• Published:May 12, 2017
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A shade of irony passed over the Bahamas last weekend.

The winning boat in the Custom Shootout pulled ahead of the field by releasing a grand slam. And the name of the winning boat?

Grand Slam.

Buoyed by a strong second day, the captain and crew aboard the New Smyrna Beach, Florida, vessel won the Custom Shootout, amassing 1,800 points in the three-day event, edging out Gina Lisa in a tiebreaker based on time.

The event, part of the Abaco Diamond Series, was restricted to 61 custom boats in an all-release billfish affair at the Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour Marina.

It was Grand Slam’s second big win of the year. In January, Grand Slam owner Wallis Higginbotham and crew earned top honors in the Pelican Yacht Club Invitational in Fort Pierce, Florida.

“This one’s special when you consider the caliber of the teams and boats in this tournament,” Higginbotham said. “You had some of the best fishermen on the planet. It was a great group of fishermen to fish against. We were fortunate enough to come out on top and we’re extremely happy and pretty thrilled.”

Grand Slam was built by Forbes Boat Works based in Wanchese, North Carolina, a small town that is home to several of the world’s primere custom boat builders. The boat strung together back-to-back quality days in the Shootout, totaling five billfish releases, including three blues, one white and one sail. That output was enough offset a fishless effort on day three. The Gina Lisa logged more fish with a total of seven releases and tied for the top spot in points, but Grand Slam ultimately prevailed because it amassed its points first.

Grand Slam’s grand slam proved to be the pivotal point in the tournament. The combo of the sailfish, white marlin and blue marlin generated 400 additional points, the equivalent of one blue marlin in the Custom Shootout’s scoring system.

Higginbotham caught the sailfish and the blue. Larry Gross caught the white. There were only three one-day grand slams generated among the 224 anglers.
"We decided to stay in one area and we pounded and pounded and pounded. We didn't have a ton of bites, but the ones we had, we made count."
-- Capt. Dave Grubbs
“Obviously, the grand slam was important, because without the bonus points, we wouldn’t have won,” Higginbotham said. “We got the sailfish in the morning and that’s probably the toughest fish to catch there. There’s not a lot of them. We knew with the blue marlin, that was going to be big. It was one of those things where the bonus points made the difference, because Wave Paver and Gina Lisa had more fish points. That 400 extra bonus points made the difference.”

The sailfish came first, the white second, then the blue.

The crew targeted a section of water that was 76.5 degrees near Ocean Point, just south of Hope Town and trolled across depths between 1,500 and 4,000 feet.

“Over there you want to cover as much water possible,” Higginbotham said. “We were fishing close to shore on the drop, where it starts rolling off from 1,200 to four, five thousand feet.”

The blue marlin struck the flat line hard and fast without much notice. The 100-pound fish stayed on the surface and then dove deeper before being released after about a 20- to 25-minute battle. Higginbotham used a ballyhoo rigged on a small circle hook.

“It was a matter of staying positive and having confidence in what we were doing was going to work,” Higginbotham said. “The Bahamas and the Abacos are not places you’re going to get a whole lot of bites. You have to stay positive and feel like when you do get a bite that you’re going to capitalize on it.”

The crew’s patience was tested when technical difficulties arose moments before the expected release of second day’s marlin. The primary iPad used to record the releases, as it turned out, had run out of memory. However, the problem was resolved with quick thinking and an extra GoPro camera on board.

“There’s always stress to make sure the video is clear,” Higginbotham said. “That’s the number one thing: When you get back, you don’t want to have a problem with your video. Makes you look bad and it’s tough on the tournament.”

Day one started well with two blue marlin from crew members Jeff Wright and Adam White. Dave Grubbs, Grand Slam’s captain, said the plan was to fish one area, Cherokee Point, where fishing appeared promising a few days before the Shootout, which endured 3- to 5-foot seas.

“We decided to stay in one area and we pounded and pounded and pounded,” said Grubbs, who is from Port Orange, Florida. “We ended up getting lucky and making all the bites count and it ended up paying off. We didn’t have a ton of bites, but the ones we had, we made count.”

Grubbs attributed Grand Slam’s success, in large part, to the crew’s angling skill, namely Higginbotham, who caught a sail and the blue marlin on day two.

“I haven’t fished with a ton of people in my life, but he’s definitely the best angler I’ve fished with,” said Grubbs, who has fished with Higginbotham since the late 1980s. “Very sharp with it. Does a good job with the hooking. With me backing up and maneuvering around, he keeps up with me. We coach one another through the whole bite. He did a great job with it.”

Every good crew, no matter how skilled needs a good boat, and the Grand Slam, a 50-foot, single-engine sport fisher propelled by a 1,150-hp Caterpillar, performed well in less-than-ideal conditions. The Shootout provided the perfect venue to show off the 2016 vessel, and the win served as a source of pride for Irving Forbes, the general manager of Forbes Boat Works.

“It makes you feel good,” Forbes said of Grand Slam’s Shootout success. “I’m competing against the big boys. I’m just a little fella out there. I think it’s wonderful. It helps my employees and makes morale good.”

Grand Slam is known for its fuel efficiency, stability and dry ride. The single engine, Forbes noted, generates little whitewater when trolling, which presumably helps the game fish find their prey for an easy bite.

“It’s a small boat,” Forbes said. “You don’t have all the whitewater. You don’t have all the engine noise. I just remember years ago, charter fishing, it always seemed like the single-engine boats fished real good.”

Does the quality of the boat matter in terms of tournament success? Yes, but how much is a matter of speculation.

“Really I can’t answer that,” Forbes said. “If I could, I’d be winning all the tournaments.”
Winning, Forbes said, stems from individual and collective skill on the boat.

“You’ve got a captain and crew on there,” Forbes said. “That’s the reason that boat does well. They fish together a lot. The captain has a lot of experience. The captain and crew, more than anything else, have knowledge of fishing. You’ve got to know where the fish are and you have to be a little bit lucky, too.”

The Grand Slam may not fish the next leg of the Skip Smith’s Tournament Series but Higginbotham and Grubbs will likely return to the Shootout in 2018, an invitation-only, charity event that started in the early 2000s and has created quite a fan club.

“It’s a desirable location where you don’t have to run very far to go fishing,” Higginbotham said. “The main draw is (tournament director) Skip (Smith). He puts on, by far, the best fishing tournament that I’ve been a part of. The organization and the food, everything, from start to finish, is first class.”

For more information on the Custom Shootout, visit skipstournaments.com/custom-shootout.