Ocean City, Md.’s 44th annual White Marlin Open — one of the largest billfish tournaments in the world — kicks off Monday, Aug. 7, with fishing continuing through Friday, Aug. 11.
“Marlin fishing is slow. The No. 1 reason is that not many people are actually trying to fish for white marlin,” Jim Motsko, co-director and founder of the tournament, said early this week. “Everyone is content catching tunas. Until the storm,” he said of last weekend’s nor’easter, “most boats were tuna fishing.
“With the northeast wind the last couple days, some captains feel that’s a good sign,” he added.
Early registration for the tournament is up by about 20 boats compared to 2016. As of Monday afternoon, 126 boats had already registered for the tournament.
Though most crews wait until the final days to register so they can keep an eye on the forecast, more than 65 percent of the boats traditionally return to compete each year. Most of the anglers on those boats are the same, while there are also some changes and additions.
Final registration will take place at Harbour Island Marina on 14th Street in Ocean City this Saturday, Aug. 5, from noon to 5 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 6, from noon until about 7 p.m.
The base entry fee is $1,350 per boat, which makes teams eligible for $50,000 in guaranteed prize money. There is no limit to the number of anglers on each boat.
There are 21 added entry-level divisions (wagering pools or “calcuttas”) this year, which range in cost from $50 to $10,000 to enter. Overwhelming majorities of the teams — about 98 percent — sign up for at least one calcutta. The more calcuttas entered, the greater the possible return.
Last year, 60 boats went across the board on entries, out of the 329 that participated in the Open.
The cost to enter every calcutta this year for boats less than 40 feet long is $30,950, not including the base entry fee. Boats 40 feet or larger are eligible to enter 18 calcuttas, at a total cost of $27,450.
The difference in the wagering pools this year is because three are exclusive to the small-boat (less than 40 feet) category: Level SBW: Small Boat Heaviest White Marlin Winner Take All and Level SBT: Small Boat Heaviest Tuna Winner Take All. They both cost $1,000 to enter. New this year is Level SBBF: Small Boat Big Fish (heaviest white marlin, blue marlin, tuna, dolphin, wahoo or shark), winner take all. It costs $1,500 to enter.
It takes a combination of luck and skill to catch a white marlin. First, captains and anglers must know how and where to find them. From that point on, luck comes into play, as there’s no way to know whose bait might attract the interest of a big fish. Anyone can get lucky, and that is why the Open is so popular. Novice anglers have won the tournament.
Teams may fish anywhere within 100 nautical miles of the Ocean City Inlet sea buoy, but certain areas hold favor. Most boats will head to the offshore canyons — Poor Man’s, Baltimore, Norfolk and Washington — where large fish and Open winners have been caught in the past.
Billfish conservation is emphasized every year, as more than 95 percent of white and blue marlin are released. A record number of billfish were caught and released last year.
Altogether, 1,366 white marlins were released in 2016, while only 23 were boated, for a 98 percent release rate. Among the blue marlins caught, 28 were released and just two were boated (93 percent). Additionally, 15 spearfish and 11 sailfish were released, and none of them were boated.
To be a contender in the white marlin division this year, the fish will need to weigh at least 75 pounds, Motsko said. The tournament minimum is 70 pounds and 67 inches, and it is not uncommon for the tournament to see only one or two qualifying fish weighed.
At stake for the successful white marlin angler is prize money that could exceed $1 million. In 2016, 199 boats registered for the Level E Winner Take All calcutta for white marlin, which cost $5,000 to enter. The pot totaled $925,000.
A total of 121 crews registered for the Level WM (White Marlin Winner Take All) added entry-level calcutta, which costs $10,000 to enter. The pool amount was $1,125,000.
To have a chance at prize money in the blue marlin division, Motsko said, fish will have to weigh about 700 pounds. The minimum length for blue marlin is 114 inches. There is no weight minimum.
Each boat can fish three of the five tournament days. Boats can leave from any inlet between Rudee Inlet in Virginia and Barnegat Inlet in New Jersey, including Ocean City and the Indian River Inlet.
