OCEAN CITY - One bite. That's all it takes.
Land a big fish and walk away with a six-figure check.
Sounds simple. It isn't.
The 27th annual White Marlin Open began yesterday as it did last year. Quietly. Of the 348 boats registered for the five-day tournament, only 20 ventured out on the choppy seas.
That disappointed the several hundred spectators who began to gather at the mouth of the Ocean City inlet at 4:30 a.m. to watch the hardy handful who were shaken and stirred as they left the protection of the bay for open water.
The Coast Guard said seas were running about 4 feet and winds were out of the southwest at 15 mph.
"They'll be back," said Margaret Phipps of Annapolis as she watched the Megabite rise and plunge through the surf. "One-half hour and they'll be back. They're crazy."
Sure enough, within an hour some boats were heading in.
After a full day of fishing, only one boat landed a fish that qualified under tournament rules. Ed Doniecki of Hanovercaught a 77-pound tuna in Washington Canyon. He was fishing aboard Hobo out of Winchester, Va.
But the beauty of this tournament, anglers say, is that you can fish any three days, allowing them the luxury of sleeping in if the weather is lousy or letting other boats scout for the good fishing spots.
Open president Jim Motsko predicted a larger number of boats will go out today, even if conditions are less than ideal. At stake is $1.425 million in prize money.
"Now, there's no playing around," Motsko said. "You don't want to have to face fishing the final three days with maybe uncertain weather on Friday."
Last year, the partial washout of the first day only added to the intensity of the action later in the week. The tournament entered the final day without any white marlin qualifying. The minimum for white is 65 pounds.
In addition, the open also has prizes for blue marlin, dolphin, tuna, wahoo and shark. The winners will be known when scales close at 9:15 p.m. Friday.
The White Marlin Open is considered the world's largest billfish tournament, but it also is known as the people's tournament. It takes $750 to register a boat at the most basic level, and there's no limit to the number of anglers allowed to fish from it. Veteran fishermen have won on huge boats, and first-timers have won on itty-bitty ones.
"Once you're out on the ocean, anything can happen," Motsko said.
A lot of folks remember how in 1989, Jim Daniel caught the state-record 942-pound blue marlin from a 28-foot boat.
"The fish was longer than the boat was wide," said John Foster, the tournament weighmaster. "They had to quit fishing because they didn't have any room in the cockpit."
The turbulent weather conditions off shore have intensified the action on land. The boardwalk is packed and restaurant waiting lines are long. The Ocean City Department of Tourism doesn't know how much money the Open generates, but a spokeswoman said the economic boost is widely felt.
"This is one of the biggest weeks of the summer, and the White Marlin Open is a major contributor to that," said Donna Abbott. "This draws thousands of people to town, and it's not only motels and restaurants, it's fuel, supplies and souvenirs."