The Times and Tides of Ocean City, Maryland
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White Marlin Capital of the World
Ocean City, Maryland
by Scorchy Tawes

LIKE A LONG-RUNNING Shakespearean play, Ocean City's storied White Marlin sport fishing history has been played by many characters, none of whom in all probability would have had a role to play - had it not been for the unforgettable Storm of 1933.

This now infamous hurricane severed the sand barrier connecting Ocean City to Assateague, creating what is now known as "the inlet," and providing access to the ocean.

It was on that August day almost 56 years ago that the face of Ocean City fishing was changed forever. It was that day that marlin sport fishing was born; although it is fairly certain that none of the early pioneers realized the upcoming monumental changes that nature had wrought that fateful day.

It was, in fact, to be two more years before the first white marlin were caught in any numbers. We used the term "any numbers" because in a written history by Edward "Scoop" Collins of Ocean City, an angler from Florida, Captain John Mickle caught a single marlin in 1934 here and it is duly recorded as the first-ever taken off the Maryland coast.

ONE HAS TO TREAD lightly when giving credit to those who set the stage for all the phenomenal white marlin fishing that came after them. Time has a way of hiding physical existence in her hazy mists, but surely Captains Crawford Savage, William Bunting, and Jack and Paul Townsend were among those who laid the foundation. As a matter of fact, the famed Jackspot fishing area is named after Jack Townsend.

Back in those days, the Jackspot was the hot spot. Lying but roughly 22 miles southeast of the inlet, a distance that is just an engine warm-up for present-day billfish anglers who head for distant offshore canyons, the Jackspot did indeed have its day.

On July 29, 1939, there were one hundred seventy-one (171) white marlin were boated at the Jackspot. It was the largest single days catch ever recorded anywhere in the world at that time and the resulting publicity led to Ocean City becoming known as the "White Marlin Capital of the World."

In the ensuing 50 years, since 1939 still ranks as the eighth most productive year since the inlet split the sand, according to the Ocean City Marlin Club's extensive records.

There are many others who have left their mark in the history of Ocean City white marlin fishing. Those coming to mind include the late Paul Mumford who got his captain's license at the age of 17 in 1937 and became a pioneer in the practice of tagging and releasing.

Then there was Reese Layton, an unforgettable character who was, if not in fishing prowess, the resort city's Ernest Hemmingway look-alike. Reese loved marlin fishing with a passion.

We can't vouch for the authenticity of the story, but as it was told to us, one of Reese's fishing customers passed away suddenly from a heart attack just as the boat arrived at the Jackspot amid scores of tailing marlin.

There was no way Reese could tear himself away from all those fish and he ordered the mate to put the body in the ice chest until they caught a few, saying that's what the deceased gentleman would want him to do. The mate refused and Reese headed back to port with tears in his eyes. Tears for the deceased? No. Tears for not being able to fish for the marlin, yes.

THE HALCYON DAYS of marlin fishing came in the years of 1969, 1970 and 1971. In those three years, the Marlin Club record keepers recorded a total of 6,811 marlin caught, an average of 2.270 fish per year. No three-year period since has even remotely approached that figure.

To give you an idea how staggering that figure is, over the 17 years that have followed, a total of 9,907 fish have been recorded, an average of 583 per year.

Yes, marlin fishing goes through changes; old faces fad away, and new ones arrive on the scene. In 1966, a 20-year-old Catonsville, Md., college student with a love for fishing came to Ocean City and was hired as mate on Captain Fred Kerstetter's Katherine.

His name was Jim Motsko, and little then did he realize that he would dream up, and bring to fruition, another chapter in Ocean City white marlin history,

Three more years as mate on various boats and a marriage later, he went to the Bahamas on his honeymoon and witnessed the most wonderful thing, with the exception of his wife Marianne that his eyes ever beheld.

It was a fishing tournament, a major league style billfish tournament, a sort of quasi-Mardi Gras of fishing, replete with an air of pageantry, festivities, camaraderie, and serious fishing. In those moments the Ocean City White Marlin Open was conceived. The year was 1973,

In 1974, the first White Marlin Open was held. It drew 54 boats, vying for the prize money of $20,000. The tournament was plagued by windy, rainy weather, and when it ended, Wince Sorenson of Bowie, Md., would go down as its first winner.

On August 11, 1974, the late Mayor Harry Kelley presented him a check for $5,000. Jim Motsko had lost money on the tournament, but by no means his enthusiasm. It wasn't to be until the fourth annual tournament that Jim began to see the light. The White Marlin Open had begun its rise to maturity and has never descended.

THIS YEAR the 16th Annual $50,000 White Marlin Open will add to its storybook history. Once again the docks and piers at Harbour Island Marina will come alive with men and women from all over the East Coast, seeking not only the monetary awards, but bragging rights to "I won the White Marlin Open," now one of the most prestigious tournaments of its kind anywhere.

Jim Motsko's dream has not ended. He strives endlessly to make each succeeding tournament better than the last one. His goal, as he puts, is simply "to make the fisherman happy, everything else will take care of itself."

He is evidently succeeding. Last year (1988), a record 214 boats entered, a far cry from its modest beginning of 54. The tournament is still expected to grow.

Mere words won't tell the story. Be a part of the excitement of the "weigh-in" each evening feel the pulse of the event, and be part of the anticipation that engulfs every angler as he or she approaches the scales, wondering if the marlin they've caught will be big enough to claim a prize and a portion of the pot of gold.

In reality, this is a story that could really never end. Gallons of ink and reams of paper would be required, but there is one certainty. White marlin fishing in Ocean City after 55 years, with all its ups and downs, is still alive and well.

Most all of the early pioneers, the Buntings, Savages, Burbages, Townsends and many others have joined the Great Fisherman in the Sky. If there is such a thing as "looking down" they must surely be proud that Ocean City is still the "White Marlin Capital of the World."

By Scorchy Tawes, 1989
Source: Ocean City, Maryland: A Magazine for Resort Living.

*During the 2006 White Marlin Open 428 boats competed for over $3,151,000 in prize money including $1,552,435 for the top white marlin.

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