Ever since Paul and Jack Townsend discovered the white marlin bonanza known as the “jackspot” in 1934, Ocean City, Maryland, has been called the White Marlin Capital of the World. With the creation of the White Marlin Open in 1974, it’s a title the community wears proudly as home port to one of the world’s biggest and richest billfish events. With up to 449 boats fishing and $3.4 million in tournament prize money at stake, white marlin fishing is big business in these parts.
Ocean City, Maryland
An eastern shore community with a Puritan past, Ocean City went from being a rural farming and commercial fishing village to a sport-fishing metropolis and summer getaway for 8 million people between 1935 and 1974. With its midpoint location on the Delmarva Peninsula, Ocean City started out as a jumping-off spot for traveling fishermen between New York and Florida. Among early fishers stopping over were South Florida fishing legends like Capt. Bill Hatch, who showed the Townsend brothers how to catch white marlin using the drop-back, and Tommy Gifford and the Merritt family’s Caliban fleet of five traveling charter boats.
The Day of Days
Then on July 29, 1939, the Townsends and captains William Bunting, Paul Mumford, Crawford Savage, Reese Layton and others caught 171 white marlin, the largest single-day billfish catch ever recorded. After that, Ocean City was on every billfisher’s bucket list. By the late 1960s, seasonal white marlin captures were topping 2,000, according to records from the Ocean City Marlin Club. Such landings ended up attracting two fishermen who forever changed the landscape of Ocean City and big-game tournament fishing.
Pete Boinis came to Ocean City in 1963 to catch white marlin and realized the tourism potential, and purchased a small motel, restaurant and marina called Ship’s Cafe. He transformed it into a 1,200-seat restaurant called the Ship's Cafe Marina and Tennis Club, now called Harbour Island, that became the gathering spot for White Marlin Open anglers and spectators.
Jim Motsko was attracted to to Ocean City in 1965 for the fishing and found a summer mating job that paid for his college education over the next three years. After college Motsko got a job as a floating bank manager, but decided office work was not for him and headed to the charter docks. As soon as the season ended, Motsko realized he would need to give real-estate a try to avoid traveling nine months of the year as many of the other captains and mates did.
Creating New Tactics
Paul’s Tackle Shop was located on the waterfront in an old house on Talbot Street and was known for its quality tackle and fishing information, thanks to proprietor Paul Mumford and his brothers. According to Capt. Jim Farlow, who fished from Australia to Nova Scotia, Irv Mumford built the best rods north of Miami. As for brothers John and Bill, they were top guns at Hillsboro Inlet, Florida in the winter and Ocean City in the summer.
Opened in 1946, Paul’s Tackle was the epicenter of big-game fishing in that part of the world. “Old-time captains would sit around talking about the days when white marlin were so thick they’d hit a ‘crummy spoon,’” Capt. Alan Fields says.
Among Mumford’s many customers was Motsko, who bought the business in 1976 after hearing that Mumford was interested in retiring and selling. “Real estate was fine, but I was never passionate about it like I was fishing,” he said. “Owning and running Paul’s Tackle seemed like the closest thing to charter fishing.”
A Tournament Born
Whether Boinis or Motsko dreamed up the White Marlin Open depends on whom you ask. According to Boinis, the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament was the inspiration; instead of blue marlin being the big money fish, it would be white marlin. Motsko’s idea was to create an everyman’s tournament with an affordable entry fee and a guaranteed payout. Bottom line: Without either man, the White Marlin Open would not have happened. “Pete had the facilities, charisma and contacts to get it off the ground, and Jim had the tackle shop that became the nucleus for signing people up to fish and organizing it,” Farlow says. “They pooled their resources.”
“Pete then really was like an ambassador, Mr. Ocean City,” says Farlow. His enthusiasm helped launch the tournament, attracting news coverage and drew competitors from New Jersey to Florida.
Vince Soranson won the first tournament in 1974 with a 68.5-pound white marlin, but Don Leek caught the heaviest blue marlin and dolphin, and he won some of the same categories the following year.
Off the Ground
As the first tournament grew close and grumbling increased, the decision was made to make at least the first day a fish-on-the-dock tournament that would establish the board leader, according to Boinis. The weather and turnout were not as great as organizers would have liked. But they ended up with 57 boats fishing, and they caught a good number of fish the first day, duly recorded in the Washington Post with a photograph of the landings and the caption, “Stacked like cordwood,” referring to the numbers of white marlin killed that day.
Fishing for Releases
From the beginning, Boinis competed in the White Marlin Open for the most releases, not in the money division — unless a big fish happened to come his way.
