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What's Up Magazine

Saltwater Giants

May 02, 2012 07:29PM ● By Anonymous
And some of the best angling for the sport’s most coveted and revered trophy species exists right off Maryland’s Eastern coast.

Each spring, as the ice melts from the bows and sterns of charter fishing vessels (numbering the hundreds in the safe inlet harbor at the mouth of Assawoman Bay, Ocean City), there’s an awakening that occurs 20 to 40 miles offshore; the ocean’s surface begins to pop and crackle like hot oil in a frying pan with massive schools of tiny bait fish. And below them, the big fish lurk, readying to feed. It’s the exact visual that signifies the beginning of a months-long season of fishing for the one... and the cue to drop the big baits into the cool water.

For Captain James Shandrowski of Ocean City, the annual ritual of de-winterizing the Playmate—taking stock of tackle, fuel, and food for himself and the fish, calling fellow charter captains who might have an early fishing report to share, and pushing the boat throttle for the first time—is pure nirvana. Though it’s strenuous work to prepare for and target game fish, the payoff of landing a trophy is incredibly invigorating.

This year, Shandrowski says the season has gotten off to an early start. “We didn’t have much of a winter did we?” he asks rhetorically. “The milder temperatures usually trigger an earlier bite than normal, so we expect a great start to the season.”

Just as he’s done for the past 15 years, Shandrowski—like most all of his charter captain brethren in Ocean City—looks forward to in-season action and putting anglers on the fish. Though each boat, captain, mate, and angler knows, for the most part, what species they’ll target on any given trip, the possibility of catching the one, or not, makes each dock departure an adventure into the unknown.

The one can apply to any fish species, but is colloquially reserved for a trophy catch—a mammoth specimen. Those in the hunt for an arm- and gut-wrenching battle that can last upwards of a full-day from the moment a fish is hooked, usually target the giant blue fin tuna. The blue fin is a brute species of tuna that can reach gargantuan size. Though a 100 lb. blue fin is not uncommon, it would qualify as a trophy for most anglers.

Tuna are the most targeted species, say several Ocean City charter captains. “People want meat to take home,” says Captain Jeremy Blunt of the Samurai.

“They are excellent table fare and the bag limits are relatively generous,” agrees Shandrowski, adding, “Tuna are also usually targeted for their challenge as being one of the most powerful fish to fight, pound for pound.”

“They’re big fighters,” concurs Captain Greg Ignash of Reel Addiction Charters.

Tuna are found throughout the Atlantic where the coastal plain meets the continental shelf; exactly the place where you’d better have a big boat. Blue fin can be coaxed from ridiculous depths (3,000-plus feet) and when one is hooked, you’d better be ready for the fight of your fishing life.

To pinpoint and fish for them, captains use a combination of technology, experience, and communication. “Today we use sea surface temperature charts provided by Internet services to show us the water temperature, color, and currents,” says Blunt. “This helps us see a broad picture of what’s out there, along with a good network of info.”

Ignash explains, “If it’s a highly migratory species, like blue fins for instance, we know which lumps [hills and canyons along the ocean floor] they typically frequented in the past.

“Assuming the lump still holds sand eels on the bottom, they are likely to return each year. We also use satellite imagery which gives us sea surface temperatures, water clarity, and bait concentrations. These reports are also especially helpful in targeting billfish.”

“We have an extensive network of captains who work together to find fish and communicate with one another,” adds Shandrowksi.

One of the longest-standing fishing tales of a caught blue fin occurred off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1934, in which a fishing party of six took turns battling a 795 lb. behemoth for 62 straight hours. More recently in 2008, passionate New York angler, 50-year-old Ralph Wilkins, headed out solo, 40 miles off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts, and hooked into a 900 lb. blue fin. Their fight lasted a mere five hours. Back at the docks, Wilkins was handed an $8,400 check for his catch, which was destined for the Japanese sushi market. Today, the Maryland state record for a blue fin tuna still stands at 625 lbs.—it was caught in 1975 by James Daniels, IV, 45 miles east of Ocean City.

