Living Up To It's Billing

The White Marlin Open

Article by Steve Wright

Photo of two anglers hauling in a white marlin

OCEAN CITY, Md -- It’s 8:30 a.m. and the 60-foot boat named “Moore Bills” has eight lines in the water, 60 miles off the Atlantic Ocean coast. This boat and crew left the harbor four hours ago, in search of a million-dollar fish.

That million-dollar prize isn’t some sort of long odds lottery. Total prize money in the White Marlin Open is based upon the number of entries; in 2005 a 78.5-pound white marlin was worth $1,638,916. Three other times in tournament history the winning white marlin has paid at least $1.3 million.

That’s part of the reason why the annual White Marlin Open is called “The World’s Largest Billfish Tournament.” The best offshore saltwater anglers and crews have been coming to Ocean City this week in August for the past 37 years.

This tournament is Jim Motsko’s baby, but it has morphed into something he couldn’t have envisioned when he started it in 1974. That year there were 57 boats entered with $20,000 in guaranteed prize money.

And now?

“Worldwide, it’s the largest billfish tournament in the world in the number of boats and the amount of prize money,” Motsko said.

There have been over 400 boats entered in the White Marlin Open in recent years. This year, with a down economy, the number is 237 boats and an estimated payout of $2,138,000.

When Motsko started this event he saw it as a way to “go pro.” After serving as a ship’s mate a few years, Motsko thought he was good enough to become a professional angler, just like someone might compete in the Professional Golf Association.

“I started the tournament thinking I could fish it and win money,” Motsko said. “And with that money I could go fish again. That didn’t happen, but the tournament grew. It has worked out well.”

Photo of a white marlin jumping

There are long periods of nothingness when dragging teasers, dredges and baited lines through what appears to be an endless ocean at 60 miles offshore. But that can change in a hurry. “Moore Bills” mate Wayne Plancks spotted a white marlin coming up behind one of the baits only 30 minutes after the lines had been put in the water.

When the fish engulfed the bait, pandemonium broke out on board. Everyone had a job, most of which concerned getting the remaining seven lines out of the water, so a fighting fish wouldn’t entangle them. A lot of yelling and screaming was involved.

“Marlin fishing is hours of boredom and seconds of havoc,” Motsko said. “It gets crazy.”

Shane Moore, 48, owns “Moore Bills.” He runs a vending business in Jarrettsville, Md., and has grown into an avid offshore angler, as have his wife and children. But this isn’t a family outing. Moore has assembled a team of friends – Phil Key, Keith Kaiser, Luke Reeder and Jack Roesner, who chipped in to cover food, fuel and the $15,900 it costs to go “all in,” which means an entry into all the various WMO calcutta bets.

In the WMO format, the tournament runs for five days – from Monday through Friday - but each boat is allowed only three days on the water. It lets you do some picking and choosing according to weather and how the fish are biting.

“It’s a very good part of the tournament,” Motsko said. “The little boats can pick their days. The big boats have a little more leeway. They can lay up the first day and maybe let somebody else find the fish.”

It’s obvious on this Thursday that lots of people have discovered fish are biting near what is called Washington Canyon. There are over 20 boats visible on the horizon when Key grabs the rod that has an angry white marlin attached to the end of the line.

After the initial craziness on board, things begin to settle down, as much as they can when a big billfish makes continuous tail-walking leaps behind the boat. It takes Key about 15 minutes to get the fish alongside “Moore Bills.” It’s quickly determined that this fish won’t meet the 67-inch length and 70-pound minimums required by tournament rules, and the white marlin is released.

Photo of an angler putting out the white marlin flag

That doesn’t prevent a round of high fives among the friends on board. If nothing else, it’s a good omen when you’ve hooked and landed a white marlin only 30 minutes into legal fishing hours.

Ocean City calls itself the “White Marlin Capital of the World.” But it’s better known for its boardwalk, which was first built in 1902 and now stretches three miles to the Delaware border, with a beach and the Atlantic Ocean as its backdrop. There are only 7,042 year-round residents here, but popular summer vacation weeks bulge the population to over 340,000 people. If that sounds unbelievable, consider that Ocean City is located just over 100 miles from the major metropolitan areas of Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia.

If ever a hurricane could be said to have done improvement instead of damage, it was the 1933 Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane that opened an inlet in what had been a long, narrow spit of sand that is Ocean City. State and city officials had been trying for years to get the federal government involved in creating such an inlet. Prior to this, boats had to be dragged by horse teams or ropes and pulleys across the beach to get Atlantic Ocean access.

