When you drive down the Route 50 bridge into Ocean City Maryland, the first thing you see is a statue of a jumping marlin and the inscription “White Marlin Capital of the World”.
To prove the proclamation, Ocean City is home to the world’s largest white marlin tournament. This year’s White Marlin Open (WMO) hosted 408 boats fighting for 8.6 million dollars in total prize money.
It’s the tournament format that provides the big draw. Tournament director, Jim Motsko puts it simply: “Anyone can win.” At the WMO, the team weighing the biggest marlin wins the big money. Unlike a release tournament, where the team with the most skill and best equipment has an advantage over the competition, the White Marlin Open puts the bulk of the prize money on one big billfish. Motsko says, “We’ve had winners who were total amateurs, several times guys won with their first marlin.”
The possibility of lucking into a million-dollar fish attracts hundreds of teams to register for the tournament. That means thousands of anglers fishing all day, partying all night and bringing the tourist town to life at the end of the summer. Motsko says, “It’s the biggest week in the city.” For locals and visiting anglers, the event has been a tradition for 49 years.
While the biggest paycheck is reserved for the heaviest marlin, Motsko says the White Marlin Open is primarily a release tournament. In order to qualify for weigh-in, a white marlin or roundscale spearfish must be over 70 pounds. The minimum length assures only trophy fish are brought to the dock. “We average a 97 percent release rate,” Motsko explains.
This year’s tournament presented a new set of challenges. In the first three days, no one brought a white marlin to the scales. Motsko blames poor water conditions driven by a persistent southwest wind for the low numbers. In past years, over a thousand marlin are released during the five-day tournament. This year, only 155 marlin were caught. Marlin fishing was painfully slow and the big money fish eluded thousands of blood-thirsty anglers.
After two days, a yellowfin tuna was atop the leaderboard. The third day of the tournament, Cabana brought in a 511 blue marlin to take the top spot. Motsko sighs, “The blue marlin took off some of the heat.”
On the fourth day, C-Student out of Southside Place, Texas weighed a 71.5 pound marlin that just squeaked onto the leaderboard. With such a narrow margin of victory, the C-Student crew could not feel confident sitting on $2.9 million in prize money for 24 hours.
On the last day, fishing was tough. A few boats released a few whites, sails and blue marlin, but the scales were quiet until the 64-foot sportfish Billfisher pulled into the weigh station. As a huge crowd buzzed and cameras flashed, angler Jeremy Duffie and his brother Captain Jon Duffie along with their parents and kids struggled to lift a large billfish onto the dock.
The weightmaster went to work, slipping a rope around the marlin’s tail, lifting it off the ground, waiting for it to stop swinging. The numbers on the digital scale flashed: 77.5 pounds.
Elation exploded. The Duffie family jumped, hugged, screamed and celebrated their victory. With only a few tense hours left before the scales closed, and no qualifying fish reported, there was little doubt their fish would win. Since the Duffies were in prize categories across the board, they took home a record tournament purse of $4.5 million. Not only did they catch the largest white marlin, but they also won the coveted Top Boat category for the most marlin released.
For the Duffies, winning the White Marlin Open is more than luck of the draw. After decades fishing out of Ocean City, the family’s name is well known on the docks in their homeport and in fishing destinations around the world. Tournament director Jim Motsko says, ““The Duffies and Billfisher are always one of the top boats in Ocean City.”
To set the stage for this drama, winning angler Jeremy Duffie puts the family’s tournament history in context. “We’ve been fishing the White Marlin Open since 1996.” Several years the team came short of the victory, and they’ve won the coveted top team prize twice, but for almost three decades the big prize has stayed out of reach. Duffie laughs, “We’ve been hovering around the win.”
For their first two fishing days, the Billfisher team was hovering again. They were in the run for top boat and looking for the big fish winner. While pre-fishing for the tournament, they had discovered tuna and bait east of the Baltimore Canyon. “The lack of life inshore pushed us into the deep,” Duffie explains.
On the last day of the tournament, the crew had released a white marlin early to increase their standing as top team. Just after 11 o’clock, the they spotted a marlin free jumping ahead of the boat. “It’s not often we can actually hook a free jumper,” he admits.
Captain Jon Duffie turned the boat and marked the fish on his sonar. “When we tournament fish, I hold the left long rigger,” Jeremy Duffie says. The marlin appeared behind Duffie’s bait. He didn’t panic, instead Duffie enticed the billfish to bite, dropped back the bait and hooked the marlin. After fighting and landing the fish, the team realized they had a roundscale spearfish, which are also eligible for the big fish prize.
“My brother keeps copious notes on all aspects of fishing,” Duffie says. Captain Duffie’s notes include size and girth measurements on white marlin and their close cousin the roundscale spearfish. Duffie explains, “Roundscale spearfish tend to weigh more than the same size white marlin.” Looking at a 73-inch spearfish, they estimated it weighed between 73 and 78 pounds.
The team fished for a few more hours, then packed it in and ran for the scales. The Duffie family is already a big part of Ocean City’s fishing history, winning the White Marlin Open adds another chapter.
But this victory isn’t just about home field advantage. Tournament director Jim Motsko points out. “The Duffies have a fine-tuned team, the right boat and the best equipment.” He admits the WMO is won with luck, then adds the more you fish the luckier you get. “In the end the cream rises to the top,” he says.
For Jeremy Duffie and the rest of the family, winning the White Marlin Open is bigger than money. “My brother and I have been fishing out of Ocean City since we were born,” Duffie says. Today, Jon Duffie builds sportfishing boats as Duffie Boatworks on the west side of the city. In fact, Jon built the Billfisher, his tournament winning boat. Brother Jeremy Duffie reflects on the experience, the history and the victory: “Winning has always eluded us, now we’ve done what we wanted to do.”