In waters twenty-plus miles east of Ocean City, anglers stand a great chance of catching many other prized species, including sharks, swordfish, and the granddaddies of them all—Atlantic white and blue marlin.

The two trophy species from the marlin family are renowned for their speed, agility, strength, and challenge to anglers. They can reach speeds of nearly 70 miles per hour and weigh as much as 1,800 pounds. And they can make the most seasoned angler look like a rookie in a second.

“The most challenging [species] by far is the white marlin,” says Blunt. “They are small for a marlin with an even smaller mouth. The white marlin can be a very picky eater and follow the boat for minutes and never even try to take bait. Other times they come in like a bullet and eat right away. Then the fun starts, with their combination of speed and jumping ability. But they tend to come unhooked.”

Shandrowski agrees but adds that blue marlin are equally difficult. “They are difficult to target exclusively as they are generally found in waters with white marlin and tuna,” he says. “Additionally, blue marlin can be difficult for the novice angler to hook on heavy tackle and difficult to land on light tackle. Blue marlin seem to come into your spread [fishing rods] out of nowhere so it requires the crew to be ready at all times.”

Known as the “White Marlin Capital of the World,” Ocean City had a bit of luck in gaining this reputation...depending on how “lucky” you consider a hurricane. It was a massive hurricane in 1933—dumping upwards of 10 inches of rain per day for more than a week and reaching wind speeds of 80-plus miles per hour—that created the inlet separating Ocean City proper and Assateague Island. In effect, it opened a safe harbor for charter boats to base operations and grow deep sea fishing into a tourism market. In 1939, a reported 171 white marlin where boated in a single day at one hot spot 22 miles southeast of the inlet. It was the most marlin ever caught on record in a single day anywhere in the world. Word spread quickly of this amazing day, putting Ocean City on the map for world-class fishing, and it’s been gangbusters ever since.

Just how hot is the action today? To put this fishing in perspective, in 1974 the inaugural White Marlin Open was held with 54 boats competing for a $20,000 purse. Today, more than 400 boats compete for $3 million-plus in prize money making the weeklong tournament (held the first full week in August) the largest billfish tournament in the world. Yes, Ocean City is truly a charter fishing Mecca.

Fish On!

To experience world-class tuna and bill fishing firsthand, all captains recommend you book your trip as far in advance as possible (even into next year). Though weekends are by far the most requested for trips, Saturdays and Sundays also see the most boats on the water and the most pressure on the fish. This can make fishing more challenging.

June, July, and August are traditionally the best months to fish for trophy tuna and white and blue marlin. And of the captains we spoke to, all agreed that fall and winter fishing is also some of the best—not necessarily for tuna and billfish, but for rockfish. Migratory rockfish begin exiting the Chesapeake Bay and swim north along the Atlantic seaboard.

“Our best kept secret is by far the fall and winter rockfishing,” says Captain Jeremy Blunt. “Around mid-November, the fishing starts and continues through mid-January. Most people on the Bay put their boats away after the fall season closes and stop thinking about fishing, but our season on the coast is open year-round. So we can continue fishing, and it only gets better as the water temperatures fall.”

Preparation and safety for a full day on the ocean, no matter the season, is also a must. When booking your trip, talk to your captain about what to expect and ask questions. Generally, bring with you what you would if you were sunbathing on the beach: sunscreen, proper clothing (layers) for the elements, plenty of water, lunch and snacks, an ice chest (to bring home you catch), and even seasickness medicine.

“It’s best to stop by the boat the evening before to see where the boat is located and to talk to us before the next day, to go over any questions and departure time,” advises Blunt.

And don’t bring bananas. They’re rumored to be bad luck.

As for expectations, is fishing, so there are no guarantees to land the one, “But,” says Captain James Shandrowski, “A novice should expect a great ride, friendly, knowledgeable crew willing to do whatever it takes to put them in the best position to catch fish. We are always willing to pass on our fishing knowledge and techniques to help them catch fish on their own boats. We cater each charter for the group to be as hands-on or hands-off as they would like.”