Marlin, Marlin, Marlin: Battle of the Bahamas Delivers Extremes

Extreme: Kraatz with his billfish-division winning white marlin, the first caught in EKF competition.
Extreme: Kraatz with his billfish-division winning white marlin, the first caught in EKF competition. Photo courtesy EKF.

Marlin, Marlin, Marlin: Battle of the Bahamas Delivers Extremes
By Chris Holmes

"Marlin, marlin, marlin," crackled over the radio an hour into day two of the Extreme Battle in the Bahamas kayak fishing tournament. Instantaneously, the hair on the necks of the 32 other anglers rose. Could it happen to them too? Each gained a heightened awareness of their bait or lure and there was no doubt that this kayak tournament was "Extreme."

Joe Kraatz was hooked to a white marlin. All attention was on him as the tournament committee boat moved closer so that the film crew could memorialize the action. A marlin in a kayak tournament? You bet. Tournament director Joe Hector paced on the beach with nervous excitement as he relied on a hand-held VHF to visualize the action. He knew what a marlin catch would mean to his tournament.

The spotlight on Kraatz soon shifted. Thirty minutes into his hour-long fight, Matt Eckert sunk a hook into something big while trolling nearby. As Eckert frantically pedaled his Hobie kayak to refill a near empty spool, Kraatz successfully landed the white. Complete with photos and underwater video, he claimed title to the tournament's first-caught billfish prize.

RELATED: Matt Eckert’s 11-Hour, 30-Mile Marlin Sleigh Ride

Back to Eckert. An hour into the battle, the UFO (Unidentified Fishy Object) showed itself – every massive inch. A huge blue marlin skyrocketed mere yards from the tournament's live bait boat. Unsure at first, it was quickly confirmed that Eckert was indeed at the other end of the blue marlin kite string. Hector's beach pacing now became prancing. The captain of the committee boat estimated the blue between 400- to 500-pounds. We'll come back to Eckert's marlin, there's plenty enough time.

Battle of the Bahamas champ Brian Nelli with one of his kings.
Battle of the Bahamas champ Brian Nelli with one of his kings. Photo courtesy EKF.

Everyone has an idea of what constitutes an extreme activity, especially when it comes to kayak fishing. The Battle in the Bahamas tournament clearly cemented "extreme" into kayak fishing tournaments. Started several years ago in Pompano Beach, Florida, by Hector and his wife, Maria, the Extreme Kayak Fishing Tournament (EKFT) series has exploded in popularity. The slam series tournaments regularly see wahoo, tuna, king mackerel, dolphin and other pelagics brought to the scales. The game was upped in January when their first-ever sailfish tournament saw several of these beautiful billfish caught and released.

I'll see your sailfish kayak tournament and raise you one. Hector wanted to go more extreme. Planning for the first EKFT international tournament took two years. In late April, the Extreme Battle in the Bahamas came to fruition.

The logistics were extreme. Anglers from across the country, their kayaks, gear, companions, live bait and tournament supplies had to be transported from Florida to the Bahamas. Literally tons of 'yaks and gear were checked in at Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale days before the adventure began. With the kayaks in the hold, 33 anglers, their companions and tournament organizers travelled in first-class aboard the Balearia fast ferry for the three-hour trek across the Atlantic to the beautiful Bahamas.

The accommodations were extreme. A short, narrated bus ride provided informative local information before arriving at tournament headquarters, the Flamingo Bay Hotel and Marina on Grand Bahama Island. The property has an on-site restaurant, huge swimming pool and a gorgeous beach. The kayaks arrived by truck shortly afterwards and were set near the beach for the next day's shotgun start. The hospitality was second to none and what kayak angler wouldn't welcome free Sands beer for the entirety of the event?

The gear was extreme. The anglers spent the evening getting their battlewagons loaded.
GPS units the size of flat screen televisions, downriggers, live wells and even a kite/helium balloon rig outfitted the kayaks to rival the finest of sport fishing yachts. Offshore rod and reel combos were strung in anticipation of encountering extreme fish.

