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High seas, high stakes Tournament: The annual White Marlin Open off the Maryland coast draws expensive boats to an event that combines the spirit of gambling with the atmosphere of a party.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OCEAN CITY -- Ten minutes into this year's White Marlin Open, another $400,000 seemed as close as the end of the fishing line for John Brown and his fishing buddies.

"We got a white one already!" Brown said as one of his buddies climbed into the fighting chair and started reeling.

The six friends had put about $3,000 each into what amounts to an annual high-seas poker game under way 100 miles off the coast of Maryland. With a record 264 boats chasing the elusive white marlin this week, the tournament remains the largest such event in the world, its organizers say.

The three grand is a drop in the ocean for many of the entrants, the types who spend $2.4 million on fishing boats the size of a decent back yard or send their private jets to Florida to fly in a world-class captain.

In one sense, Brown is something of an exception. The 61-year-old from Broad Run, Va., is the only painting contractor known to be in the tournament. Last year, he used his cut of the $416,890 first prize to remodel part of his house and help his wife pay credit card debts.

Now, 12 months later, with the marlin on the line, it looked as if he could go to work on the rest of the house.

But each time the marlin jumped from the water, the oohs and aahs on deck became less and less enthusiastic.

By the time the fish was lifted into the boat, it was clear that it wasn't going to win anyone anything. Estimated at about 45 pounds -- a relative tyke by white marlin standards -- the fish was unhooked and tossed back.

The anglers then settled in for deep-sea fishing at its most mindless. The boats travel slowly, pulling along several lines baited with fish, squid or plastic lures.

Among Brown's group, a favorite activity was the nap.

By 3 p.m., the captain of Brown's boat, Harvey Shiflet, was looking for life just north of Norfolk Canyon.

"It's really a waiting game," he said, holding the boat's wheel behind his back while he looked astern. "You just stare at the baits all day long."

The boat didn't land another fish all day.

As of last night, the leading white marlin was a 76-pounder, which could be topped before the tournament ends today. There are other categories of fish, including the much larger blue marlin -- a 691-pounder was caught Wednesday -- but the big money is on the finicky whites.

White marlin often swim after bait for minutes before deciding whether to strike. When they do, they thrash and jump so much that they often pull out of the hooks. The angler must find a delicate but decisive balance, holding the line taut enough to keep the fish hooked but not so tight that the line breaks.

On land, the anglers turn to more social pursuits as the affair becomes a giant dockside cocktail party every evening. One rumor making the rounds: Star professional golfer Davis Love III would soon be the owner of John Vidinghoff's boat. (The story checked out.)

It is the kind of crowd whose members can buy almost anything they want. But landing a white marlin remains an elusive, attractive challenge.

Take Tony Martino, a one-time transmission mechanic from Philadelphia for whom acronyms have been very, very good.

There was AAMCO, a chain of 550 transmission shops he started in 1959. And there is MAACO, a chain of 500 car-painting and body-work shops he started 13 years later.

Martino, 64, also owns about 40 Goddard Early Learning Centers, a new venture.

He brought his best 65-foot boat to the tournament. The other 65-footer is docked in Palm Beach, Fla. (Martino plans to sell one of them.)

A $2.4 million boat

The $2.4 million best boat has $35,000 worth of fishing equipment, three bedrooms and a hot tub. It is powered by two 1,500-horsepower engines, each the size of a Ford Festiva.

While walking through the boat Tuesday, Martino politely explained how the fax machine on the kitchen counter helps him keep in touch with business.

"Somebody's got to pay the bills," he said, climbing a ladder to the air-conditioned captain's deck, which appears to have enough screens and knobs to command the taking of a small armada.

The boat allows him to travel in comfort up and down the East Coast. With a chuckle, though, he tells of catching just as many fish on earlier, smaller boats.

'Showing off'

"I don't think all this stuff is needed," he said. "It's just showing off."

