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Polygraphs, scales, and big, big fish: Maryland’s White Marlin Open turns 50 with a record $10.5M in prizes

People craned their necks and held phones up to record video as a group of men looked on proudly, everyone’s eyes fixed on a scale and a tuna, suspended from its tail by a chain. It weighed 247.5 pounds or, measured another way, potentially $1.2 million.

The road to Ocean City starts along Eastern Shore state highways lined with gas stations selling live bait and finishes with a drawbridge speckled with fisherman. Every August, the journey culminates in a pot of gold called the White Marlin Open.

What started as a tiny venture with few aspirations in 1974 by then-26-year-old Jim Motsko has become the world’s largest bill fishing tournament. It turned 50 this week and celebrated with a record $10.5 million in prizes.

Anglers — including NBA legend Michael Jordan competing on the 80-foot yacht Catch 23 (his jersey number) — contributed money toward the pot. They’re all hoping to win it back, and then some.

Fishing concludes Friday and lie detector tests are taken Saturday (big winners are asked if they’ve broken any one of an extensive list of rules). Then the bulk of the prize money goes to the person who caught the largest white marlin. Last year, it was Jeremy Duffie of Bethesda who took home top honors, netting $4.5 million for himself and his team.

The grand prize is a larger lump sum than the top purse of any Grand Slam tennis tournament, any PGA Tour major championship and any Triple Crown horse race.

“To win it was like winning the Super Bowl, for us in fishing,” Duffie said.

Part fishing competition, part boat show, part social gathering and all spectacle, thousands compete in the White Marlin annually and tens of thousands attend events during the week. A crowd gathered Wednesday, the third of the tournament’s five days, at the scales where anglers weigh the day’s catch.

Boats chose three of five possible weekdays (from Aug. 7 to Aug. 11 this year) to fish, mostly based upon weather forecasts. Of the 400 boats, 383 picked Wednesday.

Most, however, need not weigh anything upon their return. It’s difficult to catch prize fish and many are returned to the ocean after failing to meet certain requirements in a 12-page, single-spaced rulebook. For example, 220 white marlin were caught Monday, but none met the tournament’s criteria of at least 70 pounds and 70 inches and thus were released.

Those watching the weigh-ins, many of whom clutched an alcoholic drink, waited patiently for big fish to arrive, shouting their support. “Way to go!” one called to a young angler who brought in his first ever tuna Wednesday. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” played as the throng anticipated the weighing of a tuna.

Big fish get big applause; small fish receive smaller.

The tournament’s namesake is particularly hard to catch. No white marlin were brought in through the tournament’s first three days, while tuna — one of six fish categories — was a popular catch. Some years, there aren’t any qualifying fish in certain categories.

For decades, Ocean City has been dubbed the “White Marlin Capital of the World.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously fished for marlin in the area in 1939 and reports at the time indicated he’d caught two in one weekend. That was later corrected: he didn’t catch any, though Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins did.

Ocean City became known for the fish, which is revered among anglers for its size and strength. A White Marlin Tournament was hosted in 1959, but it wasn’t until 1974 that the White Marlin Open began.

It wasn’t much at first, just 57 boats and $20,000. Motsko began the tournament in hopes that he could win it himself — and, in doing so, pay for other fishing ventures.

The event didn’t take off immediately. There was bad weather that first year and an article in The Evening Sun described problems that could have “easily” made it a “disaster.” Some said it would make marlin fishing too commercial; others said it would ruin Ocean City’s reputation as a place for fishing for trophies — not cash.

“Just the fact a second White Marlin Open is planned comes as somewhat of a surprise,” the article said.

Half a century later, the tournament continues and the Motsko family received citations Monday from Congress and the state of Maryland to honor the tournament’s 50 years. Now, the Motsko name is synonymous with marlin.

Although Madelyne Motsko, Jim’s daughter and the tournament’s director, gets seasick and cannot fish offshore herself, she considers it her family’s legacy.

