Webb St. Clair vividly recalls the day 15 years ago when he spent an hour and 45 minutes wrestling an 840-pound beast onto his boat.
In the waning hours of the last day of the White Marlin Open, based out of Ocean City, St. Clair and his team were working on reeling in their final few white marlin, roughly 70-pound fish worth the big money. When the angler felt a nibble — or perhaps a mammoth chomp — from a blue marlin, he hastily abandoned his plans.
And by the end of the day, St. Clair had caught the largest blue marlin — which he described as a submarine — in the tournament's then-24-year history.
“I truly love the tournament,” said the former life insurance worker who was based out of Ocean City for more than 30 years and won $230,000 in 1998. “I fished it 25 years before I won anything. I've fished it probably 10 times since then. I've fished almost every year they've been in existence. It's just something to look forward to every year.”
As one of the world's largest big-game fishing tournaments begins Monday, more than 300 teams also will be looking for their chance to take home some of the more than $1.2 million in prize money.
The contest gives awards for the largest catches for white marlin, blue marlin, tuna, dolphin, wahoo and shark. Last year, William Woody of Pasadena won $1.4 million for his 72-pound white marlin.
“The white marlin are just starting to move up into this area,” said contest president Jim Motsko, who has been racing up and down the East Coast since October to make this year's tournament run. “There's been a lot of bigeye tuna, which is really nice to hear.”
Motsko and St. Clair expect the next few days to be just enough to send the white marlin — which spend the cooler months in more tropical areas — into the tournament's 100-mile radius, in areas such as Poorman's and Washington canyons, 50 to 70 miles southeast of Ocean City.
“Generally when the White Marlin Open starts … everybody's looking for white marlin, and all of the sudden there's a lot of fish there,” St. Clair said.
With teams from across the Atlantic Coast expected to compete, Motsko is hoping for good weather. Winds interrupted the first day and final day of competition last year.
“I would just like to see five good days of weather where the boats can really pick and choose what days they want to fish, rather than the weather dictate what days they have to fish,” he said. Last year, “over 90 percent of the boats had to fish Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.”
St. Clair, whose blue-marlin record has since been broken — it's now held by Bob Farris of Charlotte, N.C., who caught a 1,062-pound fish in 2009 — says his tournament days may be dwindling. For him, this week is all about the beauty of the sport, enjoyed by anglers and Ocean City residents alike.
“It's beautiful to go out on the inlet if you're not fishing,” St. Clair said. “All the families line up along the inlet and watch these boats go out at 5 o'clock in the morning. … That's fun.”
White Marlin Open
When: Monday through Friday, 8:30¿a.m. to 3:30¿p.m.
Where: Harbour Island Marina, 419 14th St., Ocean City