Ocean City Marlin Club Marks 75 Years

OCEAN CITY — The venerable Ocean City Marlin Club, officially founded in 1936, although its roots date back a few years earlier to the creation of the Ocean City Inlet during a cataclysmic 1933 storm, turns 75 this week and will fete its decades-long history of fishing and conservation with a special celebration at its West Ocean City home for members.

Born out the creation of the Inlet during the famous 1933 storm, the Ocean City Marlin Club for the last 75 years has had its roots firmly in the conservation of the newfound industry in the resort. The 1933 storm cut the Inlet, separating Ocean City from the north end of what is now Assateague Island and creating open access to the fertile canyons offshore teaming with billfish, tuna and other species targeted by sport fishermen around the world.

When the Inlet was cut by the storm, it changed fishing in the resort area forever and a few hardy early captains realized even then the potential charter industry for Ocean City. Captain Frank Parsons is largely given credit for taking the very first charter through the new Inlet, reluctantly agreeing to take a couple fishing on his boat in the ocean. While Parson was the first, most of the credit for bringing big game sportfishing to Ocean City goes to brothers Jack and Paul Townsend, avid marlin fishermen who fished for the famed billfish off the coast of Florida and began to explore the waters off the coast of the resort in 1934.

The Townsends formed the resort’s Game Fish Association shortly thereafter to unite anglers of similar interests in the study of white marlin off the coast and their conservation. That association became to Ocean City Marlin Club in 1936 and the rest is history. While the new club was focused largely on catching white marlin in the waters off the coast of the resort, it was also founded in preserving the new fishery and began meticulous record keeping.

For example, in 1936, 175 white marlin were reportedly caught off the coast of Ocean City. The figure jumped to 781 by 1938 and an astounding 1,343 by 1939. With its newfound reputation as the “White Marlin Capital of the World,” Ocean City blossomed as countless marinas, docks and sheltered harbors sprouted up around the bayside of the resort to accommodate the ever-expanding sportfishing fleet.

Recognizing the rapidly increasing popularity of white marlin off the coast of Ocean City could overtax the newfound fishery, the Ocean City Marlin Club adopted a serious conservation ethic aimed at promoting the catch and release of the species. Now, 75 years later, club members are still adhering to those early principles.

“We have grown from a club that was primarily centered on organizing the local fishing fleet to an organization that is centered on the conservation of billfish as well as helping charities,” said charter captain and current Marlin Club President Franky Pettolina this week. “We also make sure to provide a fun atmosphere for our members to gather both during the season and in the off-season.”

Past-president Bill Regan, who shepherded the club through its last big expansion and a move to its new digs in West Ocean City, agreed the Marlin Club began as a means for the early sportfishing community in the resort to realize what they had and take steps to protect it.

“I think the most interesting thing about the club is that it started as a group of charter captains who had just recently found out what they had in terms of a business opportunity,” he said. “They started out getting together to set their rates for going out the new Inlet and fishing offshore. It wasn’t until sometime later that the sport fishermen, those who went offshore for marlin for the sport of it, started to get involved in the club.”

In the years since, the Marlin Club has become the de facto source of information about white marlin, their numbers off the mid-Atlantic coast and their migratory patterns. In some instances, the club’s records have been used by state and federal regulatory agencies.

“We’ve become the go-to organization for anything related to white marlin,” said Regan. “Those early members had the foresight to begin keeping meticulous records about the numbers being caught and when and where they we being caught. Some of that data was instrumental in not getting an endangered listing for white marlin.”

Pettolina agreed the Marlin Club’s record-keeping has created a historic account of the species off the coast over the years.

“We serve as the primary historian for Ocean City fishing,” he said. “It’s something the club has always done from the beginning.”

The original Ocean City Marlin Club was housed in a small building on Talbot Street where the dozen or so members would gather after a day of fishing to record their catches and tell and retell fish stories. The club eventually moved to a bigger location on Route 50 in West Ocean City before arriving at its glamorous new home near the commercial harbor.

“Those early members got the original building on Talbot Street and it was essentially a clubhouse where captains and anglers could meet and discuss fishing over a drink at the end of a day,” he said. “I don’t think those early founders ever imagined what the club has become with its 700-800 members.”

Seventy-five years later, club members new and old will gather at the facility for an anniversary celebration next Saturday.

“From the beginning, the club has had its roots in conservation,” said Regan. “Those early members knew they had something special and steps were taken to be sure it wasn’t exploited. They were tagging and releasing billfish even way back then.”