OCEAN CITY -- Bob Bell steps into the salon of the Shamrock, slides the door closed and the hubbub of the White Marlin Open is shut out, the chatter of onlookers muted, the stares of the curious blacked out by dark glass.
For a day, and perhaps for four days more, Bell has captured the attention of a couple of thousand billfishing enthusiasts. A few minutes earlier, the Baltimore auto dealer had checked in an 80.5-pound white marlin, a fish that would be worth $230,000 by the end of the week.
Judging from the chatter along the docks at the Harbor Island Marina where the Open was headquartered, it is hard to tell whether the 7-foot fish or the prize money is the cause of the greatest excitement.
Bell, seated in the salon of his sleek sportfisherman, cold drink in hand, seems to be impressed by neither the size of the fish nor the size of the prize. One might think that he had done no more than sold a used Chevette or Pinto to a wholesale dealer from the Carolinas.
But, in fact, Bell, 58, has returned to the roots of his offshore fishing experience -- and his marlin had made him the rabbit in this five-day tournament.
"The first time I ever fished offshore was out of here in 1977, I'd say," said Bell, who since has explored the world in search of better billfishing.
"I haven't fished here in years because the fishing got so bad. But this [Maryland] is my home, and this year we said, what the hell, we would come back and fish."
Bad fishing, of course, is a relative thing -- relative to how much time and money one can spend on finding better fishing.
Bell has had the time and money to find his as far away as Australia, but the bulk of his five or six weeks of fishing a year is based out of Jupiter, Fla., where he owns a second home.
And Florida offshore fishing is better than Maryland's. Call it a fisherman's theory of relativity.
"The fishing here got so bad, that I said, what the hell," said Bell. "And after I took the boat to Florida, we just never came back.
"In the winter we would fish Florida and the Bahamas and in the spring and summer we would still fish Florida and the Bahamas. The fishing was awful here [Maryland] until the last two or three years."
The banner year for the White Marlin Open was 1980, and in the years since the tournament catch has fluctuated.
Still, the Open is a popular tournament and calcuttas -- added entry fees based on skill levels -- this year boosted the overall prize pool to more than $550,000.
"Let me tell you something about this," said Bell, "this is strictly a luck tournament. You know, we just happened to run over the fish today. We were fishing big baits for blue marlin."
Bell's tournament preference runs toward release competitions in which boats carry observers who document catches and releases, and anglers are scored on a points system.
"I think that is where talent and the boat come in -- because it really is a team effort," said Bell. "This tournament . . . If it is your day, then that is the way it goes. One fish can do it.
"That 80.5-pounder is the first white marlin I have killed in 10, 12 years. We usually let them all go."
Commercial fishermen, Bell said, don't need his assistance in reducing the world's population of billfish.
"The good thing about this tournament is that there are not a whole lot of 65-pound white marlin around," Bell said. "And they set that high minimum to protect the fish. If there is a bad side, it is that some of the less experienced fishermen can't judge size and they kill a few needlessly -- but very few.
"But, then, let's face it, we pretty much fish professionally against the best in the world, and we have done very well in tournaments over the years."
The catch of which Bell is most proud is a 1,234-pound black marlin taken off the coast of Australia.
"And we would have turned her loose, too," said Bell, "because I had no intention of killing her.
"But the fish died and so we ended up weighing it, putting it in the boat and having it mounted. It is in my Ford dealership in Glen Burnie."
So, why not spend another 46 or 47 weeks a year chasing big billfish and big bucks around the world rather than selling cars?
Perhaps the answer is in knowing the difference between business and pleasure and being able to be absorbed equally by either at the appropriate times.
"I don't want to retire from business. I love it," said Bell, adding that more time spent fishing would diminish the continuing thrill of the sport.
"Heck, I started fishing as a kid in a rowboat in the Potomac River, and then I fished the Chesapeake Bay for years," said Bell. "Then you just say, 'well, I love it. What's the next thing, if I can do it.' "
That depends, of course, on each fisherman's theory of relativity.
Top 10 anglers
(75 points for catch, tag and release; 70 points for catch and release; one point per pound for white marlin weighed over 60 pounds)
Angler, boat.. .. .. ... .. .. .. .. ...Points
1. Jason Alfandre, Smoker.. .. .. .. .. .. 341
2. R. Henley, Bobbin Jean.. .. .. .. .. .. 300
3. A.J. Flinchum, Allison.. .. .. .. .. .. 295
4. Kelly Conway, El-An-Bro.. .. .. .. .. ..290
5. Doug Hallgren, Carolinian.. .. .. .. .. 287
6. Mike Verzaleno, Mi-Jill.. .. .. .. .. ..284
7. Ben Poe, Trashman.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..225
8. Joe Baker, Jersey Devil.. .. .. .. .. . 220
9. D. Dickerson, Coupon Lady.. .. .. .. .. 220
10. Mike McNab, Reel Machine.. .. .. .. ...220
Note: Ties broken based on which angler caught fish first)
Top 10 boats
1. Dixie Lady.. .. .. .. ..450
2. Kingfisher.. .. .. .. ..370
3. Box Lunch .. .. .. .. ..370
Catspurr.. .. .. .. .. .350
5. Bobbin Jean.. .. .. .. .300
6. Allison.. .. .. .. .. ..295
7. Trashman.. .. .. .. .. .295
8. Fluid Power.. .. .. .. .290
9. El-An-Bro.. .. .. .. .. 290
10. Carolinian.. .. .. .. .287