This year, the world’s largest billfish tournament went over the hill. The White Marlin Open, based in Ocean City, Maryland, has seen some changes. No midlife crisis. No seeing the white light. It has evolved with the times. But, like most 40 year-olds, some things have changed, and some things just stay the same.
In 1974, the first WMO registered 57 boats and awarded $20,000 in total prize money. Vince Soranson of New Jersey won $15,000 on a 68½–pound white marlin. By 2012, the payout numbers grew over 100 times that original amount. The Open also grew to 200 boats.
This year, 262 boats were registered with a total payoff at nearly $2.5 million. And upping the ante in money and boats brings in the crowds.
Scott Lathroum, owner of the Reel Inn Restaurant and Dock Bar, has been around WMO since 1976 — starting out as a dock boy. He has seen the tournament grow with full force, not just in those fishing, but also in the mobs of spectators.
“It has changed so much. Back then you could go right on up to the fish and snap a photo,” Lathroum says. “Now, you’re on the dock with thousands of people. Public interest has gone way up.”
Lathroum says he has seen visitors come from all over the Eastern Seaboard, from the Florida Keys to New York. Faces may change, but one thing is for sure — Chief Brody from the film Jaws wouldn’t be asking for a bigger boat.
“The marina has been around here for almost 30 years,” Lathroum says. “Now, there are requests out there to support 82-footers.”
Whether it is advancements in technology or Goliath boats, the WMO isn’t exactly the same since Nixon resigned. The WMO President Jim Motsko says he recognizes that as well.
“The things that changed the most, since 1974, have been the size and speed of the boats,” Motsko says. “In the early 1970s, a 40-foot boat was a good size, and 20 knots was fast,” he says. “Now, most of the boats are over 40-foot, and the average speed is in the high 20s to low 30s.”
Motsko says there are some constant practices that have stood the test time. For instance, almost all boats still use ballyhoo as the primary bait for marlin fishing in this area. One tradition that has been there since the beginning is conservation.
“The Ocean City Light Tackle Club and the Ocean City Marlin Club, along with other clubs and individuals, practice catch-and-release of marlin,” Motsko says. “Last year’s WMO, the billfish release rate was 99.7 percent. This just reinforces that we can run an extremely good tournament that appeals to all types anglers and award huge sums of money, while still releasing almost all billfish that are caught.”
For the future, Motsko says the WMO would continue to tweak things to improve the tournament. He also foresees an additional jump in female anglers.
The tournament closed with big fish on the boards. Tommy Jones, on board the Kingfisher/OdinSpear, kept the lead for the white marlin section with a 83-pounder for a $1,202,742 award.
The other first place winners:
Save the date: Next year’s tournament is set for August 4-8, 2014.
Full list of winners and more info online at whitemarlinopen.com