Note: Bobby Cleveland covered the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo as a reporter for nearly 25 years. This is the first in a series of his favorite stories as the 66th annual event approaches July 3-6.

They stood out in the crowd, the man dressed in a black tux and the woman in a full-length gown. Formal wear is not normal attire for the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, where tank tops, cut-offs and flip-flops are considered proper dress and where a string or thong bikini made out of a Confederate flag is acceptable and, on the appropriate body, truly appreciated and could even rate a salute.

As they approached the weigh-in area, all eyes were on the man carrying a small ice chest in one hand and a cocktail in the other. His wife wasn’t carrying anything except a frown, and an obvious desire to avoid all things fishy, which is difficult at an event that celebrates just that.

She was standing in an area where it was concentrated, too. Already that day, fishermen had registered hundreds of fish. They had brought them in by hand, by wheelbarrow and by ice chest. Others, with larger species too big to transport otherwise, had arrived with their fish in the backs of pick-up trucks or on the decks of boats that had been trailered to the gate. All of them came in dripping of fish slime.

Once at the site, the fish were picked up and placed on scales, one at a time, and the bigger ones hung by the lip until pictures were taken. Fish moved as quickly around the weigh-in area as they once did in feeding frenzies in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

So there was no shortage of fish slime. It was everywhere, on everything and dripping from Rodeo workers, just waiting to latch on to something — like a full-length gown.

Imagine that poor woman’s predicament: One moment, she was in a car riding to her niece’s wedding and the next she was standing in line at the scales of an event that bills itself as the “World’s Largest Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo.”

She was holding the hem of her gown in both hands, hiking it up out of the muddy puddles of slime, and moving around as carefully as a soldier in a minefield.

Of course, her husband was as happy as could be. He raised his cocktail, swirling the brown liquid in the glass and causing the ice to tinkle against the side. He took a sip as the weighmaster removed a bluegill from his ice chest and placed it on the scale. Tuxedo man’s grin was worth a million bucks, even if his fish wasn’t.

It weighed a pound, a big bluegill for sure, but far short of the weight needed to win a prize at the Rodeo. That didn’t matter one bit to the fisherman, who reveled in his formal glory. He had the attention of all those present, including his wife, whose frown had turned to a look of horror.

“Why,” the man was asked, “would you come by here to weigh a fish dressed like that on your way to a wedding?”

“Quite simple,” he said. “I bet it’ll be a long time before she (his wife, who was now backed into a corner of a fence to avoid a bloody jack crevalle being toted around in a wheelbarrow) drags me to a wedding in the middle of the Rodeo.”

Welcome to the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo and to the wonderful tales it has created throughout its 66-year history. 

It started in the post World War II period, when a group of coastal citizens with boats were recruited to help the Coast Guard patrol the Mississippi Sound. While they patrolled, they fished, and they soon began making small bets on who would catch the most and biggest fish. Later, with the help of the local American Legion Post, the fishermen went from betting amongst themselves to holding a competition open to all anglers. That was in 1947 and the first Rodeo was staged in 1948.

In the years since, always over the Fourth of July holiday, the event has grown into one of the south’s largest celebrations of the birth of the country, and Mississippi’s biggest celebration to the sport of fishing. It is the state’s “Official Fishing Event,” a moniker first given by Gov. Hugh White in 1953 and renewed annually by all governors since. 

It has grown from a competition among a few boat owners in the early 50s to its status as one of the top 10 regional tourist attractions, an award presented by the Southeastern Tourist Administration. Disney World in Orlando and Mardi Gras in New Orleans are two of the other nine, Rodeo officials are quick to point out.

The Rodeo has evolved as it has grown, and no changes were more needed or more welcomed by fishermen than a conservation movement in the early 80s. In the Rodeo’s first 30 years, the emphasis was on catching the most fish possible, and the grand prizes were saved for fishermen who brought in the most edible fish in numbers and weight. Fish, like red snapper, were often seen rotting in piles behind the scales.

Over the past 35 years, the Rodeo has emphasized quality of catch. Fishermen are limited in the number of fish they can enter, depending on species, in a single day, and all fish must conform to federal and state limits.

But there is one very important facet of the Rodeo that has never changed, and it is what has made it such a popular event. Fishing is free.

It costs nothing to enter the competition, which, in combination with the fact that you can win a prize for a horrifying shark or a hand-sized freshwater panfish, makes it a contest for the everyman. The number of registered participants averages about 3,000 annually, with as many as 7,000 in some years.

In 2004, Sports Illustrated named the Rodeo Mississippi’s No. 1 sporting event. That may be a stretch, but the truth is that the Rodeo has produced the state’s most entertaining fish tales.

The fish may be the stars of the Rodeo, but the best stories will always be the people who enter or visit the World’s Largest Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo.

No matter how they come dressed.