A fish story that keeps growing

OUTDOORS

August 01, 2004|By CANDUS THOMSON

OCEAN CITY - Some people come here for the sun and sand. Some come because it's a family tradition.

But this week, several hundred people are here because they hope to hook a million bucks.

At the White Marlin Open, six-figure checks are the norm, and last year's winner, Doug Remsberg, walked off with $1.3 million for a 78.5-pound white. That's $16,611 a pound.

"Not your average supermarket fish, is it?" says Jim Motsko, founder and director of the 31-year-old event, believed to be the largest and most lucrative billfish tournament in the world.

Motsko handed out $2.2 million in prize money in 2003. This year, he expects to award $2.5 million.

For a city that calls itself the "White Marlin Capital of the World," this is just what the marketing department ordered.

Ocean City officials say a 1990 survey estimated that the tournament was worth $10 million to the local economy.

With more than 400 boats expected to take part this year, the White Marlin Open might be the biggest game, but it isn't the only one.

From the second day of 2004 to the end of the year, at least 80 tournaments are scheduled for East Coast waters. Prizes range from trophies and a mention in the local sports section to several thousand dollars. These tournaments draw sponsors, too, from the expected hull-and-engine manufacturers and marine supply stores to liquor-makers Bacardi and Drambuie.

There are events just for women, children, the handicapped and veterans.

Tournaments begin moving up the coast in late April, before picking up steam on Memorial Day weekend along the North Carolina coast. Maryland joins in during the July 4th holiday with its Canyon Kickoff Tournament, which was started 21 years ago by the Ocean City Marlin Club.

The Billfish Tournament Network, which keeps a schedule of events, lists the Falmouth (Mass.) Grand Prix, held in late August, as the farthest north billfish tournament.

Several tournaments trade on the name of the best-known billfisherman of them all, Ernest Hemingway.

The Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament, begun in 1950, is held in Cuba each June by a Havana marina. In July, Key West, Fla., has a blue marlin tournament that includes a "Papa" lookalike contest.

Hemingway was an avid blue marlin angler. With his friend, bar owner Joe Russell, he boasted of reeling in 54 blue marlin off Key West during 115 days of fishing. The largest one weighed 540 pounds.

Those kinds of numbers make today's conservationists cringe. No one knows how many marlin are left in the world's oceans, but almost everyone agrees that there may come a time in the not-too-distant future when the population will not be able to sustain itself.

Motsko, the White Marlin Open founder, has set very high minimum weights for white and blue marlin to cut down on the number of undersized fish brought to the scales at Harbour Island Marina. Tournament anglers release 98 percent of all marlin caught.

Many anglers donate all or part of their catch to the Maryland Food Bank. Several thousand pounds of cleaned and filleted fish are distributed to needy Eastern Shore families each year.

For the second consecutive year, Motsko has included what he calls the "Release Classic," in which International Game Fish Association-certified observers will document catches that are reeled in, then set free.

"Hooking the heaviest fish is pure luck. Catching the most is not luck. That's a really good angler. Those are the bragging rights many people would like to earn," he says.

Beginner's luck and quirky fish tales have always been part of the charm of the White Marlin Open.

In 1989, for instance, Jim Daniel caught the state-record 942-pound blue marlin from a 28-foot boat.

Remsberg hauled in the $1.3 million fish at last year's White Marlin Open with just hours to go before the end of the five-day open. It was his first time marlin fishing. His catch was the first white marlin he had ever seen. As a matter of fact, the winning marlin was the only marlin anyone on the Fish Bonz had seen all week.

"It just goes to show you the fish don't know who's on the other end of the line," Motsko cracks.

If you had gauged Remsberg's luck by his first two outings (anglers are allowed to fish three of the five days), you would have bet on someone else.

The first day, he and his friends fought 8-foot to 12-foot seas more than 50 miles from shore. Their second day "wasn't a whole lot better," he recalls.

But at 1:30 p.m., he hooked up and 30 minutes later the fish was in the boat.

"Once we measured it, we were pretty confident we had a winner," he says.

Then it was a nerve-racking four-hour ride in from Poor Man's Canyon, the closest of the deep water ditches where the marlin lurk.

"When we got close enough, I called my wife and said, `Grab the grandkids and the son and a bottle of champagne and meet us at the dock.' "

Remsberg, his five fishing buddies and the captain and first mate of Fish Bonz divvied up the winnings - enough to buy wife Ginger Remsberg a new Jeep - and the fish. Four of the five anglers had plastic replicas made of their million-dollar catch.

Motsko says recent weather patterns have created a warm clear patch of water about 19 miles offshore.

"It's relatively close, which will allow a lot of little boats to get out and back in instead of it being just a canyon tournament," he says "The fish aren't stacked up; they're spread out."

Motsko expects another field of 400 boats. Remsberg will be in one of them.

"Same boat, same everything," he says. "No one has ever won two in a row, and we're the only boat this year that has a chance to do it."

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