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Angling to cash in on a trophy catch 1,200 to compete in White Marlin Open

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ocean City -- Shortly after 5 o'clock tomorrow, the morning will fill with a rumble of sound, the air will be tainted with diesel fumes, and -- given fair weather -- the better part of 1,200 anxious anglers will board a fleet of swift sportfishermen for the first day of the White Marlin Open.

Each morning through Friday, the sportfishermen will growl down the back bay channels, bully their way through the Ocean City inlet to the sea buoy and, no earlier than 5:30 a.m., throttle up until 170 or more big boats are off and running fast into the Atlantic Ocean.

For some boats, the run offshore will be relatively brief -- 53 miles to Poor Man's Canyon, for example; 56 to Baltimore Canyon or 57 to Washington Canyon. Others may run 72 miles to Wilmington Canyon or 75 to Norfolk Canyon.

Still others may choose to stay closer to home and try their luck inside the 50-fathom line, which marks the edge of the continental shelf, where the tournament fish -- marlin, tuna, dolphin, wahoo and shark -- prowl the edges of structure, grass ** lines and warm currents.

"You basically know the fishing conditions, because you spend so much time there," said Brad Watkins, president of the Ocean City Marlin Club, who has fished this tournament since 1974. "But the weather is probably as important as any issue there is. . . . Decisions on it will have to be made daily."

Although the tournament runs five days, each boat is allowed to fish only three days, and each captain will be trying to pick days with near optimal conditions -- winds southeast at 10 to 15 knots, seas one to three feet and areas where the water temperature is close to 78 degrees.

"Most any easterly wind, especially southeast and east, will push the warmer water inshore, and it does seem to make the fishing better," said Capt. Ray Parker, who has been working the coast as a charter captain for 52 years.

The source of the warmer water is the Gulf Stream, the dominant current that runs north along the Atlantic Coast. An easterly wind spreads its flow westerly toward the shore, breaking off pockets or eddys of warm water and sargasso weed, and the fish follow along.

On a good day, the billfish may be seen tailing down the waves, moving with the wind, and the fishing is likely to be good.

On a bad day, when the weather is squally or the breeze blows hard from the northwest, fishing can be a matter of diminishing returns.

But on each tournament day, fair weather or foul, by evening a crowd of perhaps 2,000 spectators will be gathered at the Harbor Island Marina at 14th Street and the bay, to watch the sportfishermen, flying different colored flags to designate their catch, unload at the tournament scales.

They'll be waiting for a chance to see a white marlin such as Steve Bass' tournament record 99-pounder caught in 1980, or Dr. Jim Daniel's state record 942-pound blue marlin caught in 1989.

"What makes this a good tournament is that you are never out of it until the last minute," said Jim Motsko, who with his brother Chuck, is co-director of the Open. "You cannot be shut out from the get-go. You always have a chance of catching the big fish."

In last year's tournament, a storm blew up on Friday, and only a handful of boats went out, which certainly was fine with Kevin Cooney, a restaurateur from Sykesville, who the day before had caught the largest white marlin of the week, an 83-pounder worth $77,310.

"It was our last tournament day that we could fish," said Cooney, 33, who owns the Canopy Restaurants. "We went Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and I think we caught it about noon or 1 p.m. It just happened to be my turn on the rod."

Cooney and six friends had chartered Capt. Parker's SeaBird, based out of Wachapreague, Va., and for several days last August Cooney wanted just one more shot at the big one that got away.

"I was the third person [on the rod] the first day and my fish -- whatever it was -- stripped the reel out to the end of the line, and as soon as the captain put the boat in reverse, it got off.

"We never got to see it, but evidently it was the biggest fish so far on the boat."

The next person on the rod caught a fish.

"By the end of Wednesday," Cooney recalled, "I was the only one that didn't actually bring a fish aboard."

A second shot?

By Thursday, Cooney, who goes deep sea fishing for tuna or dolphin "three or five" times a year, was beginning to wonder whether he would get a second shot at a fish, any fish.

