Ocean City vs Stuart: A Tale of Two Sport-Fishing Capitals

It's the white marlin capital of the world versus the sailfish capital of the world.

Ocean City white marlin and Stuart sailfish action photo
An Ocean City white marlin goes airborne, while a Stuart sailfish does the twist. Both cities are well-known for producing outstanding captains and anglers.Richard Gibson (2)

Show up on the docks in just about any hardcore sport-fishing port in the world and you’re bound to run into a few captains or deckhands with ties to either Stuart, Florida, or Ocean City, Maryland. Both locales have a strong history of turning out some of the best in the business who have gone on to set multiple world records, win the biggest money in tournaments and run some of the finest rigs on the water today.

The Maryland Connection

Ocean City has long been a popular destination with tourists, especially those with a connection to the sea. As far back as the late 1800s, visitors arrived by stagecoach to fish the pristine Atlantic waters for bluefish and striped bass, taking in the natural beauty the area still enjoys to this day. And while Ocean City has a relatively ­modest year-round population of just over 7,000 residents, those numbers swell considerably during the summer to nearly 350,000, making it one of the most popular tourism destinations on the Eastern Seaboard. This is due in large part to its relative proximity to the metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Ocean City Maryland fishing destination aerial photo
With easy access to the Atlantic Ocean and relative proximity to several large metropolitan areas, Ocean City, Maryland grew to become one of sport-fishing's top destinations.© Chris Parypa / Alamy

The city also became known as a fishing hot spot thanks to the 1933 hurricane, which separated Ocean City from Assateague Island to the south, forming a broad inlet that was further improved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Servicemen returning from World War II turned to the ocean and sport fishing as a recreational pastime, and the Ocean City charter fleet grew in size every year. By the late 1960s and early ’70s, the fleet was catching nearly 2,000 white marlin each season, earning Ocean City the title of “White Marlin Capital of the World.”

The Fields Family

Capt. Alan Fields was on the docks at an early age, working hard and learning the charter trade. “I started at age 14, selling minnows during the summers at Paul’s Tackle Shop at the base of the Route 50 bridge,” he says. “After I graduated from high school, I went to work for Paul’s brother, John Mumford, who pretty much pioneered white marlin fishing out of Ocean City.” Mumford was one of the first to use hookless teasers to attract multiple fish to the spread; his new creation, the aptly named Mumford teaser, soon became the standard for marlin fishermen around the world. “Most people just fished the Jackspot in those days,” Fields says. “The boats were a lot slower and couldn’t make it to the canyons, and there were plenty of fish in close anyway.”

Working for a busy charter operation taught Fields a lot about customer service and also about fishing. “When you’re chartering, you have new clients every day you want to make happy,” he says. “So you learn about treating people nicely, the way you would want them to treat you. And working for the best guys, like John Mumford, you have the chance to start from the bottom and learn every aspect of the business, seamanship to maintenance — and fish for everything from dolphin and tuna to marlin to bottomfish.”

Captain Ronnie Fields Ocean City Maryland sport fishing marlin sailfish
Capt. Ronnie Fields started his fishing career in Ocean City on his way to becoming one of the top captains in the world.Courtesy Big Oh

Fields passed down his lifetime of experience on the water to his three sons: David, Jimmy and Ronnie. Each has become a well-known captain and angler in his own right. David currently is in charge of Hit-n-Run's sport-fishing ­operation, while Jimmy is president of Tournament Yacht Sales, a high-profile boat-brokerage firm in Florida. But it was Ronnie who was bitten hardest by the fishing bug. His first job as a mate took him to the Bahamas and Mexico — pretty high adventure for a dock rat from Ocean City. In the late 1990s, Ronnie joined The Madam and The Hooker's team, setting a string of world records and chasing game fish across some of the sport's most acclaimed destinations for owners Deborah and Jerry Dunaway. In 1998, the team caught 20 blue marlin in one day off Cape Verde.

Captain Ronnie Fields Big Oh Gray Ingram Cape Verde blue marlin fishing
Big Oh, with owner Grey Ingram on the rod and Capt. Ronnie Fields at the helm, fights a Cape Verde blue marlin. The team released 404 blues there in 2015.Courtesy Big Oh

Since 2007, Ronnie has worked with Gray Ingram, owner of Big Oh and Trophy Box. Between 2010 and 2012, they won tournaments in St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, including two overall series titles in the highly competitive Los Sueños Signature Series. In 2014, they caught 371 blue marlin between the Dominican Republic and Cape Verde; in 2015, they bested their own record with 404 blue ­marlin ­during their fishing season off Cape Verde. So it's with no small amount of family pride that Alan Fields says their family roots are in Ocean City. "All the boys learned to fish there, and they all went on to do what they still love: to be on the water."