Martino's boat was docked at the Harbour Island Marina, where during tournament week slips go for up to $2,000 and waterside townhouses go for up to $2,800.

The base entry fee for the tournament, which began Monday, is $750. Anglers also can enter various "calcuttas" -- costing up to $5,000 per boat -- that entitle them to compete for larger prizes.

This year, it cost nearly $10,000 to enter all of the calcuttas, a total at least one angler kept as a wad of cash in his front pocket while standing in the registration line.

The total prize money is $860,000, also a White Marlin Open record.

Tournament organizers stress that all winners are required to fill out federal 1099 tax forms.

"The IRS knows what we're doing; the state knows what we're doing. It's totally aboveboard," said Chuck Motsko, a tournament director.

In many ways, the tournament is a civic event. White Marlin Open banners are draped throughout the summer resort. Tourists, resident and anglers flock to the docks by the thousands. Ocean City's Chamber of Commerce estimates that the tournament pumps $6 million into the local economy every year, Motsko said.

But there is clearly a spirit of gambling in the air.

"When I go to Vegas, I take $7,000," said Brown's stepson Billy, an Arlington, Va., restaurant owner who once held a topless golf tournament for charity. "If I win, I win. If I lose, I lose."

Some anglers are on more restricted budgets. Alan Hull, a 40-year-old maritime mechanic from Mayo, was going at it with his friends on a 27-foot boat. Every morning they heated sausage and biscuits on board.

"You just lay them down right on the intake manifold," Hull said.

Public weighings

He and others all are angling for a spot at center stage, in the form of public weighings every night at Harbour Island Marina.

There to greet them is John Foster, the Maryland representative of the International Game Fish Association. Waving a Torrymeter, which looks like a fat, red telephone receiver, Foster scans each fish for its electrical potential, which tells him how long it has been dead. The procedure would detect, for example, a ringer fish that had been caught earlier, defrosted and sneaked onto a boat.

Also on the dock is Mike Hannon, who looks over the fish for foreign objects and such things as the blood-soaked rag Hannon spotted Monday evening stuffed into the side of a giant blue marlin. (Plugging gaff wounds at sea helps contain blood -- and weight.)

Hannon looked at the boat's mate as if to say, "Sorry, but I have to do it," and pulled out the plug. The blue marlin finished second to the first-day leader by a pound -- about the weight of the rag, Hannon later estimated.

For those not at center stage, there is always time to talk about the one that got away.

"Everyone out here lost the winning fish yesterday," Motsko joked Tuesday.

An angler said, "George Washington is not fishing this tournament."

Deep-sea fishing isn't all fun and games for everyone involved, particularly the captains and mates who are hired by many of the anglers.

The mates -- who are typically in their early 20s, work long hours and have dark tans -- prepare the bait, hook the lines and maintain the fishing equipment. When a fish strikes, the mates set the hooks into the fish, then hand the rods to the anglers, who must reel the fish in.

'You can't fail'

"They set it up so you can't fail, which is great," said Chris Stahl, who fished with Brown and whose consulting business in southern Florida helped secure more than $1 billion worth of government contracts for its clients last year.

Tuesday afternoon, when most boats stayed in because of forecasts of unfavorable weather, Capt. Chip Shafer of North Carolina had to repair a faulty toilet on his boat. Like other owner-operators, Shafer charters out his own boat. The going rate is about $1,000 a day for a boat that is typically worth about $300,000.

The owner-operators say it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with the huge new boats that, if nothing else, can get to fishing hot spots more quickly.

For this year's tournament, Shafer -- who would get a big tip if he skippered the winners -- has the full confidence of the angler who hired him.

"The guy just finds fish. He can smell fish," said Marc Beaubien, a local beer distributor.

Standing on a dock Sunday night Beaubien said he and his fishing colleagues had entered all of the calcuttas.

"If you're not going to put up the money," he said, "why fish?"

Pub Date: 8/08/97

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