In the early-morning din of the Baja Cantina, the Americans fail to notice the pre-opening clanging of dishes in the kitchen. They pay no mind to the scurrying anglers at the adjoining marina, and they flat-out ignore the catcalls from skippers asking if they want to charter a fishing boat. In about an hour, a glowing-orange Mexican sun will slowly peek over the horizon and begin to first warm and then, as it morphs to an eye-burning yellow, cook the people and the structures below.
But not just yet.
The Americans in the bar at 5 a.m. are in the cradle of tropical tourism, but they are sitting ramrod straight. They are all business.
Today marks the shotgun start of the 35th annual Bisbee’s Black & Blue Marlin Tournament. As the principals of the event, their early-morning meeting is a last-minute checklist for the next three days, complete with a boning-up on the official rules, lest any entrants start too soon and get disqualified, thereby forfeiting the most expensive entry fee in sport fishing. And even though many in the bar have been a part of the 35 tournaments — as the Black & Blue was, and is, a family affair — the dozen Americans are still cognizant that there’s no such thing as status quo when it comes to the Bisbees.
Right now the emcee himself, Wayne Bisbee, has the floor, and his crew listens with rapt interest.
This is, simply stated, the Super Bowl of fishing tournaments, and the whole angling world is watching. Many internationally known fishermen, as well as the power elite who want to check “fishing the Bisbee” off their bucket lists, descend on Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, every October, pay the $71,500 entry fee (plus three additional $20,000 bets for the Chupacabra Daily Jackpot), and steel themselves for three days of choppy off shore Gulf of California/Pacific Ocean seas in hopes of landing a monster. And why? Because three days from today, someone is going to be a millionaire.
“This event means quite a bit not just to me, but to fishermen everywhere,” Wayne Bisbee says over coffee the day before the tournament. “If you think about it, these days, things don’t usually last for 35 years. Especially for something that started with six boats and a bunch of guys from Southern California coming down to Cabo to have fun.”
The tour de force that is the Black & Blue is a little less than 24 hours away, and while he’s animated and well dosed on Mexican black coffee, Wayne takes a moment from running between his home base of the Baja Cantina and the main stage at the marina to give a history lesson on the Black & Blue and, by proxy, a his story lesson on modern-day Cabo San Lucas.
Wayne sits at one of the wooden, sun-tanned Baja Cantina tables wearing a T-shirt that bears his name. He doesn’t have an outward appearance of fishing royalty, nor of a man who just 72 hours from now is going to award over $4 million — cash — in prize money. Rather, he looks like a working-class machinist.
He’s a strong man, thick as a brick with chiseled forearms and calves. At 51 years old, Wayne has fished bodies of water all over the world. He’s caught monsters of the deep, not just the brilliantly colored billfish (the general biological term for predatory fish with a spear-like bill) but everything from Abalistes stellatus in Australia to barracuda in Bermuda. As a staunch conservationist and the founder of Bisbee’s Fish & Wildlife Conservation Fund, which does consequential work with African White Rhinos, Bisbee’s Popeye-esque physique is a testament to a life that is committed to the outdoors, a rod or a rifle never too far away.
His father, Bob, came to the Baja peninsula of Mexico in the 1960s seeking a vacation escape from his native Southern California. Back then, Cabo San Lucas was a mosquito-infested marsh. But the bluffs on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula were towering and sweeping, producing views that weren’t found 1,000 miles north over the U.S. border. In 1982, after fishing Cabo’s cobalt-colored waters for over a decade, Bob thought it would get people to this part of Mexico if he offered a $10,000 cash prize for the biggest billfish. He held two tournaments that year. Six guys showed up to the first. Wayne, who was in high school at the time, remembers manning the family store in Newport Beach, California, for the first seven years of the tournament.
“I kind of inherited this tournament, which really wasn’t supposed to last more than a few years,” he recalls. There were other fishing tournaments around the world, but none in Cabo, which was accessible to most of the world because of its proximity to Asia, the western United States, Central and South America and, thanks to the Panama Canal, the eastern United States, the Caribbean and Europe as well.