"You go out at 5:30 a.m. and start fishing at 8:30 -- and all day long, nothing. Not a bite," Cooney said. "I had to wait for my turn, and then we hooked two white marlin at once."

The other white marlin got off, but Cooney's fish was hooked well.

"We never really saw it -- it didn't jump like a typical white marlin would -- so we really didn't know what it was until it got right at the boat," Cooney said. "It was a complete surprise when it jumped about three feet away."

After the marlin jumped, Cooney said, it went all the way back down again in 100 fathoms and finally, after about 25 minutes, it was brought to the boat.

"I have been marlin fishing a couple of times, but I have never been on a boat that has caught one," Cooney said. "This was the first that I had caught. It was wild."

On Friday, Cooney and company were sweating it out, hoping that the 83-pounder would stand up through the last tournament day.

"Of course we were on the dock all day waiting for them to come in -- and no one had caught a white marlin," said Cooney. "But the last boat to come in had a tuna that almost knocked my partner out of third place [in that category]."

As Cooney recalls, it was raining hard and because of the weather, tournament officials were using a manual scale rather than the normal electronic model.

According to the manual scale, the last tuna in was heavier than the one taken on SeaBird, and a protest resulted.

"Supposedly this is the only protest in the history of the tournament," Cooney said. "The mate on our boat, who had been a first mate all his life, said that the other tuna couldn't weigh that much.

"So they used the electronic scale and it ended up being three pounds lighter than my partner's."

Put another $1,000 prize aboard SeaBird.

A tournament of riches

The White Marlin Open is a big money tournament, said by its promoters to be the largest and richest billfish competition in the world.

Last year's tournament attracted more than 1,200 anglers and over the past four years more than $2 million has been paid out in prize money. In overall prize money, including added entry levels, Terry Layton of Ocean City won $218,450 last year.

It also is a kill tournament in which fish are caught and transported to the scales to be weighed.

There is, however, another side to the tournament, a facet that is less publicized but might be a better measure of the skills of captains, mates and fishermen -- the billfish points competition, in which billfish are hooked and released.

Fishermen, mates and captains are awarded points for catching and releasing marlin, sailfish and swordfish, and non-cash prizes are awarded to the top 10 anglers and the top 10 boats.

"Even though it is a kill tournament, they set very high [weight] minimums so that you don't kill a lot of fish," said Watkins, the Ocean City Marlin Club president. "We definitely encourage releasing and conservation.

"But their [White Marlin Open] release ratio is absolutely excellent, and I feel that it probably is in the 94 percentile."

The minimum weight for white marlin is 65 pounds, the minimum for blue marlin is 250 pounds.

"I have caught an awful lot of fish [in the White Marlin Open]," said Watkins, 45, who operates an auto and truck repair business in Salisbury. "I have been second high angler before. I have been in the top 10 six times. My boat has won the release category and placed in the top 10 numerous times.

"But I have never seen, missed or caught a fish that warranted being weighed. We have never killed a fish in the White Marlin Open."

The response Watkins receives to those statements most often, he said, is that he hasn't been using baits big enough to attract the larger fish.

"But that is not the point," said Watkins. "All we can do is raise the fish, we really don't have any control whether a 50-pound white marlin pops up or a 70. It really takes no more skill to catch one over the other.

"That's why the money tournaments are sometimes referred to as luck -- you just happened to catch the right fish."

Making your own luck

Capt. Parker, who has been a licensed captain since 1940 and has run his own boat since the year '47, knows something about deep sea fishing, and how it is possible to make your own luck, even though he will be the first to deny it.

"I don't know about making luck," said Parker, whose boat Cooney and company chartered last year. "I did hook the [winning] fish last year, up on the bridge. I had two on at one time. Holding one rod in each hand, and it seems that just about all the anglers were sitting up in the bridge, just watching."

Over half a century, Parker has seen many things along the coast from Wachapreague to Wilmington Canyon.

"No doubt in the world about it. I think the first billfish I caught was maybe in the year '48 or '49," Parker said. "In that area. I can't really remember just, you know.

