May 26, 2024

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Ocean City, Maryland: The White Marlin Capital of the World

9 min read
A large white marlin breaking the surface of the ocean during a catch.
White marlin take center stage each summer and fall off Ocean City.
Fish Hunt Photo

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I heard the skateboarders before I saw them. The gentle roar of their wheels barreling across the boardwalk rang with a strange nostalgia. Admittedly, I’ve never been a skater—I’ve picked up bits of the culture and sport from movies, MTV and a few brief acquaintances, but I’ve never been part of that community. And yet hearing that familiar sound that evening felt like a powerful, welcoming and gritty confirmation that I had indeed returned to Ocean City, Maryland.

A Fishing Capital

The last time I was in Ocean City, I had come to town to fish the MidAtlantic tournament. Other than a dinner or two and an errand outside of the marina, my whole experience there centered around fishing. This is probably a familiar version of events for many anglers who travel to what’s known as the White Marlin Capital of the World. Home to colossal mega-events such as the White Marlin Open, Ocean City is known for its phenomenal marlin and tuna fisheries and its outrageously large tournament payouts.

The White Marlin Open, which celebrated its 50th year of competition in 2023, got its start in the mid-1970s. Even then, the tournament boasted a great turnout for a new event, with an impressive 57 boats fishing for $20,000. Now, the White Marlin Open welcomes roughly 400 participating boats vying for more than $10 million in prize money. The stakes have certainly changed throughout the course of the tournament’s half-century run. It’s one of Ocean City’s biggest and most popular events, drawing locals and visiting spectators from around the globe to watch the weigh-ins or to see the boats traversing the inlet.

In addition to the excellent billfish bite off Maryland’s Eastern Shore, many recreational anglers flock to Ocean City for shots at bluefish, red drum, flounder, sheepshead, tautog, black sea bass and, of course, striped bass, locally called rockfish. Access is easy, with great fishing available right from shore and at various public fishing piers. And with many charter operations and several headboats available in the area, visitors can book both inshore and offshore trips with Ocean City’s most talented captains at the helm.

While bluewater fishing is what originally introduced me to Ocean City, my second visit offered me a whole new perspective on what this special seaside town has to offer. I now appreciate the location for entirely different reasons, namely donuts, surf and a colorful smattering of wild ponies.

Black and white image of a skateboarder mid-jump in front of the iconic Ocean City, Maryland Boardwalk sign.
Even in the depths of winter, the city’s 3-mile boardwalk remains one of its top attractions.
The Buckskin Billfish / Cameron J. Rhodes

On the Boardwalk

When I first touched down at Salisbury Regional Airport on a chilly February day after flying over Maryland’s meandering coastline and patchwork of farmed fields, I’ll admit that I had some concerns about visiting the area in the off-season. I’d only been to Ocean City in the summer, and I worried that the lull of winter would make it difficult to fully experience the 10-mile stretch of beach with its bright-pink candy stores, neon-yellow souvenir shops, and mini-golf courses featuring giant fiberglass sharks and dinosaurs. Many places were indeed closed or had limited hours, but I found there was no shortage of activity. Ocean City was still very much alive.

The city’s 3-mile boardwalk is home to restaurants, bars, shops, hotels and art galleries. It comes to an end along the inlet, where kids and adults alike can enjoy a turn on its emblematic Ferris wheel, Thrasher’s famous french fries and a beautiful ocean view. Much like an amusement park, the boardwalk and the pier feel like they have their own pulse. Even in the still of winter, as couples walk their dogs along the beach and the carousel of activity sits quiet, the boardwalk still echoes with the sounds of balmy summer days accented by ice cream, live music and kids at play.

I walked into Park Place Hotel—which towers some 80 feet over the boardwalk—to find that same vibrancy splashed across the walls and furnishings in the lobby. The hotel’s tangerine and turquoise accents, along with its pineapple, flip-flop and surfboard motifs, match the playful texture of Ocean City’s streets.

As I later drove along Coastal Highway, dotted with glowing signs announcing happy hour specials and notices for crab you could eat in or carry out, I received a call from Jon Duffie. He’d been kind enough to offer me a tour of Duffie Boatworks, and he gave me the green light to come by for the afternoon. His operation, located across the bridge in west Ocean City, is inconspicuously tucked away among other local businesses. Driving by, you’d have no idea that several multimillion-dollar sport-fishermen were meticulously being built just a stone’s throw from the asphalt.

Black and white image of a crewmate working on the hull of a Duffie Boatworks custom boat.
Work continues on the latest from Duffie Boatworks, a local builder which is planning to expand its footprint within the city.
The Buckskin Billfish / Cameron J. Rhodes

Duffie toured me around the shop and introduced me to his staff as I scurried to get out of the way of their work. The builds underway were all in various phases of development, each with multiple hands tending to measurements, sanding and a litany of other tasks using tools I didn’t recognize. Duffie currently has 66 local employees, with plans underway to physically expand the shop and, consequently, to add more staff as well.

I momentarily forgot where I was as Duffie set me loose to explore on my own. I watched as various builders coordinated their efforts to tent Reel Joy. Meanwhile, another worker with inked arms and long blond hair tucked under a hat mixed what I assumed was some kind of epoxy in a tub. He had the quintessential look of a skater or a surfer, and Duffie later confirmed that several guys in the shop lived up to my stereotyping. It was then I was again reminded of the ground under my feet. Ocean City is not just a historic fishing town; it’s a popular surf destination too.