All of the anglers will be searching for the same species: white and blue marlin, tuna, wahoo, dolphin and shark. While the white marlin division is the most prized, there are also large payouts in the blue marlin and tuna categories. Cash prizes are also awarded for billfish releases.
Weigh-ins will take place daily at Harbour Island on 14th Street from 4 to 9:15 p.m., and are free and open to the public.
Thousands of spectators of all ages — from small children to experienced anglers and mates — converge on the marina each day to catch a glimpse of the contending catches. Many spectators find the experience exciting because they have never seen such big fish before. Guests are being encouraged to arrive early to get a good view of the action at the scale.
Food, beverages, jewelry and official White Marlin Open apparel will be sold during the weigh-ins at Harbour Island. Those who can’t make it to 14th Street can watch the action live online at www.whitemarlinopen.com. Daily activity and updates will also be posted.
The first White Marlin Open took place in 1974, with 57 boats registered and a guaranteed $20,000 in prize money. A total of 329 boats entered the 2016 tournament, and a record $4.42 was awarded to White Marlin Open winners last year.
Boat participation and payouts from 2005 to 2015 were: 2005, 449 (record)/$2.7 million; 2006, 428/$3.14 million; 2007, 396/$3.1 million; 2008, 300/$2.3 million; 2009, 298/$2.2 million; 2010, 255/$2.13 million; 2011, 237/$2.13 million; 2012, 253/$2.3 million; 2013, 262/$2.47 million; 2014 288/$2.77 million; and 2015, 307/$3,916,840.
“We seem to have a good forecast coming up,” Motsko noted.
If the weather is favorable, Motsko anticipated an increase in participation and prize money from last year.
“I feel confident we should do better than last year,” he said.
Motsko said he would like to see 350 boats enter the tournament this year.
“I think the payout will probably be more than last year,” he said. “It would be nice to hit five [million dollars], but I never thought we’d get to four [million]. It will all depend on the weather. I hope we have good weather and set a new record on prize money.”
Last year’s winner loses out under cloud of rules violation
Several white marlin were brought in to Harbour Island Marina during last year’s tournament, but after five days of fishing, only one met the weight and length minimums.
Phil Heasley’s 76.5-pound white marlin, caught aboard his boat the Kallianassa, out of Naples, Fla., was the only qualifying white marlin. The fish was worth $2,818,662 — a tournament record.
But White Marlin Open organizers announced a few weeks after the event that there had been a “possible violation” of tournament rules and that the prize money would be held pending the determination of the proper recipient.
According to tournament rules, all anglers winning $50,000 or more may be required to take, and pass, at the determination of the examiner, a polygraph examination. The results of the polygraphs of those involved in the declared winner raised concerns, leading to a legal case.
The case was first heard in Worcester County (Md.) Circuit Court and then moved to U.S. District Court. In mid-June, after 10 months of litigation and an eight-day trial, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bennett ruled that Heasley and the Kallianassa crew should be disqualified because of apparent rules violations regarding the time of the catch and the failed polygraph exams.
Bennett found that tournament organizers had acted within their obligations regarding the polygraph results and declared that Heasley’s lines were in the water earlier than was officially reported. That alone is enough for a tournament disqualification.
Heasley had also filed counterclaims in the suit, all of which were decided in the tournament’s favor.
Tuna winner gets
lion’s share of 2016 prize
Bennett formally closed the case on July 10, when he signed an order stipulating how the white marlin prize money would be divided among other tournament winners.
Bennett agreed that the biggest chunk of the money — more than $2 million — would go to Richard Kosztyu of Hamilton, N.J., who landed a 236-pound tuna while fishing on the Hubris during the 2016 open. The Hubris crew had already received $767,091 for the first-place tuna during the awards banquet following the competition.
Jim Conway of Glen Burnie, Md., caught the first-place blue marlin — a 790-pounder — while aboard the Get Reel, and had already been presented $258,995 in prize money. He is expected to earn $233,000 more under the judge’s orders. That fish was the only qualifying blue marlin last year, but its size was the real story in the win.
