Sea's big fish are big business for Ocean City charter boats OCEAN SPORT

September 11, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

OCEAN CITY — The sun hasn't even hinted at an appearance as the Speculator slides away from the dock and heads toward the Atlantic. It's 5:30 in the morning, and Capt. Eric Blanks cruises around the inlet, past the rows of still-dark condominiums and hotels, and out to the ocean. He's the captain of the Speculator, a 37-foot Bertram sport-fishing boat that charters out of the Ocean City Fishing Center.

"You can get anything out here -- you never know," says Mr. Blanks from his perch on the bridge, the boat's middle level. Above him is the third level, called the tower, while below is the deck, where 10 fishing rods sit in their holders at the ready.

Mate Brad Martin agrees. He's enjoying a few minutes of down time in the seats in front of the captain; soon he will begin chopping up bait, baiting hooks and checking lines -- a job that can get frantic if the fish are biting.

He likes his work and is already a little sad that it will end soon. "This is the last chance I'll have," he says wistfully, reflecting on the past year. "Do it while I can. . . ."

He's followed the fishing boats from Florida to Hatteras to Ocean City, but this fall, he'll give it up to get married -- "There's a little girl in Baltimore tapping her foot, waiting for me" -- and return to a regular job, probably in retail sales.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Blanks are the crew on the Speculator, and on this day, the boat's owner and four of his friends are on board, hoping for a white marlin before the day's out. "White marlin, they can be really frustrating," says Mr. Martin. "They come up, smack the boat with their bills, then disappear!"

But frustrating or not, white marlin are what attract anglers to Ocean City. The town bills itself as the White Marlin Capital of the World, is the site of the White Marlin Open and is home to some 60 charter fishing boats.

It's big business, with a charter boat costing $600 to $1,200 a day (mates work for tips, which are extra). The charters go about 55 or 60 miles offshore, to an area called the canyons, where the continental shelf drops off. Before the canyons, the water is about 50 fathoms (or 300 feet) deep; in the canyons, it can range from 100 fathoms to 500 fathoms (600 feet to 3,000 feet). Big fish need a lot of room.

On this day, the Speculator will try its luck in the Baltimore Canyon, due east of Ocean City. As the sun emerges over the horizon, Mr. Blanks is already on the radio, checking with other boat captains to see where the fish are.

The marlin have been biting today, he learns; one boat has had such good luck that it spent the night out there and has already landed several this morning.

It's a perfect fishing day -- a light wind and very little swell or chop on the water. But for Mr. Blanks, it's only a perfect day if they bite. "I'd rather spend a rough day catching fish than a calm day not catching fish!" he says."

By 8 a.m., the lines are baited and the two outrigger arms have been extended from the sides of the boat to spread the lines. It's an elaborate pattern, resembling a cobweb, with each pole's line carefully arranged. Some lines have "teasers," a row of plastic fish like a kite's tail, with a real fish at the end. And sure enough, the marlin are there, albeit briefly. One of the lines quivers and bends shortly after 8:30 a.m. Captain and mate see it and shout, and the five anglers on the deck spring to action.

A marlin is on the line, and Mr. Martin shouts for someone to grab the pole and sit in the chair on deck, called a "fighting chair," and bring the fish in. But it's a short fight -- the marlin pulls away unhooked and silence falls again on the boat.

By 10 a.m., it's clear the marlin isn't coming back. Mr. Blanks tells Mr. Martin to pull in some of the lines, and he does. The boat moves on -- driven by the "wandering instinct" Mr. Blanks says he gets when one spot doesn't yield fish -- and cruises around Baltimore Canyon.

It's a sequence that will repeat itself all day. Pull in lines, cruise, idle in a circle, rebait and rehang the lines. Wait. Wait.

The talk turns to what might be the problem. "Any bananas on board?" asks Mr. Blanks. A poll turns up a positive answer: A photographer along for the day has three bananas in his backpack and so does one of the owner's guests.

Not good; this appears to be a superstition widely shared by boat captains. "Potassium problem on board," Mr. Martin says seriously, and the captain agrees.

After some discussion, the bananas are eaten and the peels tossed overboard.

Still no fish. Mr. Blanks goes downstairs and changes hats, discarding a Teach's Lair (from a Hatteras marina) baseball cap to a Seacrets (an Ocean City nightclub) one. "I've changed my hat," he says expectantly.

More waiting. No fish.

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