"As a matter of fact, the old boat that I had built in '47 with my father and brother was one of three, almost the only three boats at that time, that ventured offshore in the ocean. About 15 miles at the maximum, that is about as far as you needed to go to catch white marlin."

In the years since, the fishing pressure has increased, weather patterns have changed, the curious habitat of the billfish has diminished, and no longer is the run a mere 15 miles.

"I believe -- I'll say in the year '65 the fishing started going -- at that time there were lots of white marlin 15 miles off the beach," Parker said. "From '65, it seems, until now, each year they have been getting farther out and farther out and farther out."

Fishing pressure

Walk through the various marinas in Ocean City or take a harbor cruise, look around and try to count the number of polished sportfishermen tied at the docks and then figure five, six, eight or 10 anglers aboard each, all eager to have their shot offshore from the White Marlin Capital of the World.

That adds up to fishing pressure, which, even with growing numbers of catch and release fishermen, is many times that of 50 years ago.

Follow the weather patterns and, although it may seem different, Parker said there have been fewer heavy storms and hurricanes hammering the shore since the mid-'60s than there were through the '50s and early '60s.

And then go to sea in search of sargasso weed, or as Parker calls it, Gulf Stream grass.

"For the last five years, you almost see none unless you get close to 60 miles offshore," Parker said. "You see, back in the '60s, let's say from '50 to '65, there was a lot of hurricanes, an awful lot of hurricanes. Maybe it was the hurricanes that kept pushing this stuff in."

Without the sargasso, the feed for the big predators like the billfish has diminished. Pilchards. Flying fish. Little dolphins. Microscopic plankton eaten by the smaller fish, which in turn are eaten by the larger fish.

"I have seen patches of grass out there so big I was actually afraid to run my boat through it," Parker said. "Afraid the boat would get stuck.

"Wherever you found the weed lines or patches of it, there was dolphin there right among the grass. And the same with the marlin, they would be right there, trying to feed on the dolphin."

As it is, Parker said, a captain fortunate enough to find most any kind of debris floating in the ocean is apt to find dolphin around it -- and sometimes a white marlin or blue marlin chasing them.

Working the shelf

These days, rather than scouting the edges of the sargasso, Parker said, the captains work the edges of the continental shelf, starting along the canyons or the edge where the bottom drops off from 50 fathoms to a 100 fathoms.

"It seems like most of the fish anymore concentrate along the edge of the dropoffs, both in the canyons and along the shelf," Parker said.

Which canyons the captains will fish will depend on wind, weather and sea conditions.

"Often the fish go with the wind," Parker said. "I know that many years ago when there was so many fish on the Jackspot near Ocean City they would be catching them galore, and here would come a northeast wind and they would be right off Wachapreague. Here would come a southerly wind, and they would be right back at Ocean City again.

"Strange, but they tail along."

These days, Parker and other captains work from Loran or GPS units, depth recorders, surface temperature gauges and some pay weather services.

Parker can recall going by nothing but the compass heading and time traveled at constant speed.

"You kept looking at the water color," Parker said. "If the water color suited you, you'd say, well this ought to be OK and let that be it and that would be that."

Looking for clues

But there would be other clues that added up to a dead reckoning on where the billfish were -- flying fish getting up, an unusual pattern to the swell as it broke over an underwater hill, hump or edge, all signs that signaled potentially good conditions or habitat.

"It is very important that you look and see what you can see ahead of you or on the sides of you," Parker said. "Your eyes over the years, I guess, are trained. You can see the least little bit of a fin half a mile away or a quarter mile away. Or you'll see a little splash. Or two or three little birds working together somewhere."

It also is important that the mate in the cockpit has his eyes on the baits being trolled. Often a marlin may be lying deep in the water, come up quickly and be gone.

"I have always said that a marlin is not going to come up and stick a flag up and say, now here I am, now you get ready," Parker said. "I think a lot of people think that, but it don't happen. It takes just a split second sometimes to make the day or to do what you've got to do about a fish.

"It all adds to one lucky pluck, that's right."

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