Local Defies Odds, Hooks Top Prize On Final Day

OCEAN CITY – Long-time Ocean City businessman, high school coach and angler Scott “Spunky” Lathroum, after years of laboring behind the scenes of the world’s largest offshore fishing tournament, earned his moment in the sun last week, catching a 95-pound white marlin on the last day of the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 to stun the big crowd at Sunset Marina and take the event’s top prize.

With Hurricane Bill threatening, most observers thought the Cape May, N.J.-based 2009 MA500 was a done deal when the scales closed after a flurry of late action last Thursday. Of the 136 boats entered in the tournament, just 11 still had a fishing day left last Friday including the “Topless” out of Harbour Island with owner Scott Steele, Captain Chris Martin and the crew. With the storm brewing off the coast, most of the boats entered in the tournament scrambled to get their last day in on Thursday, but the crew on the “Topless” was one of just a few out in less than stellar conditions and was rewarded with a new tournament-record 95-pound white marlin worth over $650,000.

Late Thursday, the “Top Notch” out of New Jersey stood atop the white marlin leaderboard with an 81-pounder, while the Ocean City-based “Phat Mann” and the New Jersey-based “Sea Mistress” sat in second with matching 78-pounders. However, the captain and crew on the “Top Notch” graciously removed their 81-pounder from contention when it was revealed after the fish was weighed it had ice in its throat that could have changed the outcome.

When the “Topless” crew left Harbour Island early Friday morning, they believed 81 pounds was the mark to beat to steal the tournament’s top prize on the last day. What they didn’t realize, however, is that they would soon be hooked up with a fish that would shatter the leaderboard, ice or no ice.

Lathroum and his family have run the Reel Inn at Harbour Island, host of the annual White Marlin Open, for years and he has seen more than his share of big fish from both the scales at the marina and the cockpit of a large sportfishing boat. Last Friday, he found himself on the business end of a rod with a 95-pound white marlin worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on the other end in arguably the second biggest fishing tournament in the resort area each summer, with all due respect to the Tuna Tournament and the Shark Tournament.

Now for years, the MA500 was essentially a New Jersey tournament, but the event has taken on a decidedly Ocean City flair in recent years with the winning white marlin weighed at Sunset Grille on the last day of the tournament in each of the last three years. The MA500 tournament began 17 years ago in Cape May, but five years ago, it opened Sunset Marina in Ocean City as a sister port and much of the history in the last few years has been made here.

Lathroum said the “Topless” crew knew the hurricane was coming and the seas were already a little rough, but they were not deterred from making an effort to repeat history and hop onto the leaderboard. The “Topless” crew knew 81 pounds was the number to beat and actually released a smaller white marlin and saw a few more before hooking up with the eventual 95-pounder.

“We knew any white we caught had to beat 81 pounds or it was going back in the water,” he said. “I was fishing the left side like I usually do when I saw what looked like a shadow on the left dredge. I stared at it for about a minute and the other guys were saying things like ‘yeah right’ and ‘whatever’ when Scott [Steele] said ‘there he is on the left flat coming in fast’.”

Lathroum said he fed the white the bait and the fish started to run when he encountered a little problem known to almost every angler called a “professional overrun” in technical terms, but a “minor bird’s nest” in layman’s terms. While Lathroum was struggling to undo the bird’s nest, the big white continued to run away from the boat until something had to give.

“I was yanking on the line to try to relieve the bird’s nest,” he said. “Finally, I yanked so hard I think I pulled the bait right out of the fish. Just like that, we though it was gone, but it came racing back into the baits like it was pissed off. He was really lit up and we fed him a second time, so really, we got a second chance at him.”

Lathroum said the big white jumped about a hundred yards or so from the boat, but the “Topless” crew didn’t really get a good look at it until he had made up some ground. With the “Topless” backing down on the fish and Lathroum in the middle of the soup trying to pull the big white closer, it jumped again and they knew they had something special hooked up. It was then they realized they had another problem, but it turned out to be a blessing.

“It continued to take line when we realized it was now tail-wrapped,” said Lathroum. “That might of worked out in our favor. Eventually, we just wore him down and he came in pretty easily after that. We opened the tuna door and a swell just floated him into the boat.”

So far, the “Topless” crew had overcome the bird-nested spool and the tail-wrapped fish, but there were still other problems to overcome. For example, the ice machine on the “Topless” had broken down and there was no way to keep the big white cool for the hour-and-a-half or so until it could be brought to the scale at Sunset Marina.

“We found a blanket and wrapped it up tight and just kept hosing it down with cool water for the rest of the day,” he said. “It was way too early to head in, so we just tried a little blue marlin fishing for a while until it was time to head in.”

Lathroum said the “Topless” crew knew it had a special fish based on the standard measurements taken at sea, but they had no idea at first it was as big as it turned out to be.

“It was about 73 inches long, so we said ‘that fish is staying in the boat’,” he said. “It had a 30-inch girth around its middle and an 11-12-inch girth all the way down to the tail, so we knew it was at least an 80-pounder.”

When the “Topless” did get into Sunset Marina and weighed their big white, it topped out at 95 pounds, setting a new tournament record by edging the 92-pound whites that won the tournament on the last day in 2007 and 2008. For the record, the 95-pounder eclipsed the 93.5-pound white that won the White Marlin Open this year, and that fish was the largest white weighed during the WMO in almost 30 years.

When the “Topless” crew ran the 95-pounder up the scale at Sunset Marina, family, friends, fishing fans and curious onlookers celebrated the new champion worth over $650,000. Lathroum’s wife Angie was waiting at the dock, but she had no idea what her husband and the “Topless” crew had on board.

“We all agreed it was bad luck to call anybody on shore and tell them what we had,” he said. “I did call [my wife] Angie and told her to get over to Sunset, but I didn’t say anything about a big white marlin. She kept asking me what was going on, but I wouldn’t give it up. We’re all superstitious like that.”

Fishermen are naturally a superstitious lot and while it might be bad luck to talk about a potential winning fish, it is often considered good luck to do the same things, eat the same foods or wear the same clothing when trying to duplicate a big accomplishment. The “Topless” crew had a little of the latter going for it last Friday when they landed the big white marlin.

“Scott Steele always wears this tie-dyed tank top on the last day of a fishing tournament and he had it on again last Friday,” said Lathroum. “Well, the night before, I had my kids tie-dye some Reel Inn shirts for us. We didn’t have any tank tops left, and I brought them on the boat with me. When Scott went into the cabin, I distributed them everybody on the boat, and when he came back out, we were all wearing them. It worked out for us.”

Lathroum, who is an assistant boys’ varsity lacrosse coach at Stephen Decatur, joins another Seahawk coach in the pantheon of local fishing lore. Junior varsity football coach Tommy Hinkle won the White Marlin Open in 2008. Lathroum also joins fellow Ocean City restaurateur Terry Layton among the leaders in the summer tournament series this year. Layton and his crew on the “Nontypical” won or had a hand in just about every major tournament this summer.