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The tale of the $1 million prize that got away

Washington Post: Man's failure to renew a simple $30 fishing license cost his bosses and teammates nearly $1 million in North Carolina Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament.
Angler Andy Thomossan is dwarfed by his record-breaking 883-pound catch at the 52nd Annual Big Rock Fishing Tournament.
Angler Andy Thomossan is dwarfed by his record-breaking 883-pound catch at the 52nd Annual Big Rock Fishing Tournament.Chris Miller / AP
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After a two-hour struggle with the gigantic fish off North Carolina's Outer Banks, Alexandria resident Peter Wann pulled with all his strength and the creature emerged from the ocean depths.

He and his four sport fishing teammates could finally see what they had been struggling against — an 883-pound blue marlin spanning 137 inches, the biggest fish any of them had ever seen.

"My eyes were wide," Wann said of the June 14 catch. "Once it got up, everybody started freaking out, saying, 'Holy smokes!' Everybody was so excited."

But as the exhausted and elated teammates steamed back to shore — certain that their catch would win the grand prize of nearly $1 million in the annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament — they began checking to make sure the paperwork was in order. Wann's heart sank when he read the rule book. He thought the entire boat was licensed to compete. Turns out, all individuals had to have a valid state fishing license. Even Wann, the hired first mate.

His mind raced. He had a license at one time, hadn't he? Heart in his throat, he logged onto the state's Web site as soon as the boat was in wireless range.

Then big, bad news: His license had long expired.

"I looked at it, and I was like, [expletive]," recalled Wann, 22, a George Washington University senior who is studying mechanical engineering.

Wann renewed it wirelessly and hoped for the best. That was at 5:51 p.m. The team had reeled in the fish at 3:16 p.m.

Eight days, two lie detector tests, and hours of scrutiny and agonizing deliberation later, tournament officials made their decision. They would not be awarding the prize to Wann and his teammates from the boat Citation.

Wann had gone to North Carolina for a sunny summer of participating in the sport he loves. And his failure to renew a simple $30 fishing license cost his bosses and teammates nearly $1 million.

'We are honorable men'
"I've had better weeks," sighed Michael A. Topp, a Richmond defense contractor, retired Army colonel and co-owner of the boat.

Topp would not discuss the incident in detail because the team is appealing the decision. But he said: "It has nothing to do with the money. It's about our reputation. We did not cheat. We are honorable men."

Competitive sport fishermen from around the country flock to Morehead City, N.C., each June to compete in the annual Big Rock tournament, chasing marlin that have migrated to the warm waters of the coast to feed off abundant tuna and dolphins drawn to smaller fish hiding in the rocky bottoms.

When Topp, Wann and the other euphoric members of the Citation crew — including the boat's hired captain, Eric Holmes, and its co-owners, Shawn Kooyman of Chester, Va., and Duncan A. Thomasson of Richmond — arrived back onshore the day of the big catch, the week-long tournament still had several days to go.

Confident that no other competitor would come close, they imagined divvying up the money.

It was clear that they probably would win, said Richard Crowe, an Atlantic Beach, N.C., resident who serves on the tournament board. The fish was 50 pounds heavier than any other first-prize winner in the tournament's 52-year-history. The closest runner-up this year was a 528-pounder.

As the Saturday awards banquet neared, tournament officials began administering lie detector tests to its top money winners. They say they typically give such tests to verify whether the contestants obeyed fishing times, locations and other regulations. The results for Holmes and Wann raised concern, Crowe said. Tournament officials began an inquiry.

Crowe said that the board is "very confident" in its decision to disqualify the Citation's big fish, citing a "substantial violation in tournament rules." The top prize money went instead to the Carnivore for its 528-pound catch; they otherwise would have won $217,000.

"For the integrity of the Tournament, Big Rock has no choice but to enforce the rules and disqualify the fish," the tournament board said in a statement when it announced its decision.

"Rules are the rules, and you can't break 'em a little bit," Crowe said.

Wann calls what happened an "immature mistake." He said he and Holmes should have acknowledged their concern to contest officials straight away. But he also said the owners and the captain — who were paying him $500 a week before taxes — never told him that he needed a valid fishing license to be part of the team.

"I feel bad," he said. "I feel like a part of it was my fault. . . . I'm not the one who bought the boat and had a successful business life. I'm in college."