Photo by Scott Kerrigan
White Marlin, Orange Crush
Fishing the White Marlin Open isn’t the only way to have fun in Ocean City, Maryland.
The big-game fishing hot spots of the world are generally as glamorous as they are far-flung. Many entail long flights or passages to reach and promise unsurpassed fishing action rivaled only by the exotic cultures that thrive in their ports of call. Think of them: Kona, Guatemala, Madeira Island, The Great Barrier Reef, … Maryland. Yes, Maryland. That state you drove through that one time in college on your way up to visit your Aunt Gail in Poughkeepsie.
Ocean City, Maryland, is the kind of East Coast boardwalk town that Bruce Springsteen probably would have made hay with had he ever burned all the way down the Jersey Turnpike and parked his Camaro aboard the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, which services the municipality and its surrounding areas. The town occupies ten miles of a narrow barrier island and runs the gamut socioeconomically. It’s capped on its southern tip by the famous Ocean City Boardwalk, where tough guys in Steelers jerseys throw money at unwinnable carnival games, and the air is thick with the smell of fried whatever-you-want. Cruise north along Coastal Highway and you’ll notice family-oriented hotels and a vibrant nightlife. When I was there last August, one club advertised an appearance by Vinny Guadagnino of MTV’s Jersey Shore and had a line down the block of spray-tanned kids who were ostensibly more familiar with the ferry than Springsteen was. Keep going north and the clubs turn to wine bars and hotels morph into near-manses, every one of which seems to have a pair of pinny-wearing lax bros flicking a pigskin back and forth in the front yard. And everywhere there are crab shacks. Literally everywhere, as if some ancient titan had loaded up a giant shotgun with crab-shack pellets and fired it down at the town from on high.
Because that’s what Maryland does right? Crab cakes and football? Not so fast. After all, Ocean City’s nickname is “The White Marlin Capital of the World,” so named by no less an authority than Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself after he fished its waters on a record-breaking day in the 1930s (reports vary, but it appears that while oversized whites were hauled in all around him, the POTUS got skunked). In line with its proudly ordained moniker, every summer the town hosts the White Marlin Open, one of the most prestigious fishing tournaments in the world. In 2011, the festivities ran from August 8th to the 13th. With a combined purse of more than $2 million, it attracted a healthy 237 boats. The draw for the anglers was particularly strong after a record-setting 2010 season, which saw a boat named Billfisher catch 57 white marlin in one day. (See “Charter School” on page 44 to learn more about Billfisher’s captain.) In hopes of replicating that feat, most of the boats head out 60 to 80 miles offshore, to the bait-rich canyons where the whites congregate after following the eddies of warm water that branch out from the Gulf Stream like so many strands of ivy.
If you happen to be in town but aren’t actually fishing the tournament, as I was, then the place to be is the Harbour Island Marina, the official weigh-in site. The streets leading to the marina are jammed with vehicles, every other one a chunky-tired pickup with bumper stickers extolling the virtues of fishing, lacrosse, and the Republican Party. During weigh-in hours revelers weeble and wobble through the parked cars and slow-moving traffic with the unmistakable air of fans heading towards a stadium before the big game. When you finally arrive at the marina you’ll understand why. The weigh-in is an event. The atmosphere is similar to the raucous infield scenes found at big-time horse races. (In fact I’d bet dollars to donuts there’s a lot of attendee overlap with Baltimore’s Preakness Stakes.) The crowd is fueled by Orange Crushes, a potent vodka-based cocktail native to Ocean City. They mob the docks and crane their heads in herd-like unison as the boats return, their mates flat-footed on broad foredecks, ropy forearms crossed in a gesture of either pride or defensiveness, often correlative to the number of fish flags flapping from their outriggers.
This year few would be disappointed. Organizers were apprehensive because they had raised the minimum catch weight for whites from 65 pounds to 70—the risk, of course, being the possibility of no keepers. To their relief, 70-plus-pound whites began to pile up, and on Tuesday Tighten Up hung a healthy 86.5 pounder from the scales. The crew sat in first place the rest of the week, imminent victory all but within their calloused grasps. But then, on the afternoon of the last day of fishing, into the marina chugged Ocean City’s own Wee Wun IV ready to hoist an 88.5-pound slab. The crew beamed, the crowd hooted and hollered, the Orange Crushes vanished in gulps. Not that Tighten Up’s crew was horribly disappointed. Loaded up on Calcuttas, they’d split a pot of $758,828. And the winners? The Wee Wun IV crew opted not to pony up the extra $5,000 to enter the big Calcutta and missed out on a reported extra $600,000 bounty in addition to their nearly $300,000 of winnings. Ah well, so it goes, friends—hindsight is always 20/20. And something tells me both boats will be back again to try their luck in 2012.
White Marlin Open
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.