For anybody who’s caught the angling bug, hooking a fish can make you feel like a million bucks. Sometimes more than a million.
Ask the crew of the Billfisher, the boat that last week landed the fish that won first place in the 2022 White Marlin Open in Ocean City, Md. The 77.5 pound white marlin, caught on the last day of the annual five-day event, brought in prize money totaling more than $4.5 million, making it the most valuable tournament fish of all time.
Danny Gough, an angler on the winning boat, tells Defector that by the time he and the Billfisher got back to shore with its white marlin, he was too nervous to walk up on the dock for the weigh-in. So he let his mates bring the fish up to the scales while he stayed onboard. For the unfamiliar, fishing tournament weigh-ins are bizarrely boisterous and intense proceedings, with an atmosphere not too far from that of a prize fight. Gough sweated things out while trying to discern what’s going on from afar by listening to the public address announcer and interpreting the crowd’s reaction.
“I heard everybody screaming and cheering from what they could see on the scales,” Gough tells Defector, “and after seven seconds or so the announcer said, ‘Seventy-seven-point-five pounds!’ And I knew it was a $4 million fish.”
Actually, when all the accounting was done, a $4.536 million fish.
Gough grew up outside Washington, D.C., and says he got into saltwater fishing as a kid through high school friends. Their summer hangout was Ocean City, which turned out to be a revered epicenter of billfishing, a deep sea endeavor where large predatory fish like marlins and swordfish become the prey. And Gough quickly learned that the most moneyed fishing tournaments anywhere were held right offshore while he vacationed. So soon enough he was partaking in the local culture and trying to catch big fish for big money. He’s been coming to the White Marlin Open for 33 years, and says in the last decade he’s cut back on his mortgage banking career to join his crew at tournaments all around the globe.
Fishermen notoriously clam up whenever asked about their favorite fishing holes and best bait. But the Billfisher crew spilled details without hesitance after their big win. They hooked the big fish near the Baltimore Canyon, a trench 28 miles wide and five miles long located 1500 fathoms deep about 70 miles off the coast of Maryland. Gough says they used dead ballyhoo (a fish that resembles a baby marlin) as bait and trolled between six and seven knots to get the big fish intrigued.
As the staggering dollar amount hints, the allure of competitive angling is often more than mere recreation or the bond it can create between man and the sea. Tournament fishing is essentially a gambling exercise. The money in the massive purses at top events like the White Marlin Open comes directly from the entry fees paid by competitors. The entrants are betting on themselves.
And we’re not talking penny-antes. Just to get in this year’s tournament cost $1,500 and up per boat. Those who only put up that minimum amount are eligible for a top prize of just $50,000. To land the seven-figure sum up for grabs at the 2022 White Marlin Open, entrants had to also pony up for the various “calcuttas,” which are essentially side bets. Gough says there were 20 calcuttas this year, each costing anywhere from $500 to $10,000, and that his boat put up the maximum amount in each category. That means they had spent $57,500 before filling a fuel tank or baiting a hook or making another boat payment.
This year’s rendition, the 49th White Marlin Open, had 408 boats registered. Among the anglers: Michael Jordan, who is known for finding betting action wherever he can. Jordan and his 80-foot yacht, Catch 23, show up pretty much every year. (Gough says Jordan’s always good for a wave and hello and he’s never heard anything but good reviews about the former world’s most famous man’s dealings with other competitors.) Bigger fish had been caught in previous years–the 2021 White Marlin Open winner was eight pounds heavier than the Billfisher’s catch–but because the entry fees made this year’s kitty bigger than ever, no fish had ever brought home such a bounty.
Gough says the Billfisher had its normal eight-person team (a captain, two mates, and five anglers) plus assorted helpers on the boat each day. All get a cut of the bounty. So, winning the tournament is more like a whole office pool winning a lottery than a solo ticket holder hitting the jackpot.
“It’s not like most people think,” Gough says. “You have to hit it big to make any money. You’re only walking away with a sizable amount if you hit for something in the high six-figures or more.”
Wherever there’s money up for grabs, shenanigans lurk just beneath the surface. Yes, even in fishing. The 2016 White Marlin Open turned chaotic after the final weigh-in, when tournament organizers accused the winning boat of cheating and withheld the $2.8 million top prize. Florida-based fisherman Phil Heasley, who caught a 76.5-pound white marlin that was that year’s biggest, reportedly failed a polygraph test after being asked about where and when he put his lines in the water. Heasley sued. After two years of litigation, according to news reports, the courts ruled that evidence showed Heasley flouted the rules, and the decision to disqualify him as the winner was upheld. The money Heasley said was rightfully his was disbursed among other entrants.
“The way I look at it, fishing is a lot like golf,” Gough says. “There’s a lot of honor and truthfulness in this game.”
Until there isn’t? “Yeah, until there isn’t,” he said. “That’s in every sport.”
The White Marlin Open rulebook now has it in writing that anybody who fails the post-tournament lie-detector test won’t get a dime. Gough says that his Billfisher mate Jeremy Duffie, the angler credited with personally landing this year’s winning fish, took a “1.5 hour polygraph” at tournament’s end.
“And he passed,” Gough says.
So he and the rest of the crew will get a whole lot of dimes.