“There’s nothing else like it,” said Jacob Wainglass, a 24-year-old Baltimore native who now lives in Ocean City and participates in the tournament each year.

He broke his leg two months ago, but said before the tournament that his leg now felt “good enough to go fishing.” And there he was Wednesday, despite his healing leg, pushing a tuna in a wheelbarrow toward the scales.

The typical boat competing in the tournament has a captain, who owns the vessel; a mate, who, like Wainglass, takes care of it and often leads fishing efforts, and several anglers, like Michael Jordan. Mates are often tasked with monitoring reels and then, when they feel a bite, deciding when to hook the fish. It requires waiting several seconds — exactly how long is an art, not a science — for the fish to eat the bait before tightening the line.

Once hooked, the mate can pass the rod to an angler, who “from that time on, shall fight the fish alone until boated or released,” per the rules. That can take hours. The boat drives around while the angler, either standing or sitting in what’s called the fighting chair (which can swivel, has a footrest and is built into the boat), attempts to reel it in.

A fishing boat can switch from calm to frenzied in a matter of seconds.

Tommy Hinkle, a Baltimore native who lives in Ocean City and teaches math, is the only person to have twice won the White Marlin Open (in 2008 and 2019). He said it’s important to use the “motion of the boat” while reeling in a fish.

“When the boat goes up, your line is tight. When it goes down, that’s when you’re reeling to get some of that line back,” he said. “It’s not just using brute strength to bring the fish in. There’s a lot more tactical aspects of it, especially when you’re dealing with white marlin. You have to be able to feel the fish.”

Boats set off before dawn, may not stray farther than 100 nautical miles and can only fish from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Then, qualifying fish are weighed until 9:15 p.m.

Anglers can then keep their prize fish or donate it to the Maryland Food Bank, which partners with a flash freeze company to immediately cut the fish into filets — right in front of the gathered crowd — before they are frozen and distributed on the Eastern Shore.

The weighing process is raucous and exciting, but the tournament’s buoyant spirit gives way Saturday to the serious business of lie detector tests. A nyone winning more than $50,000 is subject to a polygraph in order to curb cheating.

At an Ohio tournament last year, two anglers were caught stuffing fish with weights. And at the White Marlin Open in 2016, the winner of the marquee white marlin category — and the nearly $3 million that came with it — failed a polygraph and forfeited the winnings. That decision landed in federal court, where a judge found the winner had violated tournament rules.

The spectacle, meanwhile, continues to expand and in recent years, the event outgrew its dock. For the third straight year, a satellite MarlinFest is taking place on Ocean City’s inlet, in the shadow of Trimper Rides amusement park. Complete with vendors and a live band atop a bar, hundreds gathered along the breakwall to watch the boats stream in from their offshore ventures.

For some attendees, the hope of catching a glimpse of Jordan was top of mind. For others, it was to continue a decadeslong vacation tradition.

“It’s a good vibe,” explained Natalie Furia, who circles the date on her calendar and annually drives from Pennsylvania with her family.

Sport fishing is the primary appeal for some, but for others, it’s simply the festivities. Even when boats come back with their coolers deplete of big fish, anglers often have a koozie with a beer in it.

“The party’s ready to start now,” one attendee said as the weighing process slowed down.

Boatspotting attracts others. Anyone can compete in the White Marlin Open, but it takes significant capital to own a boat (not to mention the fees to enter, which begin at $1,300 and can climb into the tens of thousands). Many of the boats are worth millions of dollars.

Ralph DeFalco of Annapolis brought his young children to the ocean at 2:45 a.m. to watch the boats set off.

“You’re talking almost a billion dollars in boats,” he said. “They’re the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen. Up close, they’re phenomenal.”

So, too, are the fish, in the eyes of those who stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, craning their necks to witness the weigh-ins.

As the crowd grew larger and more eager Wednesday night, event staff repeatedly sought to rein in the excitable throng and clear a walking path. But those gathered weren’t focused on that. There was a fish coming in. And they wanted to see how much it weighed.

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