OCEAN CITY — Ocean City will once again become the center of the sportfishing universe on Monday when hundreds of anglers and thousands of spectators gather in the resort for the 41st Annual White Marlin Open.
The White Marlin Open is annually one of the highlights of the summer season in Ocean City, a kind of crescendo before the downward slide into mid-August and the close of another summer season. Thousands of fishing enthusiasts will cram into host Harbour Island marina each day next week for a chance to see a potential million dollar fish raised at the scale. Over 300 boats typically compete in the annual tournament, recognized as one of the top and richest billfish tournaments in the world.
Just as they have for decades, hundreds of spectators will line the seawall at the Inlet to watch the parade of boats chugging out to the canyons off the coast on Monday, weather permitting.
Much has changed since angler Vince Soranson won the first White Marlin Open with a 68-pounder way back in 1974, but much has remained the same. The tournament gets underway on Monday with the first of five official fishing days and participating captains and teams of anglers choose to fish three of the five days.
As of mid-week, the roster of boats registered for this year’s tournament had started to fill out, according to tournament founder and director Jim Motsko. Last year, 262 boats competed in the tournament and it appeared as of mid-week that figure might be eclipsed.
“We can’t complain,” he said. “We’re a little bit ahead of where we were last year, but we really won’t know until Sunday night. Everything is looking pretty good right now though.”
Motsko said everything is business as usual for the tournament this year with the notable exception of a stated rule change. After a considerable uproar in the local fishing community about the relatively new trend of using live bait to target billfish, Motsko on Monday posted a rule change banning the use of live bait for billfish during the tournament. He posted the rule change on the WMO website on Monday.
“With the intention of preserving sportsmanship, rewarding angling skills and billfish conservation, the intentional use of live bait and/or live bait teasers in the attempt to catch billfish is not allowed,” the statement reads.
Motsko said the WMO has always followed IGFA rules, which allow live bait, but concerns raised by the local sportfishing community prompted the rule change.
“It’s never really been an issue until recently,” he said. “Let’s just say people have found a little different way to catch billfish. After a million calls and emails, I decided this week to state the rule change. It’s always kind of been an unwritten rule, but now it’s officially on the books.”
In some years, the winning fish in the signature white marlin category is caught on the first day and hangs on all week as challenger after challenger are brought to the scale. In other years, the winning fish is brought to the scale at Harbour Island at the 11th hour on the tournament’s last day.
In either case, there is never any shortage of drama in the tournament with millions in prize money at stake in several categories, including, of course, white marlin, blue marlin, tuna, dolphin, wahoo and shark. Thus far, after a lukewarm start, the offshore fishing season in Ocean City has started to heat up in the last few weeks as evidenced by the remarkable big-eye tuna bite during the inaugural Big Fish Classic last weekend. In the last week or so, the number of reported billfish release has spiked up and wahoo have started making appearances around the marinas as the resort’s sportfishing fleet has started to gear up for the tournament.
Last year featured one of the most unusual white marlin categories in recent memory with the winning crew fishing from a different boat after problems with their own vessel. There were also three 77-pounders tied for first place in the division after the first two days. On Tuesday, the crew on the “Billfisher” broke the ice with a 77-pounder that temporarily took the top spot on the white marlin leaderboard. On Wednesday, a stir was created when two 77-pounders were weighed within a short period of time to create an unprecedented three-way tie in the signature white marlin division.
Before the big crowd that had gathered at host Harbour Island could wrap their heads around the possibility of a three-way tie for the first time ever in tournament history, the crew from the “Kingfisher,” who were fishing on the “Odinspear” after their own vessel experienced problems, rolled into the scale with another big white marlin to weigh.
When the “Kingfisher” crew’s white marlin was raised at the scale, it registered 83 pounds, knocking the three competitors tied at 77 pounds down the leaderboard. Angler Tom Jones and the “Kingfisher” then had to sweat out the remaining two days of the tournament to see if their 83-pounder would stand up and claim the WMO’s top prize.
On Thursday, 191 of the tournament’s 262 participating boats were out in the canyons in search of a white marlin to unseat Jones and the “Kingfisher,” but only one real challenger was brought to the scale, remarkably another 77-pounder caught by angler Richard Kornahrens on the “Lights Out.” With just 39 boats fishing on Friday, the WMO’s last day, no real threat challenged the “Kingfisher,” which held on to claim the tournament’s top prize.
When all was said and done, Jones and the “Kingfisher” crew took first in the white marlin division and earned over $1.2 million in prize money. Because no qualifying blue marlin were weighed, that division’s prize money rolled into the white marlin pot and escalated the earnings for the top finishers.
While the “Kingfisher” crew, fishing aboard the “Odinspear,” took the top prize with an 83-pounder, three boats tied for second in the white marlin division with 77-pounders. Angler Debbie McCann on the “Sea Mistress,” along with angler Larry McKinley on the “Sea Toy” and Kornahrens on the “Lights Out” each earned $102,498 in prize money for their matching 77-pounders.
In the tuna division, a run of huge big-eyes set the stage for what was arguably the most dramatic division in the tournament. Going into the last day, angler Mark Donohue on the “Miss Annie” was sitting atop the leaderboard with a 261.5-pound big-eye caught on Thursday, while Michael Ajamian on the “Goin In Deep” was close behind with a 255.5-pounder weighed on the same day. However, the leaderboard was erased and rewritten with a late entry on the last day.
On Friday night, angler James Czaban and the crew on the “Sushi” backed up the scale with a huge big-eye that would top out at 276 pounds and shake up the leaderboard. In the end, it was Czaban and the “Sushi” crew claiming the top prize in the tuna division and a check for $573,850, while Donohue and the “Miss Annie” took second and earned $65,120. The “Goin In Deep” crew took third and earned $27,108, while angler John Coleman and the crew on the “Ocean Dan-Sar” took fourth with a 148.5-pounder and earned $46,060 because of the small boat Calcutta.
In the dolphin division, it was angler Jeff Collins on the “Why Not” taking first with a 34-pounder worth $14,726. Bill Gerlach on the “Billfisher” was second with a 33-pounder worth $3,433, Glenn Orr on the “G Force” was third with a 30.5-pounder worth $12,726, Greg Fellers on the “Incorrigible” was fourth with a 29.5-pounder worth $10,293, and the crews on the “Krazy Salts” and the “G Force” shared fifth with a pair of 25-pounders each worth $10,293.
In the wahoo division, angler John Simmonds on the “Streaker” took first with a 70-pounder worth $21,588. Deacon Burke on the “Kingfisher/Odinspear” was second with a 66-pounder worth $20,588, Brian Schlosser on the “Aquadance” was third with a 57.5-pounder worth $2,433, and James Shenk on the “Heavy Metal” was fourth with a 41-pounder worth $17,155.
In the shark division, angler Mike Peet on the “No Quarter” was first with a 133.5-pounder worth $4,933, while angler Joe West on the “Cotton Picker” was second with a 313-pounder worth $3,933. All in all, about $2.47 million in prize money was doled out to the winners in several categories.