Hooked

White Marlin Open, with boats, booze, babes and bucks, is a big fish Ocean City didn't let get away.

August 08, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - Here is where the impossibly tan meet the incredibly wealthy, where Gidget meets Thurston Howell III.

This week, the Harbour Island Marina is a world untouched by everyday concerns like Enron, snakeheads - or SPF 40.

It's all about the billfish, says the founder of the annual White Marlin Open. That's the reason thousands of spectators line the docks and boat slips each evening to cheer the tanned, muscled men who hoist huge fish pulled out of the Atlantic onto a digital scale.

But it's become more than just a fishing tournament since its inaugural outing in 1974, when fewer than 100 boats signed up.

"It's the high point of the summer, second only to the Fourth of July," says Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias, a Baltimore native who arrived in town the year before the first Open. "It's standing-room-only crowds at the weigh-in. It's a very exciting time."

Ocean City calls itself the "White Marlin Capital of the World," and the Open is believed to be the largest billfish tournament in the world.

This year, a record 402 boats have registered to compete in the five-day tournament, for a shot at $2 million in prize money. The gleaming white fleet will take 1,500 anglers more than 50 miles off shore to the deep ocean canyons where the big fish are.

And the official prize money is only the tip of the iceberg. An informal "Brown Bag Calcutta" among professional captains and mates adds up to side bets worth thousands of dollars that bypass the usual federal bookkeeping.

Ocean City, of course, also bills itself as "America's Favorite Family Resort." But before and after the fish are weighed, the Open is a very adult show starring bikini babes, blender beverages, bodacious boats and big bucks.

"It's an awesome atmosphere," says Ryan Pflugrad, who comes to Ocean City from the Baltimore area each year just to help the dockside bartenders at the tournament. "Monday night it was insane. You couldn't even get by on the walkway."

Beer is big with this crowd, and so are "007s" (orange-flavored Stoli vodka, orange juice and 7UP). But rum drinks with lots of crushed ice rule.

Two years ago, bartenders were flown in from ski resorts and the Florida Keys to make the fancier beverages, but this year the locals have things under control.

"Big" is also big with the Open crowd. The boats that arrive for the week can make respectable 25-footers seem small. Huge Vikings more than twice that size topped with two-story "tuna towers" dwarf their slips. TV satellite dishes share space on the masts with radar domes and radio antennas.

That's not to say these folks are jaded. Heads turned and landlubbers pointed Monday, when a $2 million cabin cruiser with gorgeous teak trim motored into position in the marina.

Anyway, Open founder Jim Motsko is fond of saying, when it comes to fishing boats, size doesn't matter.

"The fish don't know what size boat you're in. We've had people in little boats catch big fish and people in big boats not catch any at all," he says.

Many boats in the tournament are from Maryland, but there's a healthy showing of vessels from North Carolina, Florida and New Jersey, some of which follow the billfish tournament trail each season as it travels north from the Florida Keys.

Last year, one Ocean City angler won $830,000 and another won $721,000.

"One winner came in and bought the entire bar a drink," says Pflugrad, shaking his head. "It was a circus."

Spectators start gathering at 4 p.m. each day, passing the time with old friends and buying White Marlin Open merchandise. The crowd swells as beachgoers begin drifting from the oceanside to the bayside of the island.

Someone sets up some speakers on a nearby condo deck, and the party begins. Just to make sure everyone stays in an upbeat mood, young women pass through the crowd pulling little wagons of ice-cold beer. One wagon is decorated with a bumper sticker that says, "My kid can outfish your honor student."

Yet despite the liberal application of libations, Ocean City police officers say they've rarely had to enforce the peace.

For their part, city officials say the Open is a good neighbor with deep pockets.

"It's as vital to us as our beaches and boardwalk and caramel corn," says Mathias. "It's all about the romance of the open sea, the roar of the diesels. It gives you goose bumps."

But there's a more practical side, too, Mathias acknowledges.

"It's the boat fuel that's sold, the meals bought and the hotel rooms. The multiplier effect is critical."

An economic study in the early 1990s put the impact of the tournament at more than $10 million. Since then, "we've quadrupled the prize money and doubled the entries," says founder Motsko. So you can do the math.

The anglers say Ocean City is a good host, and each year Motsko ensures that the prize money makes his Open the place to be.

And, as with any good party, there'll be a letdown Saturday when everyone packs up and leaves.

"It signals to me that summer is starting to wane," said Mathias. "You start hearing `See You in September' and Brian Hyland in your head. It's a bittersweet moment."

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