Ocean City--If the intellectual freshwater sport of fly-fishing, immortalized in "A River Runs Through It," has a saltwater counterpart, it's marlin fishing.
"A white marlin is probably one of the most finicky fish," says Ocean City angler Jim Motsko. "They'll follow a bait for hours. It's real frustrating. They're a great equalizer; they can make a fool out of the best angler."
Or, as a white marlin did in last year's White Marlin Open, they can make a winner out of a 15-year-old fisherman. Tom Gessler Jr. took home $109,044 and a gold Rolex after hooking the largest white marlin, Mr. Motsko says.
"The fish doesn't know how old you are," Mr. Motsko says.
He and his cousin Chuck are the organizers of the annual White Marlin Open. This year will be the tournament's 21st year, and it runs Aug. 1-5.
"When we originally started it, there was never any guaranteed money in fishing tournaments," says Mr. Motsko. Golf and other sports had been offering guaranteed prizes, and he wanted to make it possible for anglers like himself to compete. "I couldn't afford to get in a tournament, but if I could get in one where I could win some money . . . that's how we started."
Mr. Motsko grew up in Baltimore and moved to Ocean City after graduating from the University of Maryland in 1968 -- "I'm a local but not a native!" he jokes of his residency in the resort.
He had worked his way through college on chartered fishing boats, and fishing then as now was his passion.
"You never know what you're going to catch," he says with a mixture of enthusiasm and awe for the ocean's ability to surprise. Marlin offer a challenge unmatched in the ocean, he says, unlike such other fish as tuna. "If you're trawling, a tuna is going to hook himself. In tuna fishing, you can just close your eyes."
Not so with marlin. If a marlin takes the bait on your hook, you had better get to the rod before the fish senses it's there -- or a marlin will just tear up the bait (and sometimes the rod too) before swimming away.
"When you fish in a tournament, you've got some money riding on it," says Mr. Motsko, who has always competed in the tournament he founded. "You don't want to make any mistakes. The good fishermen catch the big fish . . . usually."
But other factors come into play, too.
"In this tournament, luck has a lot to do with it -- a whole lot," he says. "I think that's why it draws so many boats."
Mr. Motsko and his cousin have made an effort to keep the tournament open to anyone, he says. To avoid penalizing smaller boats which can't compete with larger ones in rough weather, the tournament is run on a 3-out-of-5 basis: All boats pay the $700 entry fee, then fish for three of the five days. Each boat decides which three days it will fish. Most boats, Mr. Motsko says, fish about 60 miles offshore, in an area called "the canyons" -- where the continental shelf drops off. "It goes from 100 fathoms to 500 fathoms in a few miles," says Mr. Motsko.
Another factor for competitors is their boat's captain. It's his (or her) job to find the fish, using experience and knowledge of the ocean."The captain is like the hunter," Mr. Motsko explains. "The good captains get you there. If the captain can get you there, it's the angler's job to catch the fish!"
What good captains look for, he says, are conditions likely to lure smaller fish. Where there are little fish, big fish will follow, he says, because big fish eat little fish.
Over the years, the tournament has grown steadily and the prize money has increased, Mr. Motsko says. There is a guaranteed payout in each of six categories: heaviest white marlin, heaviest blue marlin, heaviest tuna, heaviest wahoo, heaviest dolphin and heaviest shark. Each category awards cash for first-, second- nd third-place finishers.
An "added entry" awards category allows competitors to enter themselves in one of five skill levels. Additional fees are charged -- ranging from $300 to $5,000 -- and 95 percent of the money collected is then shared among the winners in each of the six fishing categories.
To encourage good conservation practices among anglers, Mr. Motsko says, a billfish point-award system is also used. Fish under the minimum weight in each of the six categories that are put back into the ocean earn the angler points, and trophies and rings are given to the point winners.
Three judges will resolve any contested issues, and the weigh master is John Foster of the state Department of Natural Resources, Mr. Motsko says. Boats may not leave the inlet before 5:30 a.m., and may fish only from 8:30 to 3:30 (although any angler with a fish on the line is given an extension to bring it in, he says).
Although about half of last year's 233 boats came from within 20 miles of Ocean City, the tournament draws competitors from all over the Atlantic seaboard, Mr. Motsko says.
"In this tournament, it's almost like a free-for-all," says Mr. Motsko. "If you get lucky, you get lucky."
One prize is offered to all: the chance to fish for three days.
"You just get out on the ocean for three days -- that's a nice place to be," Mr. Motsko says.
IF YOU GO
Anyone may compete in the 21st Annual White Marlin Open. Entry fee is $700 per boat with no limit to the number of anglers per boat. There is no minimum size for boats. For further information, call Jim Motsko at (410) 289-9229.