Capt. Jon Duffie

Another family fishing operation based in Ocean City is the famed Billfisher. From the age of 3, Capt. Jon Duffie spent his summers in Ocean City on the family boat and learned as most good captains do: from the bilges up. With his father, John; mother, Judy; and older brother, Jeremy, they fished as often as possible, starting with a 34-foot Luhrs and eventually moving up to the current boat, a 62-foot Spencer. "My father taught us a lot when we were out fishing," Duffie says. "He always stressed that we learn proper navigation on paper charts, not relying on GPS, and also proper maintenance. He used to say: 'That boat is carrying our family. It has to be safe.' I still remember those lessons."

Captain Jon Duffie Ocean City Maryland white marlin fishing Billfisher
Capt. Jon Duffie was raised in a fishing family in Ocean City, and had the opportunity to fish with some of the best captains in the sport each summer.Pepper Ailor / lossuenos.com

Being prepared is also an important characteristic of any great captain. In late summer of 2010, hordes of white marlin stacked up along the drop-off. While most captains would not think to plan ahead, Duffie had his crew prep additional bait in anticipation of a record bite. By the end of the trip, his anglers released a whopping 57 white marlin, shattering the previous Ocean City single-day record of 27. “I remember fishing in the Norfolk Canyon in the early ’90s when the white marlin were balling bait as far as you could see, but we couldn’t catch a single one,” Duffie says. “We were using the standard tackle: Penn 50s and 30s with swimming mullet on big ol’ J hooks. It wasn’t until we started downsizing our tackle that the numbers really went up.”

White Marlin Open marlin fishing Ocean City Maryland
Among East Coast tournaments, the White Marlin Open is among the most popular, attracting hundreds of boats to Ocean City each year.John Unkart

Duffie also credits the fact he was able to work with the best in the business when he was growing up. “Living on the boat in the summer, I literally fished with someone different every day,” he says. “Those guys had a huge influence on me: captains like Mitch Pierson, Mark ‘Hammer’ Hill, Joe Drosey, Eric Blanks, Scott Walker, Bob Gowar and a bunch of others. Even today, the community of young captains we have in Ocean City is tremendous — a lot of hard-working guys who are great fishermen and who love what they do … I just want to catch one more than everyone else.”

Capt. Franky Pettolina

Franky Pettolina is another Ocean City fisherman who’s come a long way since the early years of chasing bluefish on inshore lumps just off the beach. Pettolina has added boat surveying to his family’s charter business, and he has also served as president of the Ocean City Marlin Club for the last nine years. “If I could fish for only one species for the rest of my life, it would be white marlin,” he says. “They’re the hardest to hook and the most fun to catch on light tackle. We spent three seasons in Venezuela, and we put up some big [release] numbers, but it meant more to me to have our first double-digit day at home when we caught 10 in one day in the White Marlin Open. It was really special to do that in my own backyard.”

Capt. Franky Pettolina Ocean City Marlin Club
For the last nine seasons, Capt. Franky Pettolina has served as president of the Ocean City Marlin Club. At 80 years old, it's one of the oldest fishing clubs in the United States.Courtesy Franky Pettolina

And the fishing in general shows excellent signs for the future. “The club has been keeping records on what’s being caught out of Ocean City for 80 years,” he says. “We lost a few years due to a fire and also during World War II, but otherwise, it’s all there. And while the fishing is cyclical, there’s no doubt it’s stronger today than it’s ever been before.” Pettolina credits modern fishing techniques — lighter and stronger leaders, circle hooks and dredges — as well as vastly improved electronics for the increasing number of releases, especially on white marlin.

Stuart sailfish fishing Florida
The sight of a sailfish approaching the baits is enough to have any angler's heart racing.Raul Boesel

Head South to the Sunshine State

Stuart, Florida, is at the ­opposite end of the spectrum from its northern relative in the sport-fishing world. Here the sun shines brightly, and when temperatures dip into the 50s, the locals reach for their heavy parkas. The great year-round weather, as well as an inviting Gulf Stream just a short distance offshore, is what makes Stuart such an appealing destination.

Around 16,000 year-round ­residents call the area home, but those numbers increase considerably in winter, thanks to an influx of snowbirds. Fortunately for the local charter operators, a good number of those Northerners also want to try their hand offshore. Coined the Treasure Coast, the stretch of beach from Vero to just north of Palm Beach earned its namesake due to the 18th-century Spanish galleons that wrecked offshore in the summer hurricanes — their gold and silver coins continue to wash ashore even to this day. The Treasure Coast is also rich with another kind of wealth: sailfish.

Fish tend to be more spread out compared to the much narrower Gulf Stream down around the Miami area, so locals prefer to troll dead bait armed with circle hooks for Stuart sails. Dredge-fishing also came into its own along this coast, with a number of charter captains adopting and then continuing to perfect their strategies for using this multiarmed teaser.

