RALEIGH, N.C. - About four hours after the fishing charter boat Citation left dock on the Outer Banks to compete in one of the country's richest deep-sea fishing tournaments, crewmembers were in the fight of their lives. Something huge was hooked, but it was invisible to human sight as it dove for the ocean bottom about 27 miles off the North Carolina coast.
Five hours later they hauled up a monster, an 883-pound blue marlin. They knew the silvery-blue torpedo of muscle bigger than a bear would mean a huge payday in the June 2010 Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament when they recorded their catch in coastal Morehead City.
"When we finally saw it we couldn't believe it," the Citation's captain, Eric Holmes of Buxton, said at the time. "To catch a fish this big ... it's something. It really is. We got lucky and it's good to be lucky."
But their luck soured. The boat's owners landed in a fight for the $910,000 in prize money that continues Tuesday with arguments to North Carolina's Supreme Court.
Tournament officials disqualified the Citation's crew because the first mate, Peter Wann of Alexandria, Va., did not have a $30 North Carolina fishing license when the fish was hooked. His license was purchased while the Citation was still two hours out to sea and chugging toward a landing.
One of the Citation's owners said in 2010 that Wann thought the boat had a blanket license that covered the entire crew. The boat's lawyers also argue now that the fish was landed outside the state's territorial waters, which extend three miles from shore, and Wann's license was purchased while still in federal waters.
But the tournament rules state that a fishing license is required for everyone aboard a participating vessel, lawyers for the tournament and owners of the 2010 runner-up boat, Carnivore, argued. That rule was also emphasized at a pre-tournament meeting that Holmes and Wann did not attend.
"The guiding principle in all of the various tournaments that has existed from time immemorial is 'the rules are the rules,'" attorney Claud Wheatly III wrote in one Supreme Court filing. Wheatly represents the Carnivore's owners, who stand to divide $999,453 after taking the winner's share and part of the third-place money.
But Wheatly's long friendship and former business partnership with Superior Court Judge John Nobles Jr. are among the issues the Supreme Court will have to decide. The Citation's lawyers were never able to produce evidence that Nobles displayed any prejudice or bias, Wheatly said.
But the Supreme Court is hearing the case after a three-judge panel of the lower state appeals court issued a divided ruling over the lawyer-judge relationship in the county that has hosted the tournament for more than half a century.
Court of Appeals Judge Robert C. Hunter wrote in his minority opinion that it should not have been up to Nobles to decide whether another judge should hear the case because it would "allow a reasonable person to question the impartiality of the judge's ruling."
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio .