The Big O team has competed in the Babylon Tuna...

The Big O team has competed in the Babylon Tuna Club's Invitational Tuna Tournament since 2003. Pictured from left to right are: Charlie Vogel, 55; James O'Rourke, 20; Luke Merz, 19; and captain of the boat, Jim O'Rourke, 55, all of Babylon. (July 26, 2012) Credit: Amanda Ostuni

Joe Vanderveldt has been a supporter of the Babylon Tuna Club's Invitational Tuna Tournament since he was young, and hopes to one day bring his own kids to enjoy the festivities.

The 56th annual fishing tournament kicked off Thursday night, and will run through Sunday evening. Held at the Babylon Village Municipal Dock on Fire Island Avenue, more than 3,000 participants and spectators are expected to attend.

"It's good for the community ... it brings people out to appreciate the water," said Vanderveldt, 20, of Babylon.

Brian Legerlotz, chairman of the Babylon Tuna Club -- started in 1939 -- said the club has tried to make the tournament a festive community event by bringing in vendors selling food and trinkets, live music and entertainment for children.

Legerlotz said what makes the competition unique is its charity aspect; the revenue from the sale of the fish caught by competitors is given to the American Legion Post No. 94 in Babylon, an organization that helps active troops and veterans. The legion raised more than $5,000 in last year's tournament, Legerlotz said.

"When we saw what was happening in the world and how the troops were doing, we thought it was important to support them," said Legerlotz, 53, of Lindenhurst.

Dressed in their red uniforms decorated with military emblems, Tom Horn, Gene Hartmann and Phil Gomez, represented the legion at the tournament’s opening day ceremony.

As part of the event, 14-year-old Destiny Parsons, of Deer Park, sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” The ceremony ended with a wreath laying on the water to honor fallen soldiers.

Babylon residents Jim Flynn, 41, and his teammate Anthony Romano, 43, have been competing in it since they were teenagers. Flynn remembers catching a 585-pound mako shark when he was 16, but he didn’t make it back in time for the last weigh-in.

Legerlotz said about 15-18 boats are expected to compete in this year’s tournament.

The teams can fish any day during the competition but must report to weigh-ins between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. After the last weigh-in on Sunday at 7 p.m., there will be a ceremony to distribute cash prizes to the winners of each category. The minimum cash prize for the winner of the overnight boat category is $ 5,000; the minimum for the dayboat and inshore categories is $ 2,500.

Captain of the boat “Big O”, Jim O'Rourke, 55 of Babylon, and his teammates Luke Merz, 19, James O'Rourke, 20, and Charlie Vogel, 55, know this is always anyone's game, as they once lost first place with the very last weigh-in.

"That's why fishing is fishing," said Vogel, of Babylon. "You never know whose line is gonna get a bite."

But Vogel is just happy to be a part of it.

"We look forward to enjoying ourselves and hopefully bringing back a fish to donate to a worthy cause."

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