Capt. Dave Berard

Capt. Dave Berard was one of the very first to start dredge-fishing, utilizing the teaser with rigged mullet to raise sails. Stuart’s shallow water and tricky inlet also offer a test of seamanship for any captain. Berard says, “Running that inlet with the shallow water and big seas, it gives you the confidence that you can run a boat anywhere in the world.”

Capt. Dave Berard HMY Yacht Sales top broker Stuart sailfish fishing
After running both private and charter operations, Capt. Dave Berard is now a top broker at HMY Yacht Sales.Courtesy Dave Berard

And he should know: Now a broker with HMY Yacht Sales, Berard spent 16 years running a charter boat before shifting to private vessels for another 14 years. He has fished for giant bluefin in the Northeast and targeted marlin and sails from the Bahamas to Bermuda, Mexico and Venezuela. “I remember when we rigged 10 mullet for a dredge — now it’s 50 a side,” he says. “The tackle is a lot better these days too. We started with the old Penn Senators, then went to the Internationals before the Shimano TLDs came out. And the boats are a lot more efficient in terms of fuel economy and speed.”

Capt. Glenn Cameron

Capt. Glenn Cameron is another one who loves the dredge. He has run Floridian's charter operation on the Treasure Coast since the mid-1980s, building a reputation as a fearsome tournament competitor anywhere he fishes. "One thing that gives us a little edge over the others is that we dredge-fish every day, 365 days a year," he reports. "Other guys might use it only when they're billfishing. If we're trolling, then we've got dredges in the water, and that helps you really fine-tune your approach to it. And we live in the land of the mullet!" he adds, referring to the preferred natural bait for their dredges.

Captain Glenn Cameron Floridian Stuart marlin sailfish fishing
Whether he's targeting marlin or sailfish in a tournament or bottom-fishing for grouper and big snapper like this one, Floridian's Capt. Glenn Cameron is a tough opponent.Courtesy Floridian Sportfishing

Like many before him, Cameron took the hard-won lessons he has learned fishing the Treasure Coast and adapted them to other locations. In 2014, he was hired to fish a string of tournaments out of Sarasota, Florida. When it was all over, he led Reel Screamer's team to an overall first-place finish in the series of tournaments — including a first-place win at the Crosthwait Extreme Billfish Tournament, where they released one blue marlin, two white marlin, three sailfish and a swordfish. Not bad for a guy that had never fished in the Gulf of Mexico before.

“You have to adapt to the ­situations and use the lessons you’ve learned in the past to be successful.”

“You have to adapt to the ­situations and use the lessons you’ve learned in the past to be successful,” he says. “We were one of the first boats to use 30-pound tackle fishing in tournaments in the Bahamas. Everybody else was pulling lures on their 80s and 130s, but we knew from having fished in Venezuela our techniques would work — and they did. We started winning on points, trying to catch a billfish every day, rather than just fishing for the biggest blue marlin.”

Capt. Scott Levin

Scott Levin is one of Stuart's more well-traveled fishermen. Like Ronnie Fields, he also did a stint on the deck of the The Madam and The Hooker operation, pretty much right out of college. "I went to school at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne and earned a maritime degree, then decided to go fishing," he says. He saw an ad for The Madam and The Hooker in Marlin magazine and called owner Jerry Dunaway out of the blue one day to ask for a job. His willingness to learn the ropes and work hard paid off, and he soon found himself with them in the Pacific from 1988 until 1990. He spent seven years on the Great Barrier Reef, working the deck for Capt. Peter B. Wright; he was in Kona, Hawaii, with Capt. Kevin Nakamaru; and he fished a few good years in Madeira with Tracy Melton, basically hitting the hottest destinations in the world for more than 20 years.

Captain Scott Levin Stuart Florida marlin and sailfish
Capt. Scott Levin has traveled to some of the world's best hot spots in search of great fishing before returning home to Stuart, Florida.Courtesy Scott Levin

Despite his travels all around the world, he always felt Stuart was home. “I didn’t have a lot of offshore experience until I moved to Florida,” he says. “Learning to fish for sails here and marlin over in the Bahamas made a big impression on me.” Among those lessons: Don’t be afraid to travel. “You have to expand your horizons and take every opportunity to learn from others,” he says. “Don’t limit yourself to just what everyone else is doing at home.”

Thanks to the great weather, short runs to the Gulf Stream and year-round fishing opportunities, Stuart is a hotbed for ­charter fishing. Most of the top captains from the region cut their teeth on charters; some continue to run their own boats as owner/operators, while others have moved on to private boats and are fishing some of the best billfish destinations around the world. Captains like VJ Bell, Scott Fawcett, James Ewing, Rob Moore and a host of others too numerous to mention continue to make significant contributions to the sport-fishing industry.

An Impossible Decision

So which town produces the best fishermen? It’s impossible to say. But one thing’s for certain: Both Ocean City, Maryland, and Stuart, Florida, will continue to produce world-class captains and deckhands for many generations to come.