Tuna Tourney Celebrates Two Decades

OCEAN CITY – The hunt is on for the big tunas as the 20th Annual Ocean City Tuna Tournament returns this week with hundreds of boats and thousands of anglers searching for the burly behemoths in the canyons off the coast of the resort.

Tuna of all shapes, sizes and species are routinely being found at Ocean City marina and fishing docks, jumpstarting the summer offshore season and setting the tone for what could be a memorable tournament. The event got underway yesterday with a captain’s meeting and registration and the first of three fishing days is today.

The annual Ocean City Tuna Tournament, which turns 20 this year, is one of the highlights of the summer offshore tournament season each year, second only perhaps to the White Marlin Open in terms of prize money awarded and the number of boats and anglers participating. Thousands of spectators will cram into the Ocean City Fishing Center for the four-day event, which has become a celebration of fishing, food, live music and, of course, the daily weigh-ins at the scale.

From modest beginnings in 1988, when just 38 boats participated and a mere $9,000 in prize money was doled out to the winners, the Ocean City Tuna Tournament has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades. For example, last year 118 boats chugged out to the canyons off the coast to vie for the roughly $560,000 in prize money awarded. Over the three fishing days, 304 total fish were caught with a combined weight of 20,453 pounds.

While the Tuna Tournament might lack the prestige and glamour of the White Marlin Open set for next month in Ocean City, it does not lack excitement and suspense. It can be said the Tuna Tournament is the “beast” to the White Marlin Open’s “beauty.” Legend has it Captain Jim Whaley, back in the 1950s, would ask his charter customers if they were interested in fishing for beauty or beast, referring to marlin or tuna.

Longtime Baltimore Sun outdoor editor Bill Burton used to say white marlin are skinny and built for speed and out-of-the-water acrobatics, while the tuna’s shape suggests brute strength and stubbornness. “A tug of war is more to their liking, and at the end of a scrap with a tuna of moderate size, those on both ends of the rod and reel are equally worn out,” Burton once wrote.

At stake again this year in the 20th Annual Ocean City Tuna Tournament are hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money in several categories. As the name suggests, the event is largely about tuna, but there will also be prize money awarded in several other categories including billfish and dolphin, for example. The tuna tournament will award cash prizes in two major categories: the largest single fish brought to the scale at the Ocean City Fishing Center; and the most total pounds caught over the three fishing days.

Captains must choose to fish two of the three scheduled fishing days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and the suspense builds as the leaderboard changes with each passing day and sometimes each passing hour. Last year, for example, the crew aboard the “Pretty Work” with Captain John Oughton got the action started early with a 182-pound bluefin weighed early on the first day that briefly held the top spot in the single heaviest fish category. The “Pretty Work” also held the top spot in the total weight division after the first day, but its grip on the top spot in each category was short-lived.

Captain Keith Robinson and the crew aboard the “R&R” came in with a 187-pound bluefin to take over the top spot in the heaviest fish category, and several other boats come in with more total weight over the remaining fishing days of the tournament, but when the dust settled after the final day, it was the “Pretty Work” that took the tournament’s biggest prize.

The 187-pound bluefin caught and weighed by the “R&R” held on to take first place in the single heaviest fish division and was rewarded with a check for $70.453. However, the “Pretty Work” took second place in the division and was awarded a tournament-high $238,382 by virtue of being in all of the added entry levels. Third place in the single heaviest fish division went to the crew aboard the “Our Dream” with a 167-pound bluefin tuna worth $46,027 in prize money.

The leader board in the heaviest total weight division changed several times throughout the three-day tournament as more and more fish were brought to the scales each day. By the end of the tournament on Sunday, it was the crew of the “Wound Up” taking first place in the division with 691 total pounds worth $105,891. The crew on the “MoJo” with Captain Joe O’Boyle took second place in the heaviest total weight division with 613 total pounds and was awarded a check for $47,301, while the crew aboard the “Lazy Bones” took third in the division and earned $31,534 for their effort.

While the focus of the annual tuna tournament is obviously on the fishing, there are several events coordinated with the daily weigh-ins at the fishing center which have a broad appeal for even the casual fan of offshore fishing. Dockside parties, fashion shows, kid-friendly activities, vendors, plenty of good food and drink and live entertainment make the annual event as much a summer celebration as a fishing tournament.