By Eric Levenson, CNN
(CNN) — The captain of Sensation, the fishing boat that lost out on over $3 million in earnings when tournament officials disqualified its 619.4-pound blue marlin due to “mutilation,” told CNN on Tuesday he believes they won the tournament fair and square.
“We worked hard, we felt like what we did was incredible with this fish, we knew we had won the tournament,” Capt. Greg McCoy said in a phone call. “I knew that fish was gonna destroy the other fish on the leaderboard weight-wise, and that’s exactly what it did. We followed all the rules. There was nothing nefarious or cheating or anything like that on our part.”
“We feel like it was taken away from us,” he added.
Both the boat’s captain and the owner spoke to CNN days after the controversy at the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament in North Carolina, a modern twist on Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” in the era of big money competitive fishing.
Photos of the marlin show it had a significant chunk missing on its underside and near its tail. The tournament consulted with its rules and experts and ultimately disqualified the marlin due to “mutilation” caused by a shark or other marine animal, according to a statement.
“This decision is consistent with prior decisions made by the tournament in similar circumstances over the last 65 years,” the tournament added.
Sensation would have won $3.5 million for the catch, including over $700,000 for the first boat to catch a marlin weighing over 500 pounds. Instead, the crew of Sushi, which brought in a 484.5-pound blue marlin, won first place in the tournament – as well as prize money totaling $2,769,438.
McCoy, 56, said he believed the tournament was arbitrarily applying the rules differently from year to year.
“The tournament is about catching the biggest fish. We caught the biggest fish. I’m not a sour grapes person. I’m not a sore loser. We won the tournament. We caught the biggest fish,” he said. “As they say, put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
The owner, captain and crew of the Sensation hired Wheatly Law Group to represent them in their efforts and are on a “quest” to overturn the disqualification, attorney Stevenson L. Weeks told CNN. A protest of the results on behalf of the vessel was filed with the tournament by 11 a.m. on Sunday, he said.
“The tournament rules require this dispute be mediated and if it does not resolve in mediation, it will be submitted to arbitration pursuant to the North Carolina Revised Uniform Arbitration Act,” he said, referring to the dispute resolution section of the tournament’s official rules.
Ashley Bleau, the owner of Sensation, told CNN in a phone call Tuesday he has confidence in the merit of their case and said he’d like a rule change to the tournament to clarify the issue.
“The biggest thing is I want clarity for everybody else going forward, for anglers (so) that they feel confident … they’re not gonna be tripped up at the last minute for something that did not benefit them at all,” he said.
Inside the six-hour fight to reel in the marlin
Amid the protest, McCoy and Bleau spoke to CNN about the epic battle to reel in the fish and their deep disappointment afterward.
They said the boat hadn’t had much success in the weeklong tournament and morale was down. But in the last hours of the last day, a massive marlin reared its spear-like head.
“Not 30 feet off the back of the boat, this big monster marlin breaches the water and crashes on our right side short line and bites the hook and just tears off like a horse running across the field,” Bleau said.
They knew it was a potential tournament winner, so they cleared the other lines and put the angler Bailey Gore in the fighting chair, McCoy said.
The fight lasted hours as the marlin strained to free itself. After about two and a half hours, the marlin went down about 1,000 feet, a sign that the marlin’s heart had given out, they said. Over the next few hours, they struggled “inch by inch, minute by minute” to reel it all the way back in, McCoy said.
“It took a long, long time, but we just kept at it, kept the faith,” McCoy said. They were slowly able to bring her up, and crew member Dan “Scooter” Cox reached over, grabbed the marlin’s bill, and slid her right into the boat.
“There was a lot of embracing, a lot of emotion at that point. We knew we had the tournament won. We’ve seen quite a few big fish, and I knew this was well over what anybody had caught,” McCoy said. “It was pretty epic.”
Bleau said the marlin was placed on its side in the boat, and nobody noticed the wounds.
“It was so miniscule that when we brought the fish up and put him on the deck, we didn’t even see it,” he said.
‘From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows’
They informed the tournament officials that they were headed back to the weighing station with the marlin, and word quickly spread. On the ride in, they passed “thousands and thousands” of people cheering them on from their boats, from the decks of bars and at the dock.
Bleau said it was like “watching somebody win the Stanley Cup,” and McCoy said he felt like a rock star.
“I’ve fished this many, many times. It’s always been a dream of mine to win the Big Rock, and I was pretty sure we had it done. In my mind we did do it. We caught the biggest fish. That’s what the tournament is all about,” McCoy said. “I kind of feel like everything afterwards is a technicality.”
At the weighing station, though, tournament judges noted the apparent wounds to the marlin and, after a delay, informed them that it violated its tournament rules.
“We went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. It’s a tough pill to swallow,” McCoy said.
“We don’t know whether that fish was bit before, earlier in the year, the week, or on our hook. We don’t know that,” he said.
Bleau said he was not convinced that the wounds even came from a shark. He said the line had been wrapped around the marlin’s tail when they brought it up and theorized the injuries may have come from the line as they winched it up from deep over those many hours.
“It was a lot like skinning your knee. It’s not like it was missing a tail or fin, or had organs displaced or stomach torn out, or something that would have been detrimental to kill the fish,” he said. “I truly believe that it was moreso something that ended up possibly happening in the winching process rather than during the fight.”
If they had won, McCoy himself would have received 10% of the $3.5 million, a total he described as “life-changing.”
“I’m getting old. I need to think about my future. I’ve got young kids, an 18- and 20-year-old son, I could have set them up pretty good. I’m a hard-working blue collar guy. I pay my bills, and this money would have been put aside to go to my kids,” he said. “I feel like we earned it.”
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Rebekah Riess contributed to this report.