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."