winners.

As each category’s winner was called, the proud fisherman had to scale the heights to claim the prize.  Once there, they were faced with yet another challenge.  They had to climb under the railing (of sorts) and stand unprotected on the edge of the platform, outside the admittedly shaky enclosure, to take the prize from Aiken or Nachman.

Everyone made it to the top, where they deserved to be, and accepted the cheers of the friendly, enthusiastic crowd of both losers and supporters beneath them. 

For the record, Kelsey’s Dad, Jeff Aiken, assured me that “We have a forklift”  that could be used as needed.  But they all made the climb.

The first category announced was the sting ray division.   The winner was 10-year-old Wheeler Ballance of Hatteras who was unable to attend as he was attending summer camp.

According to the rules of the Pinfish Tournament, the winner must be there in person to receive the prize so he had to forfeit the cash.  Next year’s pot is now $100 richer. 

Next up was flounder.  “Mr. Jim” Lyons won that category with a 3.4-pound summer flounder and won $170.  Lyons has had his eye on that prize for quite a while now, and the real reward for him was catching the fish

The rockfish first prize went to another Hatteras fisherman, Cameron Whittaker, mate on the Captain Clam.  He is a high school student who seems to leave the docks only to go to school.

He stalked the fish all during July, feeding it and dangling his line off the pier near where he works.

One fateful day at 6:40 a.m., he “chummed it up and brought it over here (Jeffrey’s) in a hurry” to be weighed before he went to work.

A lot of people were after that rockfish, but Cameron was awarded $100 for the capture of the 8.75-pound fish.

The best was saved for next-to-last.  But it nearly didn’t get all the attention. The fish almost had to hang out there on that limb alone, after having been caught a mere 10 minutes after the fisherman had paid his entry fee and spending two weeks on ice.

Stevie Genovse was in Boone, N.C., nine hours away, camping and playing in the Rhododendron Softball Tournament when Aiken phoned to tell him he won the grand prize of $800. 

He had to be in Hatteras the next day to receive it.  He begged and cajoled. “What’s up with this rule, man?” he asked.  But the organizers stuck by the rules.  They suggested he fly back since his truck was in Greenville but Genovse told them, “No way!”  He didn’t want to spend all of his prize money getting it but he had no way to get to Hatteras.

He had one more game to play too and didn’t want to let his team down, even though they had not won a game yet.  They lost that game too, so his commitment was completed.

A friend in Raleigh saved the day when she agreed to drive to Boone, meet him after his game and bring him to Greenville to pick up his truck.  He made it just as the final day of the tournament was ending.

He, too, made the jungle-gym like ascent and accepted his trophy and $800.  His friend commented, “It’s a good thing he was on a losing team!”  

He came down from the heights and four men grabbed him by his limbs, swung him out over the creek and let him loose.

With a great splash, the captor of the coveted biggest smallest fish and winner of the second annual Pinfish Tournament was “creeked.”

The second place went to Rom Whittaker who caught his 140-gram pinfish within seconds of the tournament’s end.  He was awarded a trophy and a fishing rod.

In third place was Bo Dempsey with 137 grams.  He was beaten by a few seconds and only 3 grams and has a trophy to prove it.

The final award, a fishing rod and $20, went to the “Hardest Fisherman,” and it was justly deserved.  Another 10-year-old fisherman, “Little John” Canning, fished every single day of the tournament, rain or shine.  I can attest to that as I saw him no matter what time I was over at the docks.   In an act of generosity and appreciation for commitment not usually seen in a fishing tournament, Rom gave John the rod he had just been awarded.

Such was the spirit of the tournament.  Aiken and Nachman achieved their goal - and some.

As Stephen Peele, fellow employee at Jeffrey’s Seafood, observer of many a tournament and cooker of the pig, summed it up, “It’s for fun!  Nobody’s mad.  It’s an easy time.  Simplicity is one of the factors.  Some people have tried to complicate it, mostly about rule bending and money.  The guys hold firm.  But it’s really great for kids and for everyone else, tourists too.”

Kelsy Aiken and Greg Nachman agreed. “It’s been fun,” they said.


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