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Volume 16, Issue 48 - November 27 - December 3, 2008
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Ocean City Holiday

Others can have the beach and shopping; I’m here for the sport

This Thanksgiving there are neither sleighs nor snow, just sea gulls, sand, a boardwalk and maybe a fish or two. Somehow I’ve ended up in Ocean City for the holiday; the rest of the family knew I’d follow where they took granddaughter Grumpy. So here I am awaiting Thursday’s turkey on the beach at Dune’s Manor Hotel.

Down this way they do a lot of bragging. Ocean City bills itself as the White Marlin Capital of the World. Tourism boosters extol the white sandy beaches, avoiding any mention of development’s contributions to global warming via the towering skyline. And now there’s the Winterfest of Lights, which city fathers tell us placed second behind only Disneyland as a holiday attraction in a recent contest.

There have to be a billion light bulbs plugged into Winterfest, its villages and scenes that fill all of Northside Park and will stay lighted through Jan. 1. Each Thanksgiving, this spectacular hooks Grumpy as solidly as do the flounder of the back bays hereabouts do me in spring and fall. Gotta admit the $4 train ride through Winterfest’s gingerbread houses, Twelve Days of Christmas scenery, Rudolph and scores of other glitzy attractions add to the holiday spirit. But there are other things to be done and enjoyed.

The Other Side of Ocean City

As the womenfolk cook and go shopping, swimming down the coast from New Jersey to New England are the big cow rockfish, some stopping in the surf and back bays hereabouts where the catching can include trophies of better than 40 or 50 inches. It’s also time for big bluefish of 10 pounds or better to pass by as they head to wintering waters off the Carolinas.

Tautog, a popular and tasty bottom species, remain active in the back bays and just offshore, where headboats have a crack at them. Snow geese, brant and other waterfowl associated more with the oceanfront than the Chesapeake become more evident each day. As in the remainder of Maryland, the Saturday after Thanksgiving marks the opener of the two-week modern firearms season for whitetail deer — and Worcester County is the state’s second best hunting grounds for the unique sika deer, which are found in only a scattering of states.

Since I first arrived in Maryland in ’56, Ocean City has not been easy to figure. It has good to excellent hunting and fishing but a track record of preferring to promote such sports only when the fun-and-sun beach crowd is not in town. On the totem pole of things to do, those who run the city have always appeared more interested in what will produce revenue now than in sporting pursuits.

On my arrival 52 years ago, some of the state’s best whitetail hunting took place where the airport now is. Much of the hunting grounds were open without so much as asking permission. That year, 1,616 white marlin were caught and kept; 947 were released. Nearly all billfish were fished for and caught at the Jackspot, 21 miles from the inlet.

The going price for a marlin trip was $100 to $110, a marlin trophy could be mounted for $100 to $150 — and a night’s lodging at the Alamo Motel cost $10. Trips to Baltimore Canyon 60 miles or more from OC were the exception. Boats were slow, almost all of wood (fiberglass hadn’t arrived) and running time was between four and five hours each way, which meant overnighting on the ocean back when radio communications and weather forecasts were not always dependable. Those who made canyon trips were usually required to carry extra fuel in drums on deck.

The four top offshore fishing centers were Josh Bunting’s docks closest to the inlet, Talbott Bunting’s facility across the street from Bill Bunting’s docks at the Route 50 Bridge. Bill Athes operated the Ship’s Café marina farther up the back bays, and it was a very popular drinking and dining stop among those who went to sea. But the weekend after Labor Day was the last of the year for the Ship’s Café. Most everything was shuttered for the winter.

Back bay flounder fishing was wrapped up by mid-September, though a few anglers fished the Route 50 bridge for flatties until October. Headboat fishing was pretty much over by September, until in ’59 Capt. Eddie Brex, whose headboats Taurus and Pisces fished out of West Ocean City, found codfish could be caught. New opportunity opened from December through February. For years it was customary for deer hunters of the lower Eastern Shore to hunt on the opening day (Saturday after Thanksgiving), then overnight and fish for cod, porgies and sea bass on the Sunday.

It wasn’t until the mid to late ’60s that fishermen discovered the great Boston (Atlantic) mackerel fishing from several miles to 20 miles offshore. When the macks were running, which was from February into late March or early April, headboats sailed daily. Anglers usually jigged small hard plastic worms or Diamond jigs, and catches of 50 to 75 mackerel per angler a day were the norm. Then as with cod, the runs petered out.

Ocean bluefish weren’t big in size until the ’60s. About the same time, more interest turned to tuna, both yellowfins and bluefins along with bigeyes. Surf fishing has made great strides; it never has been particularly good at Ocean City in warmer months, where much of the emphasis was and remains on swimming and sunbathing. Assateague Island was and remains the hub for fishing the beach, but in the ’50s there was no bridge. A ferry made the run to the island twice daily. If you wanted to be on Assateague at the best fishing times, it meant an overnight stay in vehicle or tent with mosquitoes and other insects making life miserable.

Flip a Coin

Over the past few days, more visitors are arriving for the Thanksgiving feast or the big shopping the day after. But my attention remains glued to the docks. Skippers of the back-bay flounder fleet are waiting for word that sea-run rockfish have arrived in good enough numbers to sail for them at the inlet and in the ocean inside the three-mile limit. What will it be? Big rockfish, blues, deer — or gobbler at the Dunes?

Enough said.


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