The biggest area top-water fundraiser benefiting underwater infrastructure for the Gulf of Mexico is taking place Saturday.

The 22nd annual Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association’s Kingfish Tournament offers prize money in several categories with a $3,000 payday for its top sport fish.

Changes to this year’s format mean that amateur anglers will have a chance to hit on a target weight fish and win money the same way that commercial captains and master division boats do with the monster kings expected to weigh in over the weekend.

“In our recreational division we changed the third-place kingfish to a random slot weight, between 9-19 pounds,” said MBARA president Bob Cox.

The weight will be announced during the Captain’s Party, to be held 7 p.m. ET Friday at Veteran’s Memorial Park at Beacon Hill.

“We have gotten a lot of good feedback on this change,” Cox said, “because it gives the smaller boats and less experienced fishermen a better chance at winning one of the top prizes in the competition among larger boats and more experienced fishermen that run much further offshore where more of the larger kingfish and Wahoo are found.

“We feel this will make the tournament more fun for everyone by balancing the opportunities to win.”

In past years up to 1,200 people have shown up to the captain’s meeting according to Mexico Beach charter captain Kevin Lanier with KC Sportfishing. This is where teams sign up, and win raffle prizes, too.

Giveaways include a signature shotgun and custom rod packages plus a $1,000 gift certificate at Bluewater Outriggers.

The tournament was founded as a fundraiser to support MBARA and its primary mission to build public, artificial reefs for use by fishermen, divers and snorkelers.

These activities are important to the local economy that puts people in hotels, restaurants, marinas, bait and tackle shops.

In the Panhandle alone, artificial reefs have a $415 million annual impact, creating 8,100 jobs and $84 million in wages according to the MBARA.

Reefs also create new habitat that enhances fisheries, and eco-tourism.

“So far this year we built seven new reefs,” said Cox, “Bringing our total to over 300. We usually net $40,000-$50,000 from this tournament for construction projects.”

Lanier said, “Sponsorship for MBARA is growing across the country. They took a desert and turned it into a fish haven using as close to natural material as possible. They then allow it to keep creating itself.”

Lanier remembers one family who participated in MBARA’s Memorial Reef program.

“I had the privilege of taking them out next to the barge, where they lowered their loved one’s ashes,” he said. “After we placed it on bottom, I pulled up over the reef, to see it on my depth finder. It was very moving.”

The program also allows families to buy existing reefs and name them. Lanier donated trips last year toward the veterans’ reef for those who can’t afford a reef but would like someone remembered.

Tournament anglers can also donate their catch that will be collected by, Water Street Seafood, and sold with monies donated to Franklin’s Promise Coalition in Apalachicola.

Lanier, whose team had the winning number until the last minutes of the 2017 contest says he will have a Tyndall Air Force Base crew and they will fly the flags high above his boat.

“It’s a real community feeling,” he said. “We’ve got them snowed ... when in reality, 80-percent is actually leaving the dock. Anybody on any day, can catch a 10-pound king on the buoy lines.”

Fishing begins at 5 a.m. CT Saturday from Mexico Beach, Panama City or Port St. Joe, and weigh-ins end at 5 p.m. CT Saturday at the Mexico Beach Marina. There is a captain’s breakfast, at Sharon’s Café, from 5-6 a.m. CT Saturday.

If you want to be involved, without fishing the tournament, MBARA meetings are held the first Thursday night of each month at the Mexico Beach Community Center at 5:30 p.m. CT.