During the 2016 tournament, the Get Reel made it to Harbour Island with just a few minutes to spare before the scale closed at 9:15 p.m. on the first day of the Open. The blue marlin was so large they had to tow it in from offshore. Conway had fought the fish for about two hours.
“We did all we could to get it on the boat. We tried multiple times — winch lines, tail ropes — it was just too heavy,” Conway said while at the scale that evening. “We got him to the boat at 2:15-2:30, then started heading [to Harbour Island]. We had to stop a couple times and try to get him back up on there [the stern] because it’s a big fish. We didn’t think we were going to make the scales.”
After about a seven-hour ride, the boat pulled up to the dock, and spectators could see that the top third of the fish was in the 36-foot boat, while the rest of it was in the water. The tail, which was detached from the body, was lying inside the boat.
“The tail rope actually cut it while we were coming back in, in transit,” Conway said.
After several attempts, the White Marlin Open staff pulled the marlin onto the dock. Tournament organizers then discussed whether to weigh the fish or disqualify it as “mutilated” since the tail was severed.
According to International Game Fish Association (IGFA) rules, “mutilation to the fish, prior to landing or boating the catch, caused by sharks, other fish, mammals or propellers that remove or penetrate the flesh” is cause for disqualification.
Since the tail was lost after Conway landed the fish, they ruled it was eligible to be weighed.
It measured 117 inches without the tail.
The next issue was how to weigh the fish. Typically, fish are weighed hanging by the tail and hung vertically. The dock crew attempted to hook the marlin under its gills to weigh it, but that didn’t work. They next wrapped ropes around the body and hoisted it up horizontally.
The fish, without the tail, weighed 790 pounds. The tail weighed 29 pounds. The official weight was registered at 790 pounds.
While Kosztyu won the tuna division, Mark Hutchison of Cordova, Maryland, reeled in the second-heaviest – a 233-pound big eye – aboard Magic Moment. He and his teammates won $131,968. The crew is expected to receive $123,000 in additional prize money after the suit. Ten additional anglers — the winners in the other tournament divisions — will also be compensated.
“The case didn’t bother entry at all. We’re ahead for pre-registration, so if anything, it was good for us,” Motsko said. “If anything, it assures we always do the right thing and we always do what’s best … and that polygraphs seem to work.”
Dave Arnold took third in the tuna division in 2016, with the 71.5-pound yellowfin caught aboard the American Lady. The team received $52,126.80. Pat Horning hooked a 71.5-pound yellowfin tuna while on the Fish Whistle. That crew won $5,626.75. John Hoffman’s 67-pound yellowfin landed aboard the Reel Direct was worth $30,504.
John Sharp’s 39-pound mahi took over first place in the dolphin division on the final day of the 2016 tournament. Sharp and his teammates aboard the Sea Flame earned $17,717.50. Brian Russell tied for second place with the 36-pounder he caught aboard the Sea Wolf. Reel Joy angler John Gudelsky landed a 36-pound dolphin as well. The payout for Russell’s fish was $14,967.50, while Gudelsky’s was $16,217.50 because of added entry-level participation.
Shannon Mills reeled in a 35.5-pound dolphin aboard the Sea Breeze. That group took home $13,717.50. Thomas Bennett’s 34.5-pound dolphin hooked on the Delta Dawn was worth $13,717.50.
Richard Hammond was in first place in the wahoo division after five days of fishing. He hooked the 79-pounder aboard the Two Timing Connie. The team was presented $24,862.50.
The Second Chance finished in the second-place spot with Brian Leader’s 54-pound wahoo. The crew pocketed $3,000. Daniel Stuart’s 41-pound wahoo landed aboard the Got Fish Too was worth $24,862.50. The No Service crew received $22,862.50 for Steve Figiel’s 40.5-pound wahoo.
The payout for J.D. Messler’s 260.5-pound hammerhead shark caught aboard the MJ’s was $4,500.
Hunter Pusey’s 223-pound mako shark reeled in aboard the Rumor Has It earned the angler and his teammates $3,500.
For more information on the White Marlin Open, visit www.whitemarlinopen.com or call (410) 289-9229.