After the hurricane’s outgoing rain waters cut a 250-foot wide, four-foot deep inlet, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came in and made it permanent, allowing marinas to be built in the vast inland bays that back Ocean City.

Now you will see all sizes of ocean-worthy vessels moored here. In this year’s WMO, four 80-plus foot boats/yachts were entered, the most Motsko could recall in the history of the event.

It was Shane Moore’s turn at the rod for the next white marlin hook-up on “Moore Bills.” Moore has had many memorable fishing days aboard the boat since he bought it three years ago, completely remodeled the interior and set it up as a charter boat in Ocean City.

Moore said September is actually the peak of the white marlin run through this area of the Atlantic. Last September Moore and his then-14-year-old son, Austin, caught and released 25 white marlin in one day.

Moore would eventually add a second white marlin catch on this day, after another session of frenzy on board and a tail-walking fish behind the boat. Alas, this fish – as big and beautiful as it was – didn’t meet the WMO minimums and was returned to the sea.

Photo of Jack Roesnerand Tucker Calhoun holding white marlin

It was noon. Lines would have to be out of the water by 3:30 p.m. Captain Rob Skillman decided to make a 30-minute move to another area that had been hot this week. Upon arrival, we were greeted with schools of pilot whales surrounding the boat. Maybe this was a good luck sign.

At 2:35 p.m. another white marlin took the bait. This time Roesner was on the rod, and this fish appeared bigger than the others hooked. The fish displayed the best acrobatics of the day, too, continually leaping from the blue Atlantic waters.

When Roesner got the fish alongside the boat, it looked big enough to meet the WMO minimums and a decision was made to gaff it. Mate Tucker Calhoun didn’t miss and quickly there was a 68 ½-inch white marlin being iced down in the huge cooler at the stern of “Moore Bills.”

“That was a grand experience,” Roesner said.

“No, that was a five grand experience,” quipped Reeder, alluding to the cost of competing in the WMO.

“Moore Bills” didn’t get a chance to idle into the Harbor Island Marina, where 4,000 to 5,000 people gather each day at the scales of the White Marlin Open. Roesner’s fish weighed just under the 70-pound minimum.

But plenty of other boats made that voyage over these five days in August.

“Many of the anglers in the tournament have told me the biggest thrill is to come to the scales with something to weigh at the White Marlin Open,” Motsko said. “Whether the fish wins or not, they tell me it’s an exciting thing, that it’s a unique part of the tournament.”

The monster on the scales this week was a 699.5-pound blue marlin caught by John Schindler of Severna Park, Md., aboard “Restless Lady.” It was the only entry in the blue marlin category and paid $379,677. For Schindler, it was the first billfish he’d ever caught, so he took the customary swim in the harbor after the fish was weighed.

“My arms were killing me at the end,” Schindler said. “But I wasn’t going to give up for anything. It’s a dream come true. It was a once in a lifetime thing.”

Photo of a white marlin on the line

The white marlin category had an interesting outcome. Paul Coen of Wilmington, Del., aboard “Wee Wun IV” caught an 88.5-pounder on Friday, which edged the previous leader – an 86.5-pounder caught by Brian Kline of Laytonsville, Md., aboard “Tighten Up.” But because “Wee Wun IV” hadn’t entered the Class E calcutta pool and “Tighten Up” had, first place paid $289,063 and second place paid $758,828.

That difference in money did little to wipe the smile off Coen’s face.

It wouldn’t be fair to write about the White Marlin Open without mentioning the fish conservation measures that take place in it. With significant minimums required to bring a fish to the scales, the annual live release rate is around 98 percent. And an angler who chooses to bring a fish to the scales can also choose to donate the meat to the Maryland Food Bank.

Butch Langenfelder, the food sourcing manager for the Maryland Food Bank, was at the scales all five days to make certain no fish were wasted, especially that near-700-pound blue marlin, which was donated.

This isn’t just a marlin tournament. There are also significant cash prizes for tuna, dolphin, shark and wahoo.

But most of all, the White Marlin Open is a happening, an annual event that brings people together for more than just a chance to win some big money.

“A lot of it is camaraderie,” Motsko said. “A lot of these guys see each other once a year. Whether they go back to Mexico or the Florida Keys or Costa Rica, they see each other once a year at the White Marlin Open.”  

Photo of a white marlin dockside at weigh in