Like every veteran fisherman, Jim Motsko has a classic story about the big one that got away.
It was 1987 and Mr. Motsko had never won anything in the White Marlin Open, Ocean City's mammoth billfishing tournament he had founded 13 years earlier.
On the last day of the five-day event, he was fishing aboard a 27-foot boat -- small for the billfish tournament -- captained by Chuck Willis, when he hooked a white marlin.
"As it jumped up," he remembers, "I looked at it and tought, 'That's a winner.' I had crazy thoughts that no one would believe this -- me hooking the winner in the last hour of the last day of fishing." And then he had an even crazier thought.
"I thought, 'White marlin, you've been good to me,'" Mr. Motsko says. "And I let him go. In my heart, I knew it was a big fish, probably a winner. But I wasn't going to kill the fish. White marlin have been too good to me."
And Jim Motsko's White Marlin Open has been good to Ocean City, too. Though the tournament receives no funding from the city, it brings thousands of people -- and millions of tourist and fishing industry dollars -- to the resort town each August. This year, more than 200 boats with at least 1,000 anglers are $H expected to compete tomorrow through Friday for half a million dollars in prize money in the tournament.
There's an added attraction this year: the first annual White Marlin Open Golf Tournament, which will be held at River Run, the new Gary Player signature course that opened in the spring. The tournament is designed to give visiting anglers an opportunity to see what Ocean City has to offer besides great sportfishing.
The White Marlin Open is one of the best-attended billfish tournaments in the world, and maybe the richest. Last year's big winner, Smitty Gray of Cary, N.C., took home $184,268. Although the tournament has guaranteed prize pot of $50,000, each participating angler pays entry fees that boost the kitty.
The 1,200 participants in last year's tourney resulted in a record $483,000 in prize money being divvied up.
Anglers will also be trying to best the tournament's record holders, including Steve Bass who holds the White Marlin Open record for heaviest white marlin for his 99-pound catch aboard the Top Hat in 1980; Dr. Jim Daniel, who caught the heaviest blue marlin, a state record 942 pounds, in 1989 aboard the Memory Maker; and Marc Wangel, who brought a 282-pound tuna aboard the Big Blue last summer.
The tournament features separate competitions for catches of white marlin, blue marlin, wahoo, tuna, dolphin and shark. Competitors may fish any three of the five tournament days, and boats may fish anywhere as long as they can get back to the Harbour Island marina in time for the weigh-ins, which take place from 4 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. Mr. Motsko says most anglers prefer the canyon areas 50 to 60 miles off Ocean City.
"Once you decide where to go, you're pretty much stuck," he says. "It takes too long to get from one spot to another." He says it takes an hour just to clear the wake of the hundreds of tournament boats that leave the Ocean City inlet at 5:30 a.m. and get out into the open ocean. Many anglers then head for the Baltimore Canyon, 56 miles east-southeast of Ocean City.
Others rely on sophisticated equipment to help them predict where the fishing will be good. Satellite pictures and information on water termperatures and weather are faxed directly to many boats. Other fishermen and women rely on their gut instincts. And success breeds success.
"If a boat did well in a spot one day, next day everyone gangs up there," says Mr. Motsko.
Ocean City earned the title of White Marlin Capital of the World after 171 of the fighting billfish were caught here in one day, two of them by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fishing from the presidential yacht, according to the book "Ocean City: Maryland's Grand Old Resort."
This year's less famous anglers will do their best to uphold the town's reputation. Here's a summary of the tournament rules:
* The basic entry fee is $650 for a boat with up to four anglers. Each additional angler on a registered boat is $50. Top anglers can pay additional fees to enter five other skill levels. The higher the skill level, the higher the potential prizes.
*Though boats are allowed to leave the Ocean City inlet (or Delaware's Indian River inlet) at 5:30 a.m., fishing hours are 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
* To be eligible for prizes, fish must be weighed in on the official scale at Harbour Island marina between 4 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. The only exception is that an angler still fighting a blue marlin (which can weigh up to nearly 1,000 pounds) will be given a three-hour extension if he reports his situation to a committee boat.
*Though the tournament goes on Monday through Friday, anglers may fish a maximum of three days. Each boat's crew must decide which three days to fish.