Capt. Jon Duffie has been fishing the waters off Ocean City his entire life. A Maryland native, he is no stranger to the white marlin fishery and the average mid-Atlantic blue marlin that usually show in the 150- to 350-pound class. Duffie has also been fishing a number of different boats over the years, but earlier this summer, he completed his own build: the first of his custom sport-fishing line, the 64-foot Duffie Boatworks Billfisher. As of press time, he’s fished a total of 14 days on the 64, including competing in the White Marlin Open, where he placed third in the white marlin division with a 78.5-pound fish. Pretty impressive for a boat that was half its current age at the time.
When it comes to big-blue-marlin destinations, Ocean City typically isn’t in the discussion. Capt. Robert “Fly” Navarro, who hosts the Blue Marlin World Cup—a single-day worldwide tournament that takes place on July 4 every year—says that of the 123 tournament entries in 2021, fewer than five teams picked Ocean City as their port of choice to land a winner.
Enter the 30th annual MidAtlantic Tournament. Earlier in the week, Capt. Rocky Hardison’s Wolverine weighed in a new tournament-record blue marlin at 958 pounds, shattering the previous record by 100 pounds and pretty much sealing the deal for the top fish in the minds of most competitors.
The Final Day
Going into the last day of the MidAtlantic, Duffie had already weighed a qualifying white marlin, but with tight competition in that category and his fish just out of money contention, Duffie saw a possible opening in the blue marlin category. With only three fish weighed so far, and third place weighing in at 487 pounds, he thought he could beat it.
After carefully reviewing the satellite images, Duffie noticed a spot where he had previously been successful with solid above-average blues and whites. The area was showing favorable conditions for the next day, so he made up his mind: They were heading south of the Washington Canyon to fish shallower than the rest of the fleet. All he needed was one heavy bite.
He arrived to ideal conditions just prior to lines in: pilot whales, working birds, a few slicks, and two schools of skipjack tuna on top. Add in the overcast skies and a little surface chop, and this was certainly the spot. Within the first hour of fishing, as he turned down-sea over a grassy edge, he marked a sizable fish. A luck would have it, the majority of their bites had come from the right side that week, so he readied his crew to watch the right side and to pull in the dredges in anticipation of a bite. While the crew watched the right side in anticipation, the Joe Yee Super Plunger got hit on the left short; no one saw the bite. It was a slow, steady pull on the 130-pound-class reel. The fish didn’t know it was hooked as angler Capt. Billy Gerlach strapped himself into the chair, ready for battle.
While Gerlach applied 24 pounds of drag, Duffie maintained a distance to give the crew time to clear the cockpit. As they were nearly ready, the fish realized it was hooked and began to jump. From the bridge, Duffie got a good look at the big blue marlin and began to shout out in disbelief; it was a real one. The crew didn’t get a good look at it until the boat was turned, right at the time the fish made its last jump. No one quite had an idea of how big it really was, but they all agreed it was time to raise the riggers and ready the flying gaffs—it was a money fish.
In his mind, Duffie questioned how the team was going to land such a monster. As he worked the fish in reverse over the next 40 minutes, doing everything he could to gain on him, they were finally able to get the leader out of the water and touch it, but as soon as the fish saw the boat, it barreled down to half a spool of main line. Gerlach, a seasoned angler in his own right, was able to keep his cool and, most importantly, keep pressure on the fish. Over the next hour and a half, they were able to get the leader out of the water almost 20 more times but couldn’t get ahead of the fish and turn it toward the boat. Duffie praised Gerlach’s demeanor and skill as he fought the fish, working the drag up and down at just the right times, even with the drama of blowing wind, high seas, heavy rain and lightning.
As the fish began to tire, Duffie started to fight it in a circle, and after 30 minutes of the leader being out of the water, Gerlach was finally able to get it on the reel. This was Billfisher’s chance. Mate Noah McVicker began to take wraps on the leader, and the endgame was in sight. Chris Weyandt and Jeremy Duffie readied the gaffs as Danny Gough steered the chair. Duffie turned the boat alongside the fish so the crew could take the shot. Duffie exclaimed to McVicker to hold on to the leader and not let go, and the team sank the gaffs. Duffie descended from the bridge to add an additional gaff in the tail, three hours and 15 minutes after the initial hookup.
The Moments of Truth
As the Duffie Boatworks design team worked on the finalizing the boat’s specs, Duffie spent time researching blue marlin girth sizes to determine just how large to build his transom door. His research and math paid off in this moment, as they slid the huge fish into the boat with an inch to spare. Considering the marlin took up half the cockpit, it was time to run home, just in time for lunch. Duffie knew that the fish lying on deck had a shot at first place, but he didn’t really know how big it was. He immediately contacted his wife, Kourtney, and the guys at Duffie Boatworks. He told them to close up the shop and come to the scales. That was it, no reasons why or any further explanation.
Pulling into Sunset Marina, most of the other competing boats were still out, but those who were there knew it might beat Wolverine’s 958-pounder. The anticipation grew as the team waited for the scales to open, and the crowd began to build as word spread. The fish measured just an inch and a half longer than Wolverine’s current first-place blue. Another moment of truth descended on the crowd as the scales opened: 1,135 pounds—a new state record, a new tournament record, $1.167 million in prize money, and only the third confirmed grander caught off the coast of Maryland. It was an amazing hometown win, and it doesn’t get any better than that.
This article originally appeared in the December 2021 print issue of Marlin.