Cape May is a historic town at the southernmost tip of New Jersey steeped in fishing lore, as well as the location of some of the longest-running and highest-stakes billfish tournaments held in the United States, including the first billfish tournament to offer a guaranteed $500,000 in prize money and the first to break the $1 million payout mark. Both of these milestones occurred 27 years ago, with the premiere of the MidAtlantic $500,000.
It is also home to the Canyon Club, one of the finest sport-fishing resorts in the United States and one of the only to be planned, designed and built for the sole purpose of providing a family-oriented community for bluewater fishermen. Thirty years after its initial groundbreaking, it’s still growing.
Cape May is at the center of the famed mid-Atlantic canyons. From its all-weather inlet, modern sport-fishing yachts can range north to the Hudson Canyon or south to the Norfolk and fish everything in between. And the world-class billfishing found regularly in the Wilmington and Baltimore canyons is veritably on its doorstep. With Cape May as a base of operations, anglers and captains can access some of the finest white marlin action found anywhere on the planet, accompanied by a reliable blue marlin fishery. Seasonally, you can catch the big four species of tuna, with bluefin found on the inshore grounds and yellowfin, bigeye and longfin along the edge of the continental shelf. Nighttime swordfishing is a tradition in the mid-Atlantic canyons, but a burgeoning daytime fishery has been discovered, with boats catching as many as seven on a single day trip. To round out the offerings, dorado and wahoo make frequent appearances.
Cape May’s Colonial Roots
The history of the region stretches back to the earliest exploration of the Americas. Before seafaring explorers landed on its shores, the only inhabitants of the area were the Kechemeche Indians. The Lower Cape was one of their seasonal hunting grounds, but it was Sir Henry Hudson who, in 1609, first charted the area prior to the arrival of Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, who explored it in 1621. Marine resources were so abundant that by the mid-1700s, English colonists from Connecticut and Massachusetts began moving to Cape Island, as it was known then, further expanding whaling and introducing farming to the region.
Cape Island grew slowly around a small population of industrious people during the next 100 years as nearby New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia were becoming urbanized. And as city folk are known to do, they began seeking out places to get away from the city to vacation. By the mid- to late 1700s, Cape Island was recognized as just such a place, with visitors arriving by wagon, stagecoach, sloop and schooner. There were rooms available at public houses, taverns and residential homes, and an archive search of Philadelphia newspapers of the era reveals ads for resorts offering sea-bathing, fishing and an abundance of fish, oysters and crabs as culinary delights. As more boarding houses sprung up, Cape Island became a getaway for the city’s elite, offering luxury hotels, music pavilions and ballrooms that made it the major seaside retreat on the East Coast, often referred to as the Queen of Seaside Resorts.
By the 1850s, a series of large hotels, some boasting accommodations for as many as 3,000 people, came and went. Many were consumed by a series of fires, and with their demise, the area began reinventing itself as a place for city dwellers to build vacation homes. The concept took hold, bolstered by the completion of a railroad line from Philadelphia to Cape Island in 1863, and it became a seasonal town of summer cottages. Throughout its history, Cape May and the surrounding area were also a hub of commercial fishing, and later became a well-known destination for sport fishing.
It was freezing and there was a foot of snow on the ground when I left my house to drive down the Garden State Parkway to Cape May, where I would meet the man most responsible for much of Cape May’s more recent history as a billfish destination. Dick Weber was waiting for me, relaxing in his third-floor condominium at the Canyon Club on a cold December afternoon.
“I started coming to Cape May as a boy in the early 1950s. My father worked for the railroad, and this was our family’s annual vacation spot,” he told me, as he gazed out over the harbor he knows so well.
“When I told my dad I wanted to get a boat and charter fish, he was adamant about me getting an education first, so he made me a deal,” Weber says. “If I went to school, he would help me get a boat, so I went to a teachers college to get my degree, and he was as good as his word. I got my first boat, a cross-planked, wood-hulled boat built in Reedville, Virginia, that did 9 knots. I started chartering during the summer, maybe running 100 trips a year, and I loved it.”
In the late 1950s, a few local boats started running offshore to chase the abundant white marlin that migrated into the area in early summer. The four original boats were Sanmar, Fishing Fool, Anna M and Prowler, and they rarely went much past 20 fathoms to find them. Weber says the water a little past the old Cape May Lightship that was anchored 16 miles offshore looked like Gulf Stream water — beautiful blue, clean and alive with cigar minnows and sailor gulls. White marlin could be seen cutting bait and cruising on the surface, and he recalled a day when he counted 120 tailers.
Even back then, Cape May was earning a reputation as a billfish destination, and in the early 1960s, the area’s first tournament was established: the Cape May Country Marlin Tournament. It attracted 50 to 60 boats, mostly teams organized by marlin and tuna clubs from up and down the coast, with a lot of them hiring the better local charter boats, and a growing number arriving with their own marlin boats. The tournament flourished well into the 1970s.
The Making of a Billfish Port
Meanwhile, Weber was teaching sociology and geography at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland, and charter fishing out of Cape May when not teaching. He chartered from 1958 through 1963, and eventually became chairman of the social sciences department at the college. In 1977, he took a one-year sabbatical to see if he could make it in the fishing business full time, in the place he really wanted to be, and he never looked back. With his wife at his side, they opened the South Jersey Fishing and Hunting Center in Cape May and started looking for a way to attract the high-end fishing crowd. He learned how to rig baits and stayed open late every night, so the place became the hangout for the offshore crowd.
