Every summer, anglers and crews from New Jersey to Venezuela wait anxiously for news from the North Drop. No one questions whether the blues will show up - they've been coming back like clockwork for the past 30 years - it's just a matter of how many. As early as the May moon, captains and crews all along the Eastern seaboard call down to their friends on local boats to get the skinny on what's happening. A good May with plenty of dorado in the water and the early arrival of some big girls on the edge might just signify another banner year in St. Thomas, and crews like to jump-start the boss to get the boat ready to travel.
Although every good fishing hole has its good and bad years, St. Thomas seems to steer a much steadier course than most. The action on the North Drop reminds me of a punch line to a bawdy joke I heard awhile back: "Even when it's bad, it's still pretty good."
In last year's Boy Scout Tournament, captains and crews up and down the docks told tales of woeful fishing and how they hadn't seen it this bad in years. How bad was it? The 38 boats in the tournament released 79 blues over four days of fishing. But even though that isn't exactly tearing them up, you can bet tournament organizers the world over would kill to catch that many blue marlin during their event.
It's this kind of consistency that brings Marlin University to St. Thomas this summer. And not only for the blue marlin bites, but also to experience some of the history and innovation that only a place with a good, predictable bite can muster. Some of the best captains and mates in the world cut their teeth on St. Thomas blues, and I never get tired of shooting the bull with the guys on the dock in Red Hook. Their tales constantly remind me that a good season in St. Thomas equates to a lifetime of blue marlin fishing in most parts of the world.
A Blast from the Past
If you spend more than five minutes around the water in St. Thomas, odds are you'll soon hear someone mention Jimmy Loveland's name. He not only runs several island tourist businesses but also serves as the tournament director for the USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament - better known as the Boy Scout and arguably one of the most prestigious and competitive blue marlin events in the world.
Loveland has been involved with big-game fishing here since the beginning when Laurance Rockefeller came down in the early '60s. "Laurance had started the national park in St. John and hired the legendary Johnny Harms and Jerry Black to bring the sport down here to entertain the guests in his hotels," says Loveland. "Jerry Black hired me a short time thereafter, and it was our job to try to put St. Thomas on the map. We started with two boats, the Savannah Bay and the Pond Bay, named after two beautiful bays on Virgin Gorda. There wasn't that much fishing going on in the Caribbean in those days, just a bit in Puerto Rico, and we didn't have a clue as to where the fish would be. Of course the moon bite was still a mystery, so it just became a series of trial and error until we found the fish."
And find the fish they did. After carefully studying an underwater chart of the area, Harms decided that the North Drop, with its dramatic plunge into the deep just 20 miles north of Red Hook, would hold bait and plenty of blue marlin. But it wasn't until 1968 that Elliot Fishman's 845-pound, all-tackle, world-record blue solidified St. Thomas' status among the world's best blue marlin fisheries.
"Soon we were catching so many fish," says Loveland, "that we didn't need to hang them up for publicity shots anymore. And that's how the whole release ethic started here." Consequently, when the Boy Scout Tournament started in 1972, it was one of the first tournaments with a modified release format.
Those good numbers also spawned the advent of light-tackle and world-record fishing early on. "The local anglers got bored with the numbers of fish they were catching and started looking for greater challenges by using lighter lines," says Loveland. "Nelson and Gloria Applegate fishing on the Mako set quite a few world records here, and they were probably the last hard-core anglers to fish year round here on a private basis."
In the early '70s a few Florida boats started to arrive. One of the first big names in that crowd, Capt. Ron Hamlin, began experimenting with just about every aspect of his tackle and boat, trying to catch more fish. In those early days, everyone pulled dead mackerel baits at high speeds for blues, but it wouldn't be long before a slight modification of these baits would turn St. Thomas on its ear.
"I was in on that early high-speed trolling," says Hamlin, "but we were just tearing the bait up - going through 50 to 60 mackerel a day because I was trying to go as fast as I could to cover ground." Hamlin heard that his good friend Capt. Jack Whiticar, founder of Whiticar Boatworks in Stuart, Florida, was soaking his mackerel in formaldehyde to toughen them up. Hamlin gave it a try and blew away the St. Thomas fleet, catching 75 blues in 53 days. "At that time, that was the most blue marlin caught in St. Thomas in one year," says Hamlin.
Since those early days, 15 world records have been set in St. Thomas, including the granddaddy of them all, the former all-tackle record blue marlin caught by Larry Martin on August 6, 1977. That blue weighed in at an incredible 1,282 pounds, a record that stood for 15 years.
It was in the mid '90s that St. Thomas really hit its stride with some truly remarkable seasons. In 1996 the Revenge, captained by Mike Lemon, shattered the Virgin Islands release record with a remarkable 162 blues in just 72 days. (The previous record was 114 fish set by the Lethal Weapon in 1988.) That same year, Damon Choust became the first person ever to catch 100 blue marlin in a calendar year. In fact, he caught 168 of those fish aboard the Freedom, 125 of them from a tremendous summer in St. Thomas.