The next day, after visiting the pier and watching a pack of dedicated birders excitedly ask one another questions like, “Did you see that razorbill?” I made my way to K-Coast Surf Shop. I’d heard great things about the shop and its famous surf school, so I wanted to see it for myself. My surfing expertise is about as solid as my skating knowledge. I tried surfing once while in Costa Rica with my husband. It’s miraculous that we’re still together after that experience. Although surfing’s not for me, I really enjoy watching and photographing the sport.

While at K-Coast, I met Jason Cropper, a staff member and one of the shop’s surf-school instructors. We chatted a bit about the surf culture in Ocean City, and he told me that it genuinely feels like a big family. I can see how that would be the case. With new eyes, Ocean City seems like a big amusement park, one built large enough that you just can’t get to everything. Now that I’ve spent more time there, I can see how Ocean City connects people. It’s busy, but it’s still a small town.

As I was getting ready to head out, Cropper mentioned that a group of locals were surfing across the street, so I darted across the road to watch the action. The waves weren’t big, but they broke cleanly. I watched as several dispersed groups of surfers in thick hooded wetsuits patiently bobbed on the surface of the Atlantic like a lineup of curious sea otters. I stayed until it was time to get ready for dinner.

Shop-front of a Baked, a dessert and cafe gallery, in Ocean City, Maryland.
Quaint shops and restaurants like this one line the downtown streets of nearby Berlin.
The Buckskin Billfish / Cameron J. Rhodes

Coastal Cuisine

Selecting a restaurant in Ocean City can feel a bit overwhelming. There are so many options to choose from, ranging from low-key surf-style taco shops to swanky hotel bars with a view. Every meal I had while in town was excellent, and so was the customer service. Liquid Assets, which Duffie wholeheartedly recommended to me, served up gargantuan plates of intricate seafood dishes and cozy comforts like chicken and dumplings. I ordered a short-rib French onion potpie dish that was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten at a restaurant. And then, to wrap up the meal, I enjoyed their legendary ice cream sandwich—vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two cinnamon-sugar donuts with a salted bourbon caramel.

Close up detail of crab cakes on a plate.
While best known for its world-famous crabcakes, the city has a rich culinary history and wide variety.
The Buckskin Billfish / Cameron J. Rhodes

I also enjoyed an outstanding dinner at Spain Wine Bar, a rustic and warm tapas place where it seems that nearly every seat in the house has a lovely slice of a bay-side view. I ordered the shrimp and Brussels sprouts tapas, then enjoyed a crispy golden duck leg served atop a corn puree and dressed in a cranberry reduction. I don’t typically care for duck, but this dish will now have me ordering it more regularly. Again, here the service was impeccable, even on a busy Saturday evening.

I’d also encourage folks to visit Fractured Prune for a hot O.C. Sand donut that will melt in their mouth, Bayside Skillet for an incredibly creative and delicious assortment of omelets and crepes, and Shark on the Harbor for crabcakes and a romantic view of working waterfronts. Commercial lobstermen, crabbers and others tie up right there, and a seafood market is just across the water. Given the development creep that has taken over crucial infrastructure along the East Coast, it’s so encouraging to see Ocean City’s many working waterfronts still fully operational.

Interior shot of a bar filled with guests.
Dining options are incredibly varied, from surf-style taco shops to upscale establishments with five-star cuisine.
The Buckskin Billfish / Cameron J. Rhodes

Venturing Out

For those interested in venturing out a bit from Ocean City, drive the 20 minutes to the impossibly cute railway town of Berlin—named America’s coolest small town—and visit Baked for all manner of sweets. I had their croclair, a decadent marriage of a croissant and éclair drenched in the recommended chocolate sauce. It does the trick.

In addition to a quick trip to charming Berlin, Ocean City’s visitors can take a short drive to another special place outside of town. Assateague Island is right across the inlet from Ocean City and is home to feral horses. There are several locations to visit on the island, including Assateague State Park and Assateague National Seashore, both of which offer hiking trails and beach access.

Two wild ponies on Assateague Island.
A visit to Assateague Island can reward visitors with a glimpse of the wild native ponies that inhabit the area.
The Buckskin Billfish / Cameron J. Rhodes

As a horse lover and owner, I was thrilled to be able to visit Assateague. I figured it was unlikely I would run into any horses, but I remained hopeful. If anything, just seeing the rolling dunes and coastal plains would be a nice change of pace. As soon as I crossed the bridge, I ran into several liver chestnut and pinto horses grazing along a bike path. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to find them. It’s the kind of place pony-loving little kids dream of, and I was quite happy to return to my childhood.

Whether you’re traveling 18 miles south to see Assateague’s herd or fishing 100 miles offshore for white marlin, Ocean City is a fun, centralized home base for all manner of activities and experiences. The seaside town follows much the same role as its iconic Ferris wheel. It’s the hub at the center of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and every spoke of its wheel connects people to some new attraction or adventure, the very things that will bring people together in beautiful and youthful ways. And that’s what this playground of a town is all about.

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