“We would use a daisy chain of old green Coca-Cola bottles for teasers,” he says. “That green color was deadly. The fish weren’t picky: If it wiggled and was the right color, they would raise to it. You could pull plastic lures and catch marlin, but the serious guys wanted rigged baits, and the shop became famous for our baits. I could turn a few pennies worth of wire, a hook and a squid into prime marlin bait and sell it for a couple bucks. Then we put up a scoreboard in the shop, listing who had the most and biggest marlin, and it started talk about forming a club. That was the beginning of the Cape May Marlin and Tuna Club.
In 1979, Weber developed two events: the White Marlin Open (so named before the event in Ocean City, Maryland, adopted the moniker) and the Blue Marlin Invitational. In the offseason, he traveled the coast, putting on seminars at big-game fishing clubs on rigging baits while promoting Cape May and the tournaments. The two main sport-fishing marinas in town were owned by Colt Summers, and he wanted to sell one of them, so he approached Weber because he had become the man responsible for bringing the traveling sport boats that were filling the marinas.
“Colt had this idea, but I didn’t have two nickels to rub together and all he told me was to find the money,” Weber says. “Eventually, it all worked out, and I started building the South Jersey Marina and Fishing Center. The marina became a yacht brokerage in 1981, representing Ocean and Post, and things really started to hum.
But Weber wasn’t done. In the midst of a major economic recession, he came up with the idea for the MidAtlantic $500,000, a billfish tournament that would offer a half-million-dollar guaranteed purse. At the 1990 New York Boat Show, he put up a large roll of paper and started listing the boats that entered. By the time the show ended, there were more than 120 names on the list. The tournament was an extravaganza, a week of billfish competition, camaraderie, meals and entertainment held under a circus tent on the grounds of his dream project, the Canyon Club at Cape May, the sport-fishing resort that he broke ground for in 1985. The first MidAtlantic gave out the half-million dollars in prize money as promised, and an additional half million that had piled up in the calcutta. It was the first million-dollar billfish tournament, and it set off the race for the awesome cash purses seen in billfish tournaments that continues to this day.
A Billfish Resort
In 1985, Weber purchased Portofino Marina across the harbor from South Jersey Fishing Center and started the first phase of building the finest sport-fishing resort in the country. As we sat in his office overlooking the facility as it stands today, he showed me the original miniature scale rendition of the complex created from his imagination over 30 years ago, and you’d be hard pressed to find any differences from the way he envisioned it, except it is bigger than ever.
In a recent conversation with Pat Healey, president and CEO of Viking Yachts, I asked him what it was that made this a special place for him.
“Cape May is my home port, and the Canyon Club has been my home dock for the past 30 years,” he says. “Dick and his son Rick have created a very special place for offshore fishermen with a great atmosphere and terrific people. The marlin fishing is as good as it gets. I used to go to Venezuela during its heyday, but Cape May offers fishing as good or better, with facilities that can’t be matched.”
“Most people don’t realize just how good the fishing can be out of Cape May,” Capt. Ryan Higgins told us. “Before I started running tournament boats for Viking Yachts 15 years ago, I ran boats in Venezuela, which supposedly had the best white marlin fishery. My best day there we released 22 white marlin and a blue, but I’ve beaten it on numerous occasions fishing out of the Canyon Club, sometimes by a significant margin. On my best trip, an overnighter, we released 53 whites: 30 the first day and 23 more the next morning. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
“Dick used to run a contest that spanned the entire month of September called Marlin Month. The boat with the most releases for any 10 days won the event. I’m looking at a trophy in my office right now for the year we won it with 125 releases in only 10 days.”
“New Jersey is my favorite place to marlin fish,” he says. “I quickly fell in love with the fishery and the people in Cape May. To a man they are always willing to share information, call you in on a hot bite and share stories back at the dock. I look forward to every run to the canyons because I never know what I’m going to come across along the way. I’ve jumped grander blue marlin, happened into awesome bigeye tuna bites, seen herds of whales and porpoises, and experienced sunrises that make you happy to be alive and heading out for another day offshore.”
Higgins sets up shop at the Canyon Club with a Viking demo boat in late June, with the first whites of the year, and usually stays through the end of September. The first whites of the year are frequently caught in the Spencer-Lindenkohl area to the north. “You have to watch for fresh eddies moving into the area, bringing bait and migrating marlin. It doesn’t matter if they are on the 100-, 1,000- or 1,500-fathom curve, the water brings the billfish.”
He also said some big blue marlin show early and that blues can be caught throughout the season. The biggest he’s seen was in the mid-Atlantic some years back and was well over 900 pounds.
“I’ve found blues most often hanging in the northeast corners of the canyons,” he advises. “We typically troll a spread that targets whites so the blues come in on a dredge or teaser, and we drop back a big pitch bait on a heavy outfit kept ready in the cockpit. There are some really big fish out there, and if you were to target them specifically, I can only imagine what might be encountered.”
As the season progresses, more fish move through the canyon region, with the action typically working to the south. You can reach it all from Cape May. September is the crescendo, with the numbers of whites that can be encountered and fishing so fast it can be hard to fathom. World-class marlin fishing from a beautiful resort designed to pamper you and your boat in an area rich in American history, with fine dining and plenty of great attractions when you aren’t fishing — that’s Cape May, New Jersey.
About the Author: Gary Caputi is a noted author and angler with more than 35 years of experience chasing bluewater species on four continents. His passion for bluewater sport fishing is reflected in the hundreds of articles he has written over the years.