Jon Duffie’s Journey to Create Duffie Boatworks

Jun 8, 2024 by Kevin Maher

From championship sportfishing captain to renowned boat builder, Jon Duffie’s journey includes world records, massive billfish, and everything in between.

“When we got to the scale, I didn’t even look up. I sat on the bridge looking down, and when I heard everyone start screaming and I looked up and saw the scale, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it,’” said Jon Duffie. 

Duffie fondly recollects the surreal moment the 77.5-pound white marlin that crowned him and his crew champions of the 49th annual White Marlin Open was weighed. Not only did he win with his brother Jeremy, on Billfisher, a boat the brothers designed and built, but he did it in world record-breaking fashion, winning a prize purse of $4.5 million. But before Duffie was a White Marlin Open champion, a world-record holding captain, and a boat builder, he was a child learning the ropes from his family. 

“The first memory I have of marlin fishing is actually with my parents in the late 80s,” Duffie said. “They had caught a white marlin, and it was in the cockpit; they had killed it, and my job was to keep wet towels on it all day.”

Most of Duffie’s early sportfishing memories include his parents, whether it was wrapping fish with wet towels, learning to navigate, or figuring out how to rig bait. Duffie quickly became hooked on the thrill of sportfishing, but something else caught his eye at an early age — boat building. 

 

“When I was 12 years old, I was using balsa wood and building models of boats in my room,” Duffie said. “I wanted to be a boat builder from the first time we ever took the Billfisher down to Oregon Inlet in North Carolina.” 

As Duffie grew up, so did his sportfishing experience. Growing up in Ocean City, Maryland, during what he describes as the prime era for the charter fleet, Duffie had countless opportunities to pick the brains of far-traveling sportfish captains.

“Guys had fished out in the Bahamas, Mexico, Venezuela, dead bait fishing out of Stuart, Florida, or live bait fishing in the Keys and in Palm Beach — it was really fortunate timing for myself to grow up then because I got to ride along and fish with all those guys and learn from them,” Duffie said. 

One of Duffie’s most memorable lessons he learned was from Capt. Mitch Pierson. When Duffie’s family wasn’t fishing, he was usually tagging along with Pierson on the boat the captain ran. Pierson was the first to teach Duffie how to circle fish with the boat. 

“When you’re marlin fishing, and you’re trying to catch numbers, and you’re circling a fish once you hook one, you don’t want to just stop and catch that fish. You want to circle that fish and try to entice multiple hookups,” Duffie said.

The idea of multiple hookups was unfamiliar to Duffie with his Ocean City background. Pierson’s experience in Mexico, Venezuela, and Florida opened Duffie’s eyes to the possibility of keeping the boat moving after reeling in a single marlin and using the fish on the hook to attract other billfish, all while successfully circling the fish. 

“Mitch told me, ‘You can’t keep catching if you’ve stopped fishing,’” Duffie said. “One of the things I’ve learned over the years and one of the things I say all the time to guys fishing with me is, ‘I’m not worried about the fish I have on right now; I’m worried about the next bite.’”

As Duffie grew older, his skills advanced, and he began to run charters and take on bigger tournaments. Something that remained the same, especially in the tournaments, was the inclusion of his family. Most tournaments that Duffie has seen success in include his parents, brothers, and close friends. The continuity helps build chemistry within the crew, which turns into success. 

“We fish with the same people in the same positions, so there are no questions of like ‘Hey, where do you want me,’ or ‘Hey, what’s my job?’” Duffie said. “We all know our job; everyone has a position and that helps you stay consistent. My belief is that repetition in what you’re doing makes you good at it.”

Those years of consistency came through in a big way during the 2022 White Marlin Open, where Duffie and his crew won the tournament after more than 20 years of competing. The 2022 tournament was plagued with poor fishing for most participants, so Duffie hatched an idea of moving as far away from the other teams as possible, entering water closer to the Gulf Stream. The Billfisher crew was in first place for top points going into the last day of the tournament, and then they landed the record-breaking white marlin. 

 

“Considering it was on the boat we built and getting to do it with my family — I’ve been very fortunate,” Duffie said. 

Duffie’s fishing expeditions never stopped, but his interest in boat building grew louder and louder. He stayed around boat building throughout his life, but it wasn’t until he started a family and had his son Colt, that he dived into it as a profession. The burnout of travel and the yearning to be around his family made it a natural transition from full-time captain to boat builder. 

After building a small boat in his garage, he confirmed his readiness to transition to boat building and created Duffie Boatworks in 2017. He soon began working on the 64-foot Billfisher, which was finished in 2021. The vessel saw immediate success, landing the previously mentioned record-breaking white marlin in 2022 and landing the Maryland State record blue marlin weighing in at 1,135 pounds in the 2021 Mid-Atlantic Tournament. 

“While I was building that boat [Billfisher], I was lucky enough to have some people that really believed in me come by and visit the boat shop and see what we were doing,” Duffie said. “They were impressed with what they saw; they believed in what I was doing, and they got in line to build boats.”

Construction soon began on the 70-foot Dem Boys, a one-of-a-kind vessel built to sportfish at the highest level anywhere on the planet. Dem Boys was delivered in 2023, and the 79-foot Reel Joy is Duffie Boatworks’ next project, with an expected delivery date later this year. 

 

“One of the things I’m most proud of is that we have a really young crew, and we’ve taught most of the crew at the shop how we want to build boats,” Duffie said. “I’m really proud of the fact that how passionate I am for the sport and the creativity that goes into boat building has passed on to a number of guys.” 

As the team at Duffie Boatworks continues to lead the pack of sportfish builders and Duffie works a job he loves, the captain still gets the competitive itch to jump back into the waters.

“It’s hard when they’re biting, and you’re in the shop, grinding fiberglass, and you’re hearing about people having double-digit white marlin bites,” Duffie said. “After doing that for 20 years, it’s hard to wean yourself off it!”

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About Kevin Maher

Kevin Maher is Triton's editor-in-chief.

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