The water was extreme. Crystal clear and calm, it would be the deepest many of these anglers have ever encountered. Gradually sloping and turning deep blue, the bottom fell out less than a mile from the beach. A defined shelf quickly changed from 90 to hundreds of feet in a matter of yards. Those with smaller depth finders found them useless as the bottom disappeared beyond their thousand-foot signal capacity.

Winners collect their rewards.
Winners collect their rewards. Photo courtesy EKF.

The bait was extreme. Anglers wanting live bait pre-ordered goggleye and pilchards from Joe Settembrino of Hillsboro Inlet Live Bait. Settembrino and his eight-and-a-half months pregnant wife, Jessica, carried the bait over to the Bahamas aboard his Contender center console. Sleep for them was virtually nonexistent. The duo worked through the nights catching additional bait and stayed amongst the anglers during tournament hours to store their catches and provide additional baits when necessary. Eight-and-a-half months pregnant – that's extreme.

The fishing was extreme. At the end of day one, the battle of the plastics versus the pelagics was in full swing. Brian Nelli and Andrew Mixon hit the shore with king mackerels weighing 38.4 and 32.7 pounds respectively. Donny Miley bested a bruiser amberjack that hit 35.9 pounds and Dion Philipon jigged an impressive 32.3-pound yellowfin grouper from the rocky depths. Skunks were few as most of the anglers connected with at least a fish or two. A variety of other fish were caught including many barracuda. None of the catches were wasted. Anglers that chose not to keep their fish donated them to local officials for charity.

Extreme drama. The second and final day saw the marlin action along with some nice dolphin, sierra mackerel and more grouper and barracuda. Tournament rules allow the anglers to offload their catch to the committee boat for storage during the tournament. However, all anglers had to recollect their fish and personally bring them to shore by the four o'clock deadline. Problem. The committee boat was following Eckert for safety and his marlin battle took them several miles offshore. It was out of radio range for Hector's hand-held VHF.

Hector wore a rut in the sand as he frantically tried to make contact with EKF official Doug Perez on the committee boat to get the fish back to the beach. The deadline was fast approaching. "Perez can you read me? This is Joe Hector, come in Doug, come in," he hailed over and over. No luck. Anglers still on the water attempted to ‘hopscotch’ the message which also failed. The clock was ticking.

Desperate, Hector jumped on the bait boat while shouting, "I've got to save my tournament." They blasted off in the last known direction of the marlin war. Contact was finally made with the committee boat. They met and transferred the precious cargo faster than Columbian drug smugglers. The Contender arrived at the beach less than five minutes before the deadline.

Extreme prizes. With all fish were weighed in, Brian Nelli reigned as Extreme Champion. For 1st place, he collected $5,000 cash, a trophy cup and a Superbowl-like championship ring. He wasn't finished. Nelli also won the Trash Can Slam and Biggest Pelagic divisions adding another $1,000, a rigged SUP, Guy Harvey jewelry, a custom fish mount, Costa sunglasses and a $250 Yak Gear gift certificate to his bounty. How's that for extreme?

Big catches from day one carried Donny Miley into second place and Andrew Mixon into third. Miley scored a Hobie Outback, a custom fish mount and Costa sunglasses. Mixon's loot was a Hobie Revolution and a custom fish mount. Joe Kraatz's white marlin and subsequent biggest dolphin earned him an entry ticket into the EKFT Sailfish SmackDown 2015 and a custom live bait rod.

Matt Eckert, now known as ‘Marlin Matt,’ ended his battle of the blue when his line broke after over 11 hours. He successfully leadered the fish, but well after the tournament's 4:00 p.m. deadline. Although ineligible for any prizes, tournament host Flamingo Bay graciously awarded Eckert with a three-night stay.

The Extreme Battle in the Bahamas was an extreme success in every way possible. Hector expects that next year's event may necessarily become an invitational tournament in order to limit the number of anglers they can logistically handle. The good news for the inaugural participants is that they will get an invite.