The tournament buzz has been building for weeks on the sunny streets of Cabo San Lucas. Participating teams are talking tactics. Charter captains are deciding how much to hike up their prices. Everyone else is waiting to see huge marlin at the first day’s weigh-in. The Bisbee Black and Blue has come around again.
We’re talking, of course, about the annual Bisbee’s Black & Blue Marlin Fishing Tournament. The competition has been running for almost 40 years now. In that time, it has become synonymous with big boats, big fish, and big, big prizes.
Last year, 120 teams and over 800 anglers took part in this billfishing bonanza. At the end of three days of intense fishing, the winners took home prizes to the tune of $3,000,000 – and that wasn’t even close to the competition’s record. Small wonder the event’s known as “the world’s richest fishing tournament!”
But something’s different this year. The marinas are packed and the stakes are as high as ever. But one man is conspicuously missing from the whole affair. Bob Bisbee Sr., founder of this “Superbowl of Sportfishing,” sadly passed away earlier this year at the age of 85. His passing was mourned by sportfishermen from around the world, as well as his wife and children, who continue to run the tournament series.
Bob Bisbee was a legend who helped build Cabo’s fishing scene – and arguably the town itself – into what it is now.
With three different events over the course of the year and sponsors as varied as hotel chains, tackle brands and the Mexican government, it’s hard to believe that it all started as a simple wager.
Bob had been visiting Baja California Sur since the 60s. He knew just how good the bite was down here, but not many others did. Bob ran a fueling station and tackle shop in Newport Beach at the time. He filled up boats planning to make the journey south, so spreading the word about the area’s big game bite was good for business. He could have no idea how good, though.
In 1981, Bob and some friends got the idea to try out a tournament with golf-style Calcutta sweepstakes rather than the traditional grand prize. He went down to Cabo with five other boats and the first Bisbee tournament was born. Everyone had a great time, especially Bob himself, who won the tournament and the $10,000 in prize money.
The next year, the numbers doubled. The year after that, they doubled again. The word was spreading, people were having fun, and Bob was selling a ton of fuel – things were looking good.
But Bisbee’s tournament dreams were nearly crushed before they’d even got going. In 1983, a hurricane wiped out dozens of boats which were idling along the Baja coastline for lack of proper moorage. American insurers vetoed all trips to Mexico unless the boats could be safely moored when they were down there. Bob’s Californian fishing buddies couldn’t come to Baja anymore and it looked like the tournament was over.
Bob wasn’t about to let all the fun come to an end so quickly, though. Industrious as ever, he anchored moorings all around Cabo and used his connections in the tackle and fuel industries to spread the word: it was safe to come south. The competition went ahead the next year without a hitch and the rest is history.
If you’ve ever been to Cabo during tournament season, you’ll find it hard to believe the competition’s humble beginnings. Every year, the sea comes alive as 100 boats rocket offshore. The opening ceremony and closing party are legendary. The daily weigh-ins are home to some of the biggest fish you’re ever likely to see. In fact, unreleased marlin have to be 300 pounds just to qualify!
The attendance isn’t the only thing that’s increased – the money involved these days is staggering. The original $10,000 of prize money would barely be enough for a buy-in now. Base entry is $5,000 and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Because of the way the tournament works, you opt in for as many different daily jackpots as you want. These range from $1,500 to $60,000 on top of the entry cost. If you want a chance to win it all, you’re looking at $131,500 before you even charter a boat!
Sound a little too much for you? You’ll be glad to hear that there’s more than one Bisbee tournament to choose from. The Black and Blue is the most famous by far, but since 2000 you can also take part in the East Cape and Los Cabos Offshores.
How did it all get this big? Sponsorship and clever marketing. Two of Bob’s kids, Wayne and Trisha Bisbee, took over the tournament in 1995. Since then, international sponsors and glitzy promotion have taken the series into the clouds. You have to wonder whether the original six boats would be able to enter today.
It might be too much to say that the Bisbee’s series made Cabo what it is today. The town was a tourist hotspot long before the charter scene got big. But while Cabo was already known for beaches and resorts, it was Bisbee who solidified it as the “Marlin Capital of the World.” If not for Bob, we might see a lot fewer boats in downtown Cabo. And that’s not the only effect the family’s had on the town.
Bob Bisbee Sr. was always clear that he wanted to give something back to Baja’s locals. Even in the competition’s opening years, he made sure that the fish went to people who needed it. The event is way too big for a simple line at the weigh-in station these days, but the fish still goes to a good cause.
Last year, over 11,000 pounds of fish came ashore during the Bisbee Black and Blue. Working with local charities, it was all donated to retirement homes and orphanages in the area.
As well as sharing the catch, the tournaments do their bit to encourage fishing with local crews. If you’re short the $5,000 it costs to enter, you can enroll for free by agreeing to fish with the locals. The Bisbee Cabo Charter Hook-Up pays the base buy-in for the first 40 boats to sign up with one of their approved Cabo-based teams.
The most notable example of the family stepping in was in response to the hurricane that hit Baja in 2014. It caused power and water outages all over the peninsula and over $1 billion worth of damage. It also hit the tourism sector hard.
Once again, this wasn’t going to stop the Bisbees. The tournament had weathered one storm, it could weather another. With a lot of hard work, the event went ahead as scheduled. It was credited with kick-starting Cabo’s much-needed tourism that year.
The competitions themselves are just one part of the Bisbee empire. In 2011, the family set up the Bisbee’s Fish & Wildlife Conservation Fund in an effort to get more ambitious projects under way. Since then, the fund has started and co-run several projects both in Baja and around the world.
The non-profit really came into the spotlight in 2014. It set up a hurricane relief fund and seeded $250,000 to get the ball rolling. Working with a crisis assessment team, it set up “tent cities” and secured housing for displaced people. The fund also made sure the storm didn’t wreck local charter captains out of the industry. Part of the money went to helping independently-owned charters rebuild, keeping people in work and stopping big fleets from taking over.
An emphasis on sustainability has made its way into the rules of the Bisbee Black and Blue. Keeping undersized fish gets you penalty points and releases are worth as much as weigh-ins pound for pound. It seems like the family’s doing more with their money than buying bigger boats.
The question on everyone’s mind at the moment is “where do things go from here?” Sure, Bob hasn’t been directly involved in the tournaments for years, but will his passing have an effect on how things are run? We hope it won’t. All the glamor and big sponsorship hasn’t stopped the family from giving back to Cabo’s residents. Quite the opposite, it’s let them impact the local area in a much bigger way.
This year, we mark the death of a real sportfishing legend. Bob Bisbee Sr. was a pioneer of Baja’s big game bite. Everyone who had the chance to meet him will miss his enthusiasm and his wit. His legacy lives on in the epic catches brought in every October in Cabo San Lucas, as well as the good work of the Bisbee Conservation Fund. We look forward to many more years of world-class angling and extend our deepest condolences to Bob’s wife and six children.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on FishingBooker.