Oh my god! I’m going to win the tournament,” Morgan Mericle said to himself as soon as he saw the chopper bluefish he was fighting. Mericle was fishing the first Fish N Paddle Saltwater Slam in Ocean City, Maryland and his local experience told him a three-foot-long bluefish would be almost impossible to beat.

Then the toothy blue broke water shaking its head like a tarpon and Mericle realized he was still a long way from the $4,000 first-place paycheck. When the fish passed in range, he grabbed the tail and lifted it into the kayak. Wrestling the alpha predator in a 10-foot sit-inside, Mericle couldn’t celebrate until he had his trophy on a stringer.

The 11-pound bluefish brought Mericle a $4,000 first-place check, a new Lightning pedal-powered kayak and a handcrafted wooden trophy.

Tournament director Brian Roberts, a leader in the world of big-game boat tournaments, is planning a series of high-profile, top-dollar kayak and paddleboard fishing competitions at destination cities along the East Coast. Fish N Paddle is the first in a string of events.

After watching the sport’s popularity explode in recent years, Roberts looked to bring his experience to the world of paddles and pedals.

First lesson: money talks. Roberts knew a $7,000 guaranteed payout for the top three finishers was crucial to convincing competitors to travel to Ocean City. “I needed a big check to bring people in,” he laughs.

In the powerboat world, Roberts is no stranger to big-money offshore fishing tournaments. He won $857,000 in 2010 in the legendary Ocean City White Marlin Open. Then, he started the HUK Big Fish Classic, a no-holds-barred competition for the biggest fish to hit the scales with a half-million-dollar purse.

To build the hype, Roberts brought the most popular elements of boating’s biggest competitions to Fish N Paddle: hefty payouts, big-name sponsors, wild parties and a DJ spinning hits at the weigh-in.

The big check goes to the angler who weighs the three biggest qualifying fish. A dozen species qualify for weigh-in, which increases the chances of a lucky angler winning the tournament.

Wilderness Systems pro, Jay Brooks, was lured to Fish N Paddle by the big payout. “It’s a ton of money for a kayak angler,” he admits. When Brooks isn’t paddling, he runs a sportfishing boat and fishes bluewater tournaments. He sees the trend for sophisticated competitions with big payouts spreading to kayak fishing.

In the tradition of big-game offshore tournaments, Fish N Paddle features side bets, called Calcuttas. In addition to the main prize, anglers can make wagers on other categories such as most fish or heaviest catch.

Brooks points out, “Calcuttas give competitors more chances to take home prize money.” Even if a competitor doesn’t catch one of the top three fish, side bets could still pay off. “It’s like a tournament in a tournament.” Calcuttas give anglers more opportunities to make a lucky catch, or turn skill into cash. “You got to get in it to win it,” Brooks laughs.

Which is what makes Fish N Paddle attractive to hard-core tournament pros and newbies; anyone has a chance to win. Experienced anglers rely on their years of skill and fancy equipment while less salty anglers put their chances in scoring a lucky catch.

Tournament winner, Morgan Mericle was fishing in a 10-foot sit-inside kayak and using a rock for an anchor. “I’m glad I lost the rock,” he snickers. Without his anchor securing him in the current, Mericle decided to drift back to the landing.

“I was bouncing a 1 ½ ounce jighead for flounder when I hooked the huge bluefish.” Combined with two smaller blues he caught earlier; the chopper pushed him to the front of the pack. “Many of the other anglers had better boats and equipment, but my experience fishing Ocean City won the day.”

Yes, that adds up to $7,000. | Photo: Courtesy Fish N Paddle

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Dan Wassmann
Dan Wassmann is a free-lance writer who travels frequently to northern Michigan, where he can be found in his sea kayak on Lake Michigan or in his fishing kayak on inland lakes in pursuit of lunker bass, pike and walleye. Dan is the former managing editor of both City & State, a national newspaper for state and local government officials, and the Deerfield Review, a suburban Chicago community newspaper. He is also a former communications manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, part of the central bank of the United States. Dan has published articles in variety of publications, including the Chicago Tribune and Kayak Angler. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Dan is married to Kathy Wassmann. They live in Glenview, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, and are the parents of three grown children, all of whom live in Chicago.

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