Anglers at the Weigh Station The Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR) is the nation’s oldest and largest saltwater fishing competition. Held off Dauphin Island at the head of Mobile Bay during a three-day period in July, it attracts more than 3,000 contestants and tens of thousands of spectators annually. From blackfish to white trout for inshore anglers, and amberjack to yellowfin tuna for fishers offshore, ADSFR offers 30 prize categories, the most diverse of any U.S. competitive fishing tournament. The event has gained international prominence from its work with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and the state university system to provide fish samples for academic study, as well as to marine biologists and ichthyologists from outside Alabama. The event serves as a summertime boon for the economies of Dauphin Island and the city of Mobile.
Fishing Rodeo Prize Winners The rodeo concept originated with a group of Mobile businessmen on a fishing trip in 1928. They proposed a deep-sea fishing competition and were encouraged by Alabama State Game and Fisheries Commissioner Irvin T. Quinn to proceed with a plan. In 1929, at Fort Gaines Pier on Dauphin Island, 260 anglers competed in the first fishing tournament. A $5 admission fee was charged to cover the cost of sleeping accommodations and prizes for the participants, and carrier pigeons brought news of the daily catches to Mobile; a bridge wouldn’t open between Dauphin Island and the mainland until 1955. After the first contest, organizers formed a coalition to hold and manage the event annually; Lucius G. Adams Sr., one of the founders, served as its first president. The coalition ran the fishing rodeo for nearly 20 years, until the Mobile Junior Chamber of Commerce, now known as the Mobile Jaycees, assumed the role in 1948.
The rodeo attracts both amateur anglers and professional teams sponsored by boat makers and fishing equipment manufacturers. Judging for inshore fish categories includes Florida pompano, flounder, gray snapper, sheepshead, speckled trout, and tarpon; offshore fish categories include amberjack, barracuda, bonito, grouper, king mackerel, red snapper, shark, yellowfin tuna, and wahoo. The fish are judged and awarded points according to weight and species type, with rarer species receiving more points. Prizes for the top three finishers include a plaque and assorted fishing equipment worth thousands of dollars. In the early 1990s, as the growing potential value of prizes began to exceed $100,000, ADSFR began using polygraph tests to enforce strict guidelines to prove who caught which fish, stripping the titles from rodeo winners who fail.
Dauphin Island Sea Lab In 1984, the ADSFR began working with ichthyologist Gareth Nelson of the American Museum of Natural History in New York to expand the institution’s collection of fish skeletons. Almost a quarter of the museum’s collection, comprising more than 2,500 specimens from some 250 species, was obtained during Nelson’s trips to the rodeo. ADSFR created the Nelson Award in his honor; it is given to one promising Ph.D. student and one master’s degree student in the marine sciences at the University of South Alabama (USA). After Nelson’s death in 1997, William Bemis, currently a Cornell University professor and director of the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island, Maine, has continued collecting scientific data at ADSFR. The rodeo also donates money to the USA’s Department of Marine Sciences. In 2005, the advocacy group Oceana also enlisted the help of ADSFR anglers in testing fish for mercury contamination. Healthcare professionals and medical students from USA’s Mitchell Cancer Institute have offered skin cancer screenings to rodeo participants and spectators. Since the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill of April 2010 (which resulted in the cancellation of the 2010 event), federal Food and Drug Administration scientists also have used the rodeo as an opportunity to test fish for pollutants.
Red Snapper at Fishing Rodeo In 1998, author John McPhee attended the rodeo and published a story about it in The New Yorker, raising the event’s profile. The ADSFR is recognized as the official fishing rodeo in Alabama, and every year the governor of Alabama proclaims the event’s three days in July as official Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo Days. The 2011 rodeo set an official Guinness world record with 2,220 anglers, narrowly edging the Las Huellas Fishing Kids Tournament held May 2011 in Brownsville, Texas.
McPhee, John. “Catch-and-Dissect.” The New Yorker 74 (October 19, 1998): 58-66.