24th OC Tuna Tournament on Tap

OCEAN CITY- The 24th Annual Ocean City Tuna Tournament returns next week with dozens of boats and hundreds of anglers expected to descend on the resort area for a three-day search for the burly behemoths in the canyons off the coast.

The tuna bite has been red hot thus far this season with Ocean City’s sportfishing fleet returning to the docks nearly every single day with flags flying high and fish boxes full of tuna, setting up would should be a memorable 2011 Ocean City Tuna Tournament. The event gets underway next Thursday with a captain’s meeting and late registration at the host Ocean City Fishing Center in West Ocean City before the first of three fishing days next Friday, July 15.

The annual Ocean City Tuna Tournament 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 and fishing enthusiasts 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 was doled out to the winners, the Ocean City Tuna Tournament has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two-plus decades. For example, last year nearly 70 boats competed in the 2010 tournament and just shy of $350,000 in prize money was doled out to the winners in several categories.

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.

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 suspense built all weekend as the teams that weighed big fish early in the tournament watched as boat after boat unloaded their catches at the scales.

Participating boats can get lines in the water on each of the three fishing days at 7:30 a.m. and the tackle must be out of the water each day by 3 p.m. Crowds start forming around the scale at the Ocean City Fishing Center on each of the three days as the suspense begins to mount. The scale closes each day at 7:30 p.m., with the exception of the last day of fishing, when it closes at 7 p.m. The awards are handed out shortly after the scales close at the end of the tournament on Sunday.

The tournament’s top prize last year went to the crew aboard the “Canyon Blues,” which won the heaviest total weight category with 597 pounds worth $162,257. The crew on the “Darlin” took second in the heaviest total weight category with 507 pounds and was awarded $3,880, while the crew on the “Rhonda’s Osprey” took third with 506 total pounds, but was awarded $33,187 in prize money because of added entry levels.

The crew on the “Topless” took first place in the single heaviest tuna division with a 79-pounder worth $64,022, the third largest payout in the tournament. The “Fin Chaser” was second with a 78-pound tuna worth $11,913, while the “Let It Ride” crew took third in the single heaviest fish category with a 75-pounder worth $24,929.

In the dolphin category, angler Glen Heitman on the “Playmate” took first with a 32-pounder worth $2,500. Angler Ron Care on the “Billfisher” was second with a 28-pound dolphin worth $1,000, while John Conrad on the “D.A. Sea” took third with a 23-pounder worth $500.

The top lady angler in the tournament was Valerie Dunn on the “D.A. Sea” with a 64-pound tuna worth $1,500. Angler Charlie Gravina on the “Let It Ride” was the top junior angler with a 75-pound tuna, which was also the third place single heaviest tuna. Eathan Spencer on the “Wayne’s World” was the second place junior angler, with brothers Russell and Matthew Crim on the “Canyon Blues” tied for third with a pair of 65-pound tuna.

As the name suggests, the event is largely about tuna, but there will also be prize money awarded next week 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.