Not to be confused with the beach boardwalk town of the same name in New Jersey, Ocean City, Maryland is a quintessential eastern shore community and iconic summer destination on the Delmarva Peninsula. Widely recognized for steamed blue crabs doused in Old Bay and vinegar-drenched french fries served on the sun-bleached boardwalk, this classic Americana beach town offers more than meets the eye and provides die-hard anglers with some of the most impressive blue water sport fishing found anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard.
When one thinks of the world’s top angling retreats, many of the heralded hot-spots that come to mind are well off the beaten path and require at minimum a full day of travel to reach. Although you might spend a few hours in traffic on Highway 50 trying to reach the coast, Maryland likely isn’t the top destination on your bucket list. However, there’s an amazing fishery offshore that rivals the most exotic locales where pointy-nosed pelagics attract anglers from far and wide.
During the summer season anglers from across the Eastern Seaboard show up in Ocean City as an epic white marlin bite gets underway.
For much of the year Ocean City is relatively quiet, home to roughly 10,000 permanent residents. Though, traffic swells and the population rises to nearly 300,000 vacationers as the annual tourist invasion comes to town when winter fades to spring and the summer season sets in. Roughly 200 miles from New York and 100 miles from both Philadelphia and Baltimore, it’s no surprise Ocean City is one of the largest vacation destinations on the entire East Coast.
Walking the promenade is popular with out-of-towners, but Ocean City proudly carries the nickname as “The White Marlin Capital of the World” made famous by one of the world’s largest and richest billfish tournaments—The White Marlin Open.
The history of Ocean City dates back many years to when the barrier island was wild and desolate. Algonquin tribes were the first to visit the shorelines, followed by European settlers in the 1500s. It wasn’t until 1875 when the Atlantic Hotel, the first of its kind, began welcoming visitors. The boardwalk was first built in 1900, but wasn’t the permanent structure visitors are familiar with today, rather the original planks were temporary and put away for winter.
A wooden railroad bridge constructed in 1876 helped foster commercial fishing by providing a means for harvesters to export their catch, but it wasn’t until 1916 that the first bridge for vehicle traffic was constructed. Although these new means of transportation helped stimulate the town’s growth, without direct access to the ocean from Chesapeake Bay commercial fishermen were tasked with launching vessels from the beach.
Natural disasters are devastating to seaside communities, but the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933 paved the way to what is now the most iconic fishing town in the Mid-Atlantic. While much of the town was destroyed from torrential downpour, heavy winds, large waves and devastating storm surge, the tropical swirl carved a channel through the narrow landmass, effectively separating Ocean City from Assateague Island to the south.
With a head start from Mother Nature, city officials worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to position stone jetties along both sides of the pass to keep sand from filling in, lending way to the well-traversed inlet that’s still in use today. While providing anglers easy access to the ocean, the newly developed passageway also helped in reviving the bay’s dying shellfish industry with the flushing of clean ocean water.
The powerful storm created hardships for many pioneers, but the inlet was a major factor in the development of Ocean City and the sport fishing hot spot it is today. Home to numerous offshore tournaments throughout the year, Ocean City’s historic White Marlin Open brings the largest crowds to the eastern shore every year.
Established in 1984, the WMO attracts the who’s who of sport fishing elite, and the canyons 60- to 80-miles offshore rarely disappoint. During the summer season anglers from across the Eastern Seaboard show up in Ocean City as an epic white marlin bite gets underway. While inshore and near-shore fishing is not to be overlooked, anglers heading offshore—north toward the Wilmington Canyon, south to the Washington Canyon, and east to the Baltimore Canyon—are often overwhelmed by the incredible numbers of prized game fish.
As warm water eddies rotate down the coast captains and crews prepare chin-weighted dink ballyhoo rigged on circle-hooks, often times heading offshore with upwards of 100 rigged baits ready for action. White marlin are pack feeders, often working together corralling schools of mackerel, sardine and squid. Where you find one, there’s likely more lingering in the vicinity.
In typical fashion, mates in the cockpit tend two natural dredges and surface riding squid chains to draw in fish from the deep, while spotters in the tower keep a close watch for action on the surface. Larger pitch baits are ready to go in case a bigger blue crashes the spread.
Lending credence to its title as the world’s richest billfish tournament, the 2016 White Marlin Open saw participation from 329 boats fishing for a purse of $4.44 million. While the prestigious event spans five days, teams must choose three days to fish.
Although world-class marlin fishing is a major draw for teams competing in the WMO, there’s a whole lot of money on the line too. In fact, the WMO was the first tournament to award a million-dollar prize for catching a single fish. Additionally, last year’s purse topped out at $3.9 million, including two individual $1 million winners.
This year, the 283 of 329 registered teams that chose to fish on Monday saw incredible action with over 500 billfish released. Among the high numbers of white marlin, Get Reel managed to bring a 790-pound blue marlin to the scales. Going into the second day of competition, there were 46 teams that still had three full days of fishing.
Hailing from Naples, Florida, Kallianassa arrived at the weigh station Tuesday afternoon with the tournament’s first eligible white marlin weighing 76.5 pounds. At the end of the day the 329 boat fleet still had at minimum one more day’s fishing, and more than 100 boats had two full days on the water.
After three days of competition over 1,000 billfish had been released, with Kallianassa still clinging to the tournament’s top prize. However, with 270 boats still eligible to fish Thursday and Friday it was anyone’s game. Thursday ended with more releases, and Kallianassa all alone atop the leaderboard with the only qualifying white marlin.
Tensions were high on Friday, with only 28 boats eligible to fish the final day. When it was all said and done, Kallianassa took first, second, and third place money for every white marlin category, which tallied more than $2.4 million in addition to the Level D pool which added another $460,000 to their pot.
Over the course of the week teams caught 1,358 white marlin, breaking the previous tournament record set in 2002. Although the WMO often draws ire from the public eye not familiar with the sport fishing scene, these impressive numbers solidify the tournament’s commitment to conservation.
If you’re in town but not fishing the event, then you’ll definitely want to make it down to Harbour Island Marina. The weigh-in is an event in itself and although thousands of orange crush fueled spectators gather here daily in hopes of seeing a million dollar fish hoisted, the release division is also hotly contested.
This year, Bullwinkle, out of Dover, Delaware took home the Top Boat award with a three-day total of 27 white marlin releases. Krazy Salts out of Palm Beach, Florida was close behind with 25 releases, followed by Billfisher, with 23 releases.
However, the fairy tale story ends with a shattered glass slipper for team Kallianassa. Two weeks after the event it was determined that there was a violation of tournament rules and as of press date the big jackpot has been withheld. The team maintains their innocence and the dispute has since been transferred to federal court. A hearing date has not been set and it remains to be seen what will happen to the record prize. Though, angler Richard Kosztyu and his team aboard Hubris landed the largest tuna of the WMO, putting them first in line. While Hubris already collected $767,091 for their 236-pound bigeye, they could add $2.3 million to their earnings.
Ocean City’s greatest attraction and claim to fame may very well be the White Marlin Open, yet if running 60+ miles offshore isn’t your thing, inshore and near-shore opportunities abound with bluefish, striped bass, flounder and more. Additionally, the party boat fleet, boardwalk, arcades, shopping and pristine beaches make certain there’s something to keep everyone in the family happy.
If you’re looking for the next family getaway, don’t hesitate to visit this postcard-ready seaside retreat for the simple pleasures of summer with a mix of epic marlin fishing.