By Steve Dougherty
For much of the year, Ocean City, Maryland is relatively quiet, home to roughly 10,000 permanent residents. However, when winter fades to spring and the summer season materializes traffic increases and the population swells to nearly 300,000 as the annual tourist invasion comes to town. 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.
Established in 1974, the WMO attracts the who’s who of sportfishing elite. During the summer season anglers from across the Eastern Seaboard show up in Ocean City as an epic bite gets underway. We recently caught up with Dan Grossman and Joey Coyle of Canyon Blues to see how their dream week came to be.
“One of the cool parts about it was how I got involved with the group. Dan and I met a couple of years ago at Sunset Marina. I worked on a Viking called the Chubby Hubby that was across the dock from Canyon Blues. This past year my boss decided he didn’t want to fish the Open—he only wanted to do the MidAtlantic. And he didn’t really come up with that idea until probably four or five days before the tournament. So, I started looking for a ride for the WMO. Obviously, being a mate in Ocean City, that’s one of the weeks you really want to fish. I was set to ride along with the boat in the slip next to me, but while pre-fishing for the tournament they cracked an exhaust elbow. So, here I am two days before the tournament and I just lost my second ride. I saw Dan on the dock and asked what he had going on. I know usually it’s just him and his father running the show. It’s more of a family operation than a professional deal with a paid captain and paid mate, so I told them don’t worry about paying me for the week, I just want to go fishing,” says Joey Coyle.
The 2020 White Marlin Open was unlike any event in the past. Not only burdened by Covid, but everyone had to deal with Tropical Storm Isaias forcing the event to be extended to a full week. Teams were now allowed to fish three of seven days. Forty-two boats went fishing on Monday, with zero boats braving the victory at sea conditions on Tuesday. “I think we were 2 for 4 on Thursday, then we fished Saturday and Sunday. The second day we got out there it was flat calm, and fishing was slow in the morning,” remembers Dan Grossman.
Things started to get interesting around the Washington Canyon as the team worked their way east. “I remember in the morning we were looking at some satellite charts. We hit this really pretty piece of water that went from greenish-blue to beautiful Gulf Stream blue. It looked right and within about 20 minutes we had three fish pop up—one on each teaser and one down the middle,” Coyle says.
While they weren’t able to clearly see how big the marlin was, the winning fish came up on the left teaser and latched onto the mackerel. “My dad, David, was at the helm trying to pull the teaser away and the fish just wouldn’t give it up. Joey grabbed the left flat and I ran up to the bridge to try and rip the teaser away. Finally, he spit the damn thing and then faded back to the left long. We had no idea at this point it was a big fish. In our heads it was just another release, so we got tight and kept fishing for a bit since we knew there were more fish back there. We didn’t get any more bites, so we cleared the lines and started going after it. We still had no idea how big it was. It didn’t jump at all, and throughout the entire fight the fish was right under the surface. When it got about 15 feet behind the boat it popped its head out of the water and we finally got a good look,” Grossman says.
If your sole purpose of tournament fishing is to cash a big check and pay some bills, then you’re better off simply attending the weigh-in. With that being said, there’s always the thought in the back of your mind that the next fish could be the one, and that’s what keeps many coming back for more. “Between Joey, myself and my dad who have caught a bunch of white marlin, this was for sure the biggest one we’ve ever seen. Our jaws hit the deck. From that point on it went from let’s catch this fish, to don’t f*ck up. This is a money fish,” Grossman says.
“I turn around to grab a gaff, and the only one in reach was a little 2-inch dolphin hook. So, whatever I grab it, reach out and stick the thing. Throughout the whole fight the fish never jumped. This all happened within about 8 minutes of coming tight and when the gaff hit him, he aired out and starting tailwalking behind the boat. Dan comes in with the second gaff and it was so green we just wanted to get it in the boat at this point. We lay the thing on the deck and it’s going crazy. Dan is holding the bill down and I’m on the tail. The fish was so strong that it kicked through my hands and the tail hit me in the side of the head. I was so close to being knocked out cold. My hat fell off in the water and I was dazed and confused for a few seconds,” Coyle says.
With a big and round fish on the deck, adrenaline is pumping knowing it could be worth a six-figure payout. But what do you do next when there’s a winning fish on ice? Keep fishing? “It was only 1:15 in the afternoon, so we still had a little over two hours of fishing left. My dad is the captain and he said, ‘Let’s get the lines back in the water and we’ll keep fishing.’ But he was just doing that to get everyone to calm down,” Grossman says.
“I looked back at the spread once we had the fish packed on ice and one teaser was like 300 yards behind the boat, one was like five feet behind the transom and there’s only one rigger bait out,” Coyle says.
After a couple of minutes, the neglected spread was cleared, and Canyon Blues was headed to the scales. With a few onboard measurements, the crew pegged the fish around 85 to 95 pounds. They all knew it was a big fish, but everyone was surprised when the scale tipped to 97—the third largest white marlin in the tournament’s 47-year history.
Like many fishing families, the White Marlin open is a tradition for the Grossman’s. “My grandfather bought a boat in the 60s and brought it to Ocean City. While fishing the 1978 WMO on my grandpa’s boat the Davy Lee III, my dad, 14 at the time, caught an 87-pound white on Monday of the tournament. He was in first place all week and then on Friday afternoon a charter comes in with a guy that had never fished before and they hang a 93 pounder. So, they came in second place that year. It’s been a family tradition to fish the WMO and we couldn’t be happier to win. My grandfather passed a few years ago and my dad and I recently found two of his old custom marlin rods. A few weeks before the tournament we took them to a tackle shop on Kent Island to have them restored. Sure enough, that was one of the rods that caught the winning fish.”
On the final day of fishing, more than 240 boats headed out the inlet searching for a piece of the tournament’s $6.7 million purse. “Usually, on the last day of the tournament you’re praying that it never ends, but I think I checked my phone every five minutes. It was the slowest day ever although we actually had a great day of fishing. We went 2 for 2, caught a couple dolphin and had another white that would have been a weigher on any other day,” Grossman says.
“When Dan got the text that the scales were closed, we went absolutely nuts. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and it was with a great group of people, including anglers Brandon Golueke, Harrison Linnan, Greg Perl and Brian Vallario. It just proves that you don’t need to have a paid professional crew and big boat to win these tournaments. I mean, a center console won the Big Rock, and then you have a 43 Ocean with father and son as the main crew win the WMO. We might not have caught the most fish, but we caught the right one,” Coyle says.
For most any passionate bluewater angler, winning the White Marlin Open is about as good as it gets. To share something like this with your son is every father’s dream. Congrats to Canyon Blues for their $1.8 million-dollar marlin. We wish you the best in 2021.