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OCEAN CITY -- On a normal day you cannot stop an angler or captain from boasting about the day's best spot to snag tuna. Of course July 13 through July 15 are not normal days.

Friday kicks off the 20th Annual Ocean City Tuna Tournament, a three-day span in which mum's the word for charter boat captains.

"We're all friends until the last day," said Capt. Jojo Joachinowski, who last year piloted the Lazy Bonz on its way to $31,534 in prize money. "Then it's radio silence. If you pick the right spot you have got to keep it quiet."

Capt. John Oughton, whose Pretty Work last year pulled in half the green, $238,382, goes even a step further in not divulging any strategy. "You just have to keep your mouth shut for a week before," said Oughton, who fished the area known as the "Sausage Lumps" about 40 miles offshore on day one of last year's tournament. "I went straight out front and there was only one other boat out there."

The tuna tournament last year boasted by far the biggest purse: more than $559,000. And with 118 competing boats last year, it is not a field so much as an armada. Combine all that skill, prestige and money, and it is enough to get any tuna fisherman's competitive juices flowing.

"With the tuna tournament there is more skill involved than in the White Marlin Open," Fin-Ness Capt. Chad Meeks said. "The White Marlin Open is about getting one lucky bite. In the tuna tournament you have to be on your game for two days in a row."

Added Oughton: "We kind of all thought we deserved to win last year ... You work hard and it pays off. I'm sure we got lucky too."

The tournament has only grown more popular over the years, with tuna maniacs from New Jersey down to Florida setting sail for Ocean City to take part in, what tournament director Jennifer Hasenei calls, "the largest tuna tournament on the East Coast."

Of course the Ocean City charter boat captains who have been fishing these waters for decades tend to hold themselves up to a higher standard than the outsiders.

"When you do win you don't act like a big hero," Meeks said. "That's what you are hired to do. ... It gets very competitive, especially among the guys who have lived and fished here all their lives." Precedents set in years past for what amounts to a "big fish" might astound some unfamiliar with the tournament. Oughton, for instance, was just on his way back from a morning at sea when chatting with this reporter. One of his clients that day managed to bag a 125-pound bluefin tuna. That he called a "warm up," and rightfully so. Last year's heaviest tuna tipped the scales at 187 pounds.

Other categories for competitors to take home some serious cash include heaviest entire catch, top lady angler and top junior angler. The first-place boat in the heaviest total catch category was Wound Up, whose crew managed to wrangle an impressive 691 pounds of fish. They earned almost $106,000 by the end of the weekend. The total catch category, or five-fish stringer as it is known, can be an exercise in versatility.

"To me it's like a chess game because you want to catch the biggest fish, then you want to search for yellowfin tuna," Joachinowski said. "You need to know where to start to catch bluefin then change your location to catch the yellowfin to add to your five-fish stringer." Though it is a three-day tournament, each boat is only allowed to fish from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on two of the three days. Most boats that can will fish on Friday since there are fewer boats on the water on a weekday. And in keeping with the furtive nature of the high stakes tournament, most captains will not divulge whether they will choose Saturday or Sunday as their second fishing day.

"Well, I can tell you I will be fishing the first day, how's that?" Joachinowski said.


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