In 1980, Boinis on Ship’s Cafe and New Jersey angler Hank Manley on Escapade duked it out for the top white marlin release award, which Manley won by a few fish with a record 1,949 points. “That really was a fight to the death, with each of them coming in with double-digit releases every day,” recalls Motsko. Since the late 1940s, Ocean City has been one of the most conservation-oriented regions in the country, which is why the White Marlin Open was first conceived to be a catch-and-release event, according to Farlow. However, it soon became evident that people were leery of competing in a money tournament where the fish were not brought in.
Establishing a Conservation Standard
The next year, the tournament established a minimum weight for white marlin with top-prize money for the heaviest white over the minimum. “It was the right decision,” says Motsko. “Not only did it prevent the unnecessary killing of a lot of fish, it made the tournament a contest that even novices could win. That really has been the secret of our success these past 40-plus years. As any fisherman will tell you, they’d rather be lucky than good. In this tournament, that’s been the story a lot of years and, for me, the joy of it. I love seeing deserving people win big pots so that they can make a down payment on a home or a boat they can make a living with.”
With 95 to 99 percent of all white marlin caught in the event released, the White Marlin Open was the tournament model that various conservation groups used in 2002 to persuade Congress and the National Marine Fisheries Service not to put white marlin on the endangered species list. Ironically, that was the best year ever in the White Marlin Open, with 1,104 whites, 33 blue marlin and two sailfish caught, 98 percent of which were released. This also was the second year that circle hooks were used in the event.
Capt. Dave Fields has always played a major role in this event and his biggest paydays came with angler Richard Benn and Capt. Paul Spencer in 1999, when Benn and Ben Moses caught a doubleheader of 81½- and 65½-pounders that were the only weight fish in the tournament. Those fish netted them $813,000. They repeated in 2002 with Moses, Benn and Dave Warren catching a tripleheader for $870,000.
“The tournament has changed,” Benn says. “Instead of a couple hundred boats lining up at the sea buoy for the start, for safety reasons boats now can leave on their own as long as they don’t put lines in the water before the start. The start is something I miss because it was part of the excitement.”
Fishing has become more challenging as well.
“To be competitive, you need to pull two baited dredges, which means having two mates and a fast boat for the 60-mile canyon runs,” Benn adds. “Fortunately, we had that in the 57-foot Spencer we were fishing the years we won it.”
It Takes a Team
Even though Carlos Bentos on Caribena finished in the top three in 1996 fishing by himself on his own boat, it takes a good team to consistently finish in the top five spots. “Everyday you’re rigging 75 ballyhoo and 150 mullet to fish,” Benn says. “Also, the more people on the team, the broader the network for gathering information about bites. Knowing the turf is essential, which is why Capt. Jon Duffie and his family have done so good these past few years. He charters out of Ocean City and is on top of where the blended water and the bite is likely to happen.”
Duffie and his parents, Judy and Jonathan, and brothers Justin and Jeremy have been fishing the White Marlin Open since the 1980s. “One of my earliest memories of fishing is covering my mother’s fish on the deck with a wet towel so it wouldn’t dehydrate before we got to the weigh station,” says the captain of the 62-foot Spencer Billfisher. “We’ve twice won the release division but never the big money for the largest white or blue,” says Duffie.
Among the winning fish over the years were a couple of Maryland state record blue marlin, including a 942-pounder caught by Dr. Jim Daniels on Capt. Marty Moran’s 28-foot Memory Maker that was so big it was resting half in the water when they pulled into the weigh station. Exciting as that was, it was nothing like having the state’s first grander hanging on the scales during the 2009 White Marlin Open. Caught by Robert Farris of North Carolina on No Problem, the 1,062-pounder was worth $454,999 to the team, chump change compared to the $903,442 Sean Healey walked away with after catching the tournament’s second-biggest white marlin ever, a 93.5-pounder.
The Tournament’s White Marlin Record
The tournament’s biggest-ever white was a 99-pounder caught in 1980, the same year the Maryland state record 135-pound white was caught. Boinis was among the more than 5,000 people watching those fish weighed in 2006. He was spotted leaning against the weigh station he built in 1974. It was his first time back at the tournament since his move to Florida in the early 1980s.
The Biggest Thing to Happen All Year
With as many as 449 boats fishing some years and routinely over 250 competing, and prize money that topped $2.4 million last year, the White Marlin Open is now the largest billfish tournament in the world in terms of participation and payout. “Along the Delmarva Peninsula, it’s the biggest thing that happens all year,” says Jon Duffie.
Electricity at the Weigh-In
Forget the Fourth of July and New Year’s: When it comes to tourists, the White Marlin Open brings them in droves. “It amazes me that people who have never been on the ocean will show up at noon to get a good spot to see the weigh-in,” says Jim Farlow. “There’s this electricity about the tournament that people enjoy.”