Small boat enjoys battling big rigs in tuna tourney


OCEAN CITY -- Sunday afternoon, charter boat captains, fishermen and their families were gathered in the shade of the Flying Fish Saloon, awaiting the weigh-ins on the final day of the Ocean City Tuna Tournament.

Now, one might have expected the focus of the small, vocal crowd at the Ocean City Fishing Center to be centered on tuna. Instead, most eyes were on a set of television screens, on which the NASCAR race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., was being shown. It was a race in which Rusty Wallace was challenging for the lead to the great delight of a bartender with a pair of large, silver earrings.

The faster Wallace drove, the more the bartender paid attention to the screen. The more attention she paid to the race, the more raucous the crowd became -- many of whom, of course, were now rooting against Wallace and for every other driver.

On a day like Sunday, when only a half-dozen of 30 eligible tournament boats were left in the inlet, what else was there to do?

The tournament was already over, the murmurs went. By some, the prize money was being counted, the shares decided.

One of the few boats that did get out Sunday morning was Thunnus Amongus, a 25-foot Luhrs run by Kevin Sheckells and Tom Foor.

Sheckells said he and Foor, along with Tim McClenahan and John Schech, left the inlet at 3:30 a.m., well before a cold front moved over the coastline.

"Before daylight we were at Poorman's Canyon, looking for those things that would tell us where to fish -- water color, temperature, bait fish," said Foor. "But by about 7:45 a.m., [the wind] blew real hard, and I can tell you it is not much fun being that far offshore in a 25-foot boat in 10-foot seas."

Sheckells, a Baltimorean who makes his living in construction, grew up fishing the Chesapeake Bay for white perch, blues and rockfish "until about four years ago when we caught the tuna bug," said Sheckells, who late last spring caught a state record false albacore of 22 pounds, 8 ounces.

"For three years we have chartered boats and tried to learn all we could about this sport, and this year we are running our own boat for the first time," he said.

Two hours before the scales closed, Sheckells and company were in third place for most pounds of tuna caught and wondering whether their position would hold up.

"We didn't catch much today except a very big king mackerel," said Foor, a marine engineer from Arnold. "In fact, today was one when you tried not to get killed out there.

"On any other day, we would have just come in when the weather turned bad. But this was the tournament and we felt we had to fish it."

Tuna fishing, especially tournaments where there are cash prizes and side bets, draws a mixed crowd.

The O.C. tournament drew 76 boats this year, up about 20 entries from last year. Bikers from Pennsylvania. Bankers and car dealers from Baltimore and Washington. Mom and pop teams on big boats and groups like Sheckells and Foor on a boat just big enough and fast enough to carry them to the canyons where the big fish feed.

"The attraction?" Sheckells said. "It's just the fact that a fish that is one third your own weight but has 10 times your strength can bring you to your knees."

Said Foor, "It is the classic struggle of man against nature."

Late Sunday afternoon, the Sheckells group figured that if they finished third they might win a total of $3,600.

"If we do [place third]," said Foor, "we won't even break even for that kind of money. We have spent over $2,000 on fuel for this year, just until now. We don't do it for the money. This is a passion, and we have done our homework and paid our dues."

Learning the ins and outs of tuna fishing, however, is not always easy, Sheckells and Foor agreed.

"When we were chartering boats, we would go out and work rather than sit back and drink while the captain and mate took care of everything," said Foor. "We learned all the knots, how to read the water, picked up all the tips we could."

Thunnus Amongus stayed in the running almost to the end, only to be bumped out of third place by a tie for second.

"But, you know, it feels good to be out there in a $50,000 boat and to be running with the big guys in $600,000 machines," said Foor. "That little 25-footer caught a lot more fish than some of the big boys did. We have paid our dues."

The Salty Dog II, captained by Steve Spindler, won the largest fish division with an 88-pound bluefin that won $23,775. The most pounds division was won by the Reel Time, with 310 pounds.

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