“I played soccer at 12 years old on the shoreline with the local kids,” he recalls. “This place was nothing but a hidden secret for SoCal guys who liked to fish and hang out.” So when Bob retired but the entry-fee checks were still coming in, Wayne became the heir apparent to run the show, as well as the maestro tasked with growing it. There was no marketing budget. No business model. No staff . Wayne relied on his family over the years to grow the Black & Blue into a tournament that has, for decades, had up to 230 teams comprising over 1,000 participants paying close to $100,000/team to enter. Third place this year alone, because of all the add-on bets, paid $2.5 million.
“We were growing our tournament by contacting all these other tournament directors around the world and cross-promoting each other’s tournaments,” he says, “but in the process, the amount of charity and philanthropy the tournament has provided to the people of Cabo San Lucas has, in fact, grown this part of Mexico.”
Wayne’s dad bought the first ambulance in town. The family tackle store’s base radio in Newport Beach, used for their fleet of planes flying in supplies, became the radio for the town in case of emergencies. These days, the tons of fish caught in the tournament feeds the local retirement homes and orphanages, and Wayne’s conservation fund has sent a dozen local Cabo high school kids to college to study marine biology, all expenses and tuition paid in full.
This year, during the run-up to the tournament, Wayne takes center stage right in the center of Cabo and speaks to a gathering crowd of locals, tourists and more than 900 entrants. The massive scale used to weigh the 300-plus-pound billfish flanks his lift. “We’re at 115 teams and counting!” he announces a few hours before the entry deadline. This is a cash-only tournament, and the last of the 60-, 70- and 80-foot fishing yachts, each one with a sticker price in the millions, makes its way into the marina and then to Tricia Bisbee, who’s helping Wayne collect the entry fees. As Wayne’s sister, she’s also one of his business partners. Likewise are Wayne’s son, Blake, and his cousin, Carey, both of whom are milling about the crowd and making sure everyone is in a jovial mood. And that they’re excited to fish.
“He has such a charisma,” Tricia says as she watches her big brother work the crowd. She’s selling Bisbee shirts and jackets and observing how the crowd is naturally drawn to Wayne. Similarly, he feeds off of their excitement. The Bisbees know that you won’t be watching the Black & Blue Marlin Tournament on CBS anytime soon, but Wayne has managed to build a brand.
This is, simply stated, the Super Bowl of fishing tournaments, and the whole angling world is watching that is now the gold standard in fishing circles, and an event that helped develop Cabo San Lucas into the international draw that it is today.
In all 35 years of the Bisbee’s, this is the first time it was won by not just a no-name but five no-money, working-class no-names. “A bunch of bums from Ontario, Canada,” by their own admission.
Jason Langen, a 33-year-old sheet-metal union worker from Thunder Bay, Ontario (with a very thick Canadian accent) loves to fish. Of course on Lake Superior, where he usually does his angling, a 10-pound walleye is considered a trophy. But he and a buddy went to Cabo for a fishing vacation a few years back, and he caught a striped marlin. That feeling made him want to fish for big billfish. He watched every YouTube video he could find on the Bisbee. Once properly educated, he rounded up his buddies. “We were the second people to pay our $5,000 fee, basically as soon as they opened the days, call to entry,” he says.
“I wanted to lock us in so my friends couldn’t pull out.”
All five blue-collar tradesmen ponied up a total of $20,000, flew to Cabo, hired a fishing charter and set off for glory reminiscent of Hemingway’s Santiago. And just like in The Old Man and the Sea, Jason and his buddies fought their fish with gusto and valor. They landed a 500-pound marlin, which had enough meat on the bone to win the title. They entered with the bare minimum entry fee, so their haul was $356,000. Still, that was more than enough to pay off all their mortgages back home.
“We were local heroes when we returned to Thunder Bay,” Jason says. “We were on the front page of the local paper. Guys like us aren’t supposed to win the Bisbee’s.”
But in actuality, they are. Fishing, even big-money sport fishing, is the grand leveler of men. Five Canadian roughnecks in a $4,500 charter beat the big boys in $4.5 million 80-foot ocean cruisers.
And Wayne Bisbee was happy.
(Previously published in the April 2016 issue of American Way Magazine)