Founded in 1929 in the waning days of the roaring 20s, the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo has a rich cultural history dating back almost a century. The event was the inspiration of a group of friends, Mobile businessmen, who saw the potential for Mobile to be the home of a premier fishing event on the Gulf Coast. Born of a big idea, for two decades the friends ran the event, planting seeds for what would become the largest saltwater fishing event in the world.
It would be shortly after the end of WWII, in 1948, when the Junior Chamber of Commerce (known to everyone as the Mobile Jaycees) would pick up the ball and transform the ADSFR into what it is today. In 2011, the Guinness Book of World Records certified ADSFR as not only the largest, but the oldest fishing tournament in the world. The Rodeo, now, isn’t just the largest and oldest. It has earned a host of other superlatives: Most anglers (at more than 3,000); the highest number of participating boats; the most awards; and the greatest number of prizes for the most fish species. The combined value of its prizes annually surpasses one million dollars.
ADSFR, 1949. From: The Press Register
Also each year, one participant, whose ticket is drawn randomly, wins a Contender sport fishing boat, motor, and trailer. Remarkably, the incredibly lucky 2009 winner of the Contender, Joe Dear, who, like everyone, sat out the Rodeo-less 2010 due to the oil spill, won a second Contender when his ticket was drawn AGAIN in 2011.
And it isn’t just lucky fishermen bringing in the big bucks. In an average year, the thousands of competitors bring even more spectators, some 75,000, and, with all of them, tourist dollars that help sustain the Town of Dauphin Island and southern Alabama tourist economies. The Rodeo generates tens of millions of dollars in revenue to the State every year.
Part of the draw to the Rodeo is the abundance of fish in the Gulf, but it’s also the unparalleled variety of species. Competitors’ catches are harvested from the Rodeo’s 45,000 square mile fishing grounds, called the Fertile Crescent, or what The New Yorker magazine dubbed, affectionately, “the fishery piñata of the Gulf of Mexico.” Appropriately, the Rodeo recognizes the diversity of this unique resource. Whereas many fishing tournaments give prizes for a handful of fish categories, the ADSFR awards winners for upwards of 30 different species.
With so much prize money at stake, it stands to reason that the history of the Rodeo has included a legacy of tall tales and crafty anglers trying to get a leg up on the next boat. In fact, on every Thursday night preceding the Friday start of the Rodeo, there is the Liars’ Contest, where anglers spin yarns, seeking the honor of having told the best fishing lie.
That’s why Rodeo judges have to have a sharp eye. One of the most entertaining true Rodeo stories involves a competitor who flew with his catch up from Costa Rica! It was then that the ADSFR created a geographical boundary for the competition. There is also the one where a clergyman brought his fish to be weighed, only to have lead weights escape the fish and tumble all over the floor. Almost unbelievably, the Rodeo has even taken the drastic step of implementing polygraph tests to root out deception. This has led to at least one winner being disqualified. Consent to undergo a lie detector is located right there in the fine print when competitors buy their tickets. All in a weekend’s fun, right?
ADSFR, 1964. Jack Davis (left), Ray Walker (center), Billy G. Barfoot (right). From: The Press Register
Given the location of the nearby Dauphin Island Sea Lab, perhaps it is not surprising that over the years, the importance of the Rodeo has grown from both cultural and recreational to also include the scientific. In the early 80s,, the ADSFR began a relationship with the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The Museum, one of the most famous in the world, is particularly known for skeletons. When visitors enter the Museum fronting Central Park on the City's Upper West Side, they are greeted, Jurassic Park style, by the hulking skeleton of a huge Tyrannosaurus rex. The Museum is home to another famous skeleton collection. It comprises more than 2,500 fish skeletons, representing more than 250 species, all gathered from ADSFR anglers over the years. This incredible catalogue of fishes is considered among the most comprehensive and preeminent in the world.
The Museum’s work lives on today and the scientific impact of the Rodeo continues to broaden in scope. Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the famed ocean advocacy organization, Oceana, began testing both fish and fisherman for contaminants, assembling a treasure trove of data to help inform management of fisheries and fossil fuel extraction practices.
The Rodeo also supports the local scientific community by funding two graduate scholarships in Marine Science at the University of South Alabama: the Robert L. Shipp Award for outstanding Ph.D. student and the Gareth Nelson Award for excellence in master’s studies. The Nelson Award is named after the famed ichthyologist who pioneered the Museum of Natural History’s work with the ADSFR, while the Shipp Award is named after long-time ADSFR stalwart, head judge, and USA marine scientist, Professor Emeritus Bob Shipp.
ADSFR, 1965. From: The Press Register
As you might have already realized from your time on the coast, the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo is a wonderful example of how our heritage and culture, dependent upon healthy ecosystems and fisheries, are woven into the fabric of our lives. Heritage and culture are among the six values - along with beaches and shorelines, fish and wildlife, water quality, access, and resilience - that the MBNEP has determined all of us in coastal Alabama celebrate.
We enjoyed the Rodeo with our grandparents back in the day, and we want to enjoy a Rodeo with the same great qualities with our grandchildren in the future. Nothing ensures we’ll protect our coastal environment like an appreciation of our heritage and culture. We all hope to be able to do things the way our gramps did them. Let’s enjoy and support the Rodeo, as we ensure the protection and conservation of our coastal habitats and fisheries for years to come. Our grandchildren depend upon it.
For more history of ADSFR and roundup of this year’s winners please visit: www.adsfr.com