Big Fish

Photo credit: Erin Kirk-Cuomo

It was late evening on the final day of the MidAtlantic Fishing Tournament in August 1999, and the crew aboard the Gina Lisa was racing to outrun a ticking clock. They’d landed a large—very large—blue marlin, but it wouldn’t matter unless they reached the dock before the 9pm cutoff for weigh-in. The Gina Lisa was coming into the harbor fast, trailed closely by a Coast Guard boat that was ready to enforce the harbor’s strict “no wake” policy.

Their efforts were worth it: The 748-pound blue marlin tipped the scale as the overall tournament winner that year, and set a new record for heaviest catch at the time.

Come to Cape May in late August, and you may drive right past one of the most noteworthy events on the island all year. Just over the bridge, on the left side of the road, the sprawling tent erected at South Jersey Marina announces the presence of the MidAtlantic, one of the richest sport fishing tournaments in the country. Anglers fish for white marlin, blue marlin, tuna, and more, vying for a chunk of more than $3,000,000 in prize money.

Cape May is undeniably a fishing town, being named one of the country’s top five locations for fishing tournaments in the January 2006 issue of Marlin Magazine—“Basically the bible of sport fishing,” according to Mark Allen, who promotes South Jersey Marina’s fishing tournaments and handles their public relations. Entering its 26th year, the tournament is poised to deliver an experience for the sport fishing community—and beyond—like no other.

The Fishing

“Out of the slip, it’s a three-hour trip, to get 100 miles off shore to where the fish are located,” says Mike Weber, General Manager of Canyon Club Resort Marina. “You’ll get out there, 100 miles off shore, and all of a sudden there will be 30 boats.”

The tournament spans five days; competitors may fish any three of those five days, with the other two taken as mandatory “lay days.” Crews can hook fish until 3:30pm, and landing one after that time is acceptable as long as they’re done with it by 6pm in order to get back to the harbor by that 9pm cutoff.

Calcuttas (a type of betting pool) offer additional opportunities to win. With different rules for each one, they also attract sponsors to the event. Entrants in the “On the Board Reward” Calcutta, for example, vie for a daily prize with the heaviest catch in each category. Daily winners are automatically entered in the next day’s weigh-in, so a big fish in any category on day one may stand as the next day’s winner, and even win on the following day if no larger fish are recorded. In this case, that same fish would continue to earn the daily prize money each day.

There’s also a prize for most fish caught, including ones too small to be included for the tournament’s official weigh-in. When a crew catches a fish, they call it in via the “relay station” boat positioned out near the fishing area, because their signal won’t reach back to the land.

As the event has grown over the years, it’s expanded to a second location. Running parallel to the tournament at Canyon Club is its counterpart at Sunset Marina in Ocean City, Maryland. “We send a whole team down to Sunset Marina,” says Allen. “There were so many boats coming in for the tournament that we couldn’t put them in our marina anymore. It’s August, so everybody’s full.” Port “caps,” raised from 85 to 95 boats per port this year, accommodate the steadily growing event.

To ensure consistency, two scales, both calibrated by New Jersey Weights and Measures, are used to weigh the fish dockside at each location every evening. A live video feed from each location keeps anglers up to date on the competition unfolding at each port.

A Tournament Like No Other

“Yes, the boats are big. Yes, the prizes are large,” says Rick Weber, self-proclaimed “fish geek” and owner of South Jersey Marina. “But there is so much more going on.”

Allen concurs. “Canyon Club is more than just a venue and a marina. It’s the hospitality, and having it all in one spot. There’s this gorgeous marina, with dockhands running up and down. The people who live here are boaters, and that provides context for the whole environment. The general public likes to come, and a couple hundred people will show up at the nightly weigh-ins, because people want to see the big fish.”

Tournament founder Dick Weber started in the business with his purchase of South Jersey Marina, later adding Canyon Club Resort Marina, which included the old Cape Island Marina. Later, he developed South Jersey Yacht Sales as well. As he expanded his holdings, he envisioned a tournament that would set a whole new standard for billfish tournaments. “And he did,” says Allen. “The MidAtlantic was the very first true million-dollar-plus billfish tournament. He saw a synergy between it and the marina, where he’d started the shark tournament, which is one of the biggest in the country. We already had a billfish tournament,” says Allen. “He decided it was time to put together a tournament that was different than anything else being done.”

Under the 30,000 square-foot tent erected for the event, MidAtlantic participants enjoy the evening party, including a sit-down dinner and numerous open bars for all five nights, as well as live bands. They’ll find local artisans selling their wares and sponsor tables offering up samples, deals, and information on new products. Last year, Seakeeper, a company that makes gyroscopic stabilizers for boats, hosted a table, and marine paint manufacturer Interlux had two tables to themselves, the result of sponsoring the Captain’s Meeting.

Teamwork

“It’s easy to look at a wealthy owner of a boat,” says Walt Rosenberg, Tournament Ambassador and editor of On the Rip magazine, the official guide of South Jersey Tournaments. “But the stories you don’t see are the stories of the captains and the mates and the crews on the boat. There’s a pride in doing it right. You’re on display. While it’s not a professional tournament, there is a sense of professionalism.”

“Every member of the team is necessary,” he continues. “When you think of a race car team, they all support ‘the guy.’ But here, it’s team oriented. On fish reporting, it doesn’t matter who’s reporting. I would say ‘we caught one,’ regardless of what your particular job is on the boat. It’s an aspect of the sport that I’m really proud of.”

