OCEAN CITY — With a few new wrinkles, Ocean City will once again become the epicenter of the sportfishing universe next week when thousands of anglers and spectators cram into the resort for the 48th Annual White Marlin Open.
For the past 47 years, the White Marlin Open (WMO), deemed the largest and richest billfish tournament in the world, has been one of the highlights of the summer. Last year’s WMO was decidedly different with changes and limitations because of COVID-19.
For example, while the potential winners were weighed at the scale at host Harbour Island, just as it had been done for decades, spectators were not allowed to gather around the scale. There was still plenty of activity around the marina as the boats weighing fish came and went, but there were no big throngs packed around the scale because of the pandemic.
Last August, with COVID-related restrictions on distancing and gathering sizes still in effect, the WMO organizers came up with a modified plan to open a venue for spectators at the downtown recreation complex between 3rd and 4th streets on the bay. The downtown venue included a large LED screen streaming the weigh-ins from host Harbour Island and open waterfront areas along the bay from which spectators could view the boats returning to the scales along with other amenities.
This year, despite COVID restrictions being eased and the state-of-emergency expired, WMO officials are bringing back a bigger and better version of the same concept. There is an expected return to normalcy at host Harbour Island this year during the White Marlin Open with COVID restrictions being eased, but tournament officials are bringing back Marlin Fest to the downtown recreation complex.
Marlin Fest is proposed to complement the annual tournament at Harbour Island, not replace it. The event will offer an alternative to spread out and enjoy the tournament in a wide open, COVID-safe, family friendly atmosphere. The event will include a free, festival-like atmosphere at the park with live-streaming of the weigh-ins from tournament host Harbour Island at 14th Street, expansive views for the participating boats returning, numerous vendors, live entertainment each night and food and beverage sales including alcohol this year.
Last year, nothing changed in terms of the tournament itself and the daily weigh-ins were held at Harbour Island just as they have been for decades. While things were certainly different on the land, the 2020 WMO was memorable for a lot of reasons in terms of what was happening offshore and at the scale.
Despite the pandemic, a total of 433 boats and over 3,500 registered anglers participated last year. The 2020 WMO paid out over $6.8 million in prize money. This year, the tournament has added a $20,000 winner-take-all category for white marlin and the total purse is expected to soar to over $8 million.
Last year, the top prize for first-place in the signature white marlin category went to angler Brandon Golueke and the crew on the Canyon Blues with a whopping 97-pounder worth $1.85 million. Second-place in the white marlin division went to angler Taylor Fields on the Drillin & Billin with a 77-pounder worth $1.76 million. Another big payout last year went to angler Travis Ort on the Restless Lady II for the second-place tuna, a 114-pounder worth $1.4 million.
The WMO gets underway next Monday, the first of five official fishing days, and runs through next Friday. Captains and crews must decide to fish three of the five scheduled days. The scale at Harbour Island opens at 4 p.m. each day and closes at 9:15 p.m.