OCEAN CITY — The resort 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 42nd Annual White Marlin Open.
For over four decades, the White Marlin Open, deemed the largest billfish tournament in the world, has been one of the highlights of the summer season in Ocean City, a sort of crescendo before the gradual downward slide into mid-August and the end 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 million dollar fish raised at the scale.
After a sluggish economy had a decided impact on the number of boats participating for a few years, the number has started to slowly increase again in recent years. Last year, 288 sportfishing boats from all over the country and beyond participated in the 2014 WMO and founder and organizer Jim Motsko expects that number to increase again this year. As of mid-week, the tournament was on target to exceed 300 boats with the biggest sign-up days yet to come.
“Things are jumping right now and everything is going relatively smooth,” said Motsko on Wednesday. “As long as the weather stays decent, we’re on track for what should be one of the best tournaments in recent memory.”
Motsko said after 262 boats participated in 2013 and 288 last year, early registration figures appear to be on track to push past the 300 mark.
“Right now, we’re about the same as last year, but we’re expecting the numbers to increase on Saturday and Sunday,” he said. “We’re expecting more than the 288 we had last year and hoping for over 300. Everything is pointing to that.”
Motsko said the area marinas in Ocean City, West Ocean City, Indian River and beyond were already filling up as of mid-week, particularly those with slips large enough to accommodate the big boats in the tournament, but many of the smaller boats are waiting on the forecast and will likely sign up over the weekend prior to the first fishing day on Monday.
“Most of the marinas are completely full,” he said. “Basically, we’re maxed out on space for the big boats and those slips are already spoken for. We’re expecting some of the smaller boats to fill in the ranks through the weekend and if we have a good weather forecast, those participant numbers should go up.”
Needless to say, as the number of boats increases, so does the anticipated purse amount for the 2015 tournament. With a variety of added entry skill levels ranging from as low as $50 to as high as $10,000, along with new small boat categories, there is something for every boat size and budget. In addition, the WMO has added a daily tuna category this year, which could enhance the fishing for that species. Last year, a couple of big-eye tunas set the bar high early in the tuna category and many boats didn’t target them the rest of the week.
“With the added entry levels and other additions, we expect the payout will exceed $3 million,” said Motsko. “That’s the hope and it looks like we’re on track to do that.”
Every year around this time, rumors start circulating about the future of the White Marlin Open at its current host marina in Harbour Island, and every year the event organizers attempt to put the rumors to rest. While suggesting he has no intention of moving the event in the future to larger marinas in West Ocean City, an almost constant source of speculation among the fishing community, Motsko did say this week he is currently without a long-term lease.
“Our current lease runs through next year, 2016,” he said. “Typically, we’re a couple years ahead in terms of having a lease in place, but I haven’t seen it yet. We certainly don’t expect not to get one.”
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 early Monday morning, the first of five official fishing days. 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 fishing days and boats and participating captains and teams of anglers will carefully choose which three of the five days to fish.
Each tournament is uniquely different and this year will likely be no exception. In some years, the winning white marlin is caught on the very first day and the angler and crew wait out the tense remaining days to see if their fish will hold up and collect the million dollar-plus top prize. In other years, the winning white is raised at the scale at the last hour on the 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.
Last year, the biggest buzz around host Harbour Island was if and not when a qualifying white marlin or even blue marlin would be weighed. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. On day one alone, there were 100 white marlin caught and released, setting the tone for the early part of WMO week, but as of mid-week, the white marlin leaderboard remained empty with just a few that didn’t meet the minimum 70-pound weight requirement raised at the scale. In fact, there wasn’t a single qualifying white or blue marlin on the leaderboard as of mid-week last year.
As each day passed, it remained uncertain if there would be a qualifying white marlin, but that all changed in the matter of about two-and-half hours on Thursday, also known as “moving day” around the tournament. Before the scale even opened on Thursday, the word spread there were a bunch of boats waiting to bring in their catch and the buzz around the marina grew as 4 p.m. approached.
The “Melina” was waiting at the scale about an hour before it opened with a white marlin in the boat. However, while the fish met the minimum length requirements, it weighed in at around 65 pounds, falling short of the minimum 70 pounds, and the billfish drought continued. However, around 4:15 p.m., the “Gratitude” rolled up to the dock with a big blue marlin on board.
After the scale master made the requisite measurements, the big blue marlin was pulled from the boat and it didn’t come easily. When it was finally hoisted at the scale, it topped out at 738 pounds, becoming the first qualifying billfish of the tournament on Day 4. The blue was caught by angler Sam Lancellota of Ellicott City and the “Gratitude” is out of Virginia Beach. The big blue held up for the last two days and the aptly named “Gratitude” took home that division’s top prize of over $511,000.
With a big blue marlin on the leaderboard, the excitement grew as the boats waiting to get to the scale lined up in the harbor. Around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday last year, the “Dream Time” out of Manteo, N.C. pulled into the scale with a white to weigh. The “Dream Time” had released four white marlin on Tuesday and headed back to the same general spot on Thursday, their second day of fishing.
The white marlin were still there and the “Dream Time” had two more releases before landing a white that they felt had a good chance to break the ice, and get onto the leaderboard. The big white topped out at 78 pounds, sending up a loud cheer from the huge crowd of thousands of spectators at Harbour Island. After three days of near misses and lost opportunities, the 2014 WMO had its first white marlin on the board.
Angler John Bayliss of Manns Harbour, N.C. caught the big 78-pounder, but the crew on the “Dream Time” had to wait out one more day of fishing with all but 18 of the 288 registered boats out in the canyons looking for a challenger. When the dust settled, it was Bayliss and the “Dream Time” taking first place in the white marlin division with the one and only qualifier weighed during the tournament. The total prize money for the 78-pound white came in at just under $1.3 million.
Conversely, the tuna division was all but wrapped up on day one with all of the eventual winners being weighed on Monday. Angler Doug Mazullo on the “Constant Threat” took the top prize in the division with a 183-pounder and earned $2,000 in prize money. However, angler Mike Kalajain on the “Plane Simple” took second with a 182-pounder, but earned $397,863 in prize money because of added entry levels. The “Plane Simple” earned the third highest payout during the tournament. Angler Greg Melera on the “Pez Machine” took third with a 180-pounder and earned $69,210. The “Pez Machine” also took fourth place with a 178-pounder caught by angler Mark Reitter and earned another $26,884 for the vessel. The “Burn N Bills” out of Ocean City took fifth with a 170-pounder and earned $62,040.
On Wednesday last year, angler Eric Seigel and the crew on the “Trophy Hunter” weighed a 38-pound dolphin, good enough for first place in the division and $15,656 in prize money. In the Wahoo Division, angler Kenny Lord on the “Iceman” weighed a 66-pounder on Tuesday and earned $33,640 in prize money. Paul Gentry on the “Shadowfax” took second in the division and earned $32,640. The one and only shark weighed during the tournament was a 156-pounder caught by angler Spencer Watson on the “Edge Rider II” and earned $6,500.