At this point, Rosenberg gets up from his chair and starts pacing around the office, describing the scene. “There are rods all over the boat. You’ve got a minimum of three hours the night before prepping all the baits, by the mate or the captain. On the day of the tournament, in the pit, it’s busy and hairy. The captain finds the fish. The mate runs the cockpit, and makes sure everything is prepared to the captain’s satisfaction.”

His excitement is palpable, and echoed by Chris Daggett, who works in the ship store at Canyon Club. “One time I was out there with a buddy and there were 20 minutes left before cutoff,” says Daggett. “He was done, but I said ‘no, we’re staying out here until the end.’ It’s that last minute before the cutoff, and your knuckles are shaking.”

Conservation

It may seem counterintuitive to think of sport fishing and sustainability together, but the two pursuits are inextricably bound.

The MidAtlantic has had the same biologist on hand since 1992, and it’s not just any biologist, either. It’s Dr. John Graves, a geneticist and Professor of Marine Science at Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary. “Within Cape May, his hands have been on every marlin that has been on the scale,” explains Rick Weber. “Our portion of the library there has the largest DNA samples of white marlins in the entire world, because spearfish and white marlin are central to these waters.”

That sizeable body of data has led to some surprising discoveries. “The samples John took from all of those marlins helped delineate two species that were originally thought to be the same species,” Weber continues. “As it turns out, one is a marlin, and the other is a round-scale spearfish. In convergent evolution, they evolved to look very similar.” Without all that data, subtle differences—like the length of the soft skin under the gill plate of each fish—might never have been found.

Over the years, catches per day during the tournament have increased, possibly as a result of the implementation of circle hooks, which replaced the more dangerous design of J hooks. “We used to see 25 to 30 percent mortality rate with J hooks,” he notes, “but today, we see a five to 10 percent mortality with circle hooks.”

Why does fish conservation matter? Weber explains why the people of Cape May do have a stake in the health of the fishing industry. “Without blue marlin, it changes the economy. If there’s no fish, there’s no tournament. We’re learning about these creatures that we used to think ‘just swim around,’ but through the research, we’re finding out that the Jersey fish frequently come back to Jersey. There’s conversation that the white marlin you might be saving is ‘your fish.’”

Rosenberg chimes in, “Other than catching that $2 million white marlin, the next most prestigious thing for tournament competitors is the number of releases.”

Even the upcoming generation gets involved in the conservation aspect. During the same week as the MidAtlantic, the New Jersey Audubon’s Nature Center of Cape May runs a fishing camp for kids. “They fish during the day, come in around 3pm, come do a tour of the tent, and then they go down to the dock,” says Allen. “Dr. Graves does the necropsy dockside, and the kids get to help him.” With a finite number of spots available, the camp fills up quickly every year.

Impact to Cape May’s Economy

Mark Allen learned early on just how much an individual competitor contributes to the local economy. “I was new. It was a month after the tournament, and there was a gentleman here settling up his bill,” he recalls. “He shakes my hand, looks me right in the eyes, and says, ‘goddammit I had a good time. I’m leaving a bundle in Cape May this week. I rented four condos and bought myself a new Rolex. I’m leaving behind about $75,000 here.’ And he hadn’t won a single thing in the tournament.”

“It’s easy to think, ‘oh, it’s just a bunch of rich guys out in their boats catching fish,’” Allen continues. “But look at the economic impact of each of those boats: Each one burns 110 to 160 gallons of fuel per hour, and they’re burning fuel for 10 hours, and that doesn’t include the paid mate and captain, bait, and dockage. Including accommodations, meals, shopping, and activities, approximately four and a half million dollars flows into town during this tournament.”

Tournament competitors are only the beginning when it comes to the bottom line. “While the guys are out fishing during the day, the families are out in town enjoying everything it has to offer,” says Mike Weber. And the ripple effect of that spending has a huge impact on the community.

Take the crew of the Penguin. “A few years ago, there were seven guys on the boat during the tournament,” relates Allen. “But there were 23 people on stage when they got the big check. There may be only four or five people on each boat, and there are only 100 boats, but most everyone brings families, friends, employees, sponsors, customers—you name it.” Sponsors of the event, such as fishing apparel company Pelagic, also make up a sizeable percentage of the money spent here. “Pelagic brought five people here for the whole tournament, renting a condo for six days,” adds Rosenberg.

Local businesses know it, and now court Rosenberg for advertising in On the Rip, rather than the other way around. He mentions the owner of a spa in town who called him to buy an ad. “She says, ‘It’s the best week I have all year. The wives of the guys fishing the tournament all come in here. So yeah, I want to be in your magazine.’”

The lure of the open ocean is universal. Mark Allen muses, “You’ll be standing in the Wawa next to a guy in muddy boots who smells like a sewer. He probably fishes the MidAtlantic.”

Rosenberg agrees. “We have celebrities and captains of industry. Entrepreneurs and working guys.” He cites a memorable description from Bob Glover, longtime tournament director who retired last year, “It’s the only time you’ll get to see 100 millionaires eating ribs off a paper plate, sweating their <deleted> off, and having the time of their lives.”

“There’s something to it, getting involved in fishing these tournaments,” philosophizes Rick Weber. “Offshore fishing is the closest thing we have to an American safari. You’re not quite sure what you’re going to see—the unpredictability, the whales, the turtles. Two years ago, we came across an entire pod of mother and baby dolphins. You can’t go looking for that.”

Cape May Magazine