Why They Are Here
Twenty miles due north of Red Hook lie the Puerto Rican Trench and the fabled North Drop, where depths plunge from 250 to 28,000 feet in the space of a mile or so. This area marks the deepest spot in the Atlantic and the second deepest in the world. Only the Marianas Trench in the South Pacific is deeper - 35,000 feet. Technically, the Puerto Rican Trench is in the territorial waters of the British Virgin Islands, and there have been quite a few clashes between the St. Thomas charter boats and the English government over license issues and fees.
The trench runs in an east-west direction along the north side of St. Thomas, but it makes a turn to the north for 10 or 12 miles and then turns back east, Prowler Capt. Bill McCauley notes. "That 12-mile section is where the current hits the edge and brings up the nutrient-rich water that makes the North Drop so special."
Although no one is sure why the fish congregate here in such huge numbers on the moon, McCauley feels that the blues use the trench as a migration route for their summer spawn. "They start following the edge of the trench, but when they get here and make the turn at the North Drop, they run into this big pocket of concentrated bait. It's like driving down the highway and stopping at McDonald's," says McCauley.
"Most of the boats will work a two-mile area right along the edge of the drop in anywhere from 300 to 1,500 feet of water," says Capt. Eddie Morrison on the Marlin Prince. "We troll the edge, keeping one eye out for bonito, skipjack and flyers on the surface and the other on the depth finder, looking for bait just under the surface. But to tell the truth we don't even worry about the bait too much; most boats are pretty religious about sticking close to the edge even if the bait is off in deeper water. The ideal situation is having the bait right up on the edge."
McCauley agrees. There are really two schools of thought when it comes to fishing the Drop, he says. "You can run up and down the edge and work the whole drop, or you can pick a spot where you see bait and stay there. I figure if I work that one- or two-mile area where I see bait on my sounder or birds working the surface, the fish will eventually come to me."
What They Are Biting
Most boats here pull a combination of lures and baits, and the bait-and-switch is used extensively. But there are definitely seasons within the season, and most crews arm themselves accordingly. "Most people don't know that in June and July our average fish are 400 to 600 pounds," says Morrison. "As the season progresses we get more of a mixed bag, and in August you can catch fish from 100 to 800 pounds. Late in our season, in September and October, our fish average between 100 and 200 pounds, and there are a lot of them. So when we have a lot of big fish around early in the year, I'll pull a skipping mackerel and an armed lure along with my four teasers. But come the fall, when the fish start to get smaller, the mackerel come in, and we'll replace them with a horse ballyhoo."
Capt. Red Bailey on the Abigail III has fished St. Thomas since 1965 and has been a big fan of Mold Craft lures since their inception. "I pull Super Chuggers, Wide Ranges - all of them," he says. Bailey prefers bright colors like pink-and-white or green-and-yellow, although he gets a lot of bites on his Red Bailey Special, a black-red-and-white Senior Wide Range made for him by Mold Craft. Bailey will also pull baits, but he says the one good thing about pulling lures is the added benefit of not harming the fish. "I've yet to hook a blue marlin deep in the throat or stomach when pulling a lure. It just doesn't happen."
Most of his charters don't have the experience to work the bait-and-switch, so McCauley opts to go the lure route as well, but he prefers to use darker colors. "My favorite lure is probably the Pakula Rat; I've probably caught more fish on that lure than anything else. I like black over pink or black over purple - dark colors over a medium or light color work best for me."
When to Come
Capt. Spike Herbert on the Lady Carol, two-time winner of the Boy Scout and the only native captain to catch a grander in St. Thomas, says that if he had to pay to come to St. Thomas he'd pick the September moon. "You get a lot more double and triple headers later in the season," says Herbert. "The fish are smaller, but there are a lot more of them. And the weather's calmer, too."
The moon is all-important here, and Morrison says that the peak times are definitely in the week or 10 days up to and following the full moon. "You'll definitely get a more aggressive bite around the moon. The fish are here all during the season, however, and you can still catch fish on the dark side of the moon - the bites just get fewer and farther between."
If big fish are your bag, hit St. Thomas early in the season, during the June or July moon. If, however, you'd like to go for numbers or use light tackle or fly gear, plan for either the September or October moon.
"A lot of people will call me up and ask, 'If I book a charter for three or four days, will I get a chance to catch a blue marlin?' " says McCauley. "And I have to give them my stock answer; 'It's not whether or not you'll catch one, but how many.' That's the difference between St. Thomas and the rest of the world.
"Sure you can go to Venezuela or somewhere and see a bunch of blues, whites and sails mixed together. But for strictly blue marlin fishing, there aren't many places that can beat St. Thomas."