Rays of sun burst from behind the morning clouds, illuminating the mountainous islands beyond. An invitingly light chop played across the sapphire seas as a khaki-clad Capt. Bill McCauley sighted the horizon. At the helm of his 40-foot custom-built Jersey, Prowler, McCauley pulled away from the docks of St. Thomas' American Yacht Harbor Marina, en route to the infamous North Drop for a day of marlin fishing with a husband-and-wife team of charter guests aboard.
Experienced sport fishermen, the couple's adrenaline pumped in anticipation of what the double sets of long, short and teaser lines would raise. Action began almost immediately with a sailfish double-header, both caught and released. "Next we had a triple-header of blue marlin," McCauley recalled. "It wasn't that common to raise them in October, but to hook and catch them with just two anglers was pretty amazing." For most people, Prowler's noontime tally of five-for-five would have spelled the trip of a lifetime, but there was another half to the day.
By midafternoon, the duo hooked, caught and released another blue, and then minutes before they picked up the lines to call it a day, they added a white. That catch made for a grand slam and a fish tale that all sport fishermen wish for - not to mention the release of seven billfish for the day. While grand slams aren't an everyday occurrence in Virgin Islands waters, catching Atlantic blue marlin from summer to fall comes as close to a sure thing as you'll find in fishing, thanks to the natural phenomena of the North Drop.
The Summer Marlin Hot Spot
"We're still not quite sure what makes the North Drop so productive," says Sherri Maidment, fisheries specialist at the Fish and Wildlife office of the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources. Theories, however, center on the topography of the ocean floor, distribution of baitfish and undersea currents.
Glancing at a nautical chart readily reveals that the United States and British Virgin Islands were once high peaks of a great mountain range. The ancient valleys are now flooded and connect two deep ocean basins, one to the north and one to the south. The North Drop is filled with cool water from the Atlantic Ocean and reaches down to a maximum depth of 29,000 feet, or almost 5-1/2 miles. The South Drop, in contrast, is filled with warmer water from the Caribbean Sea and reaches a depth of only 12,000 feet, or 2-1/4 miles.
"The South Drop is a closer run - we can be fishing within 20 minutes," says Capt. Eddie Morrison aboard Marlin Prince, a 45-foot Viking. "You'll find blue and white marlin, starting sometime in March and lasting through May. Then they head to the deeper, cooler waters of the North Drop. That's where in the fall you're most likely to catch a grand slam."
The variety and quality of baitfish swimming through the North Drop attract blue marlin on their yearly migration northward from South America. Dolphin, tuna and wahoo - which charter crews sometimes target while waiting for a marlin to strike - congregate where swift-moving currents from the ocean depths deliver the microscopic plankton and small fry on which baitfish feed. "I troll tight to the edge, at a depth of about 300 feet and 50 yards off that," Morrison says. "When we raise a fish, I punch in an event market on the GPS so I can turn right around, get back to the same spot and raise it again."
Before GPS, sport fishermen defined productive areas along the North Drop by names like the "saddle" and "gun sight," terms that refer to how the islands some 20 miles distant line up on the horizon. The late Johnny Harms was among the first to coin these terms, as he first discovered in the early 1960s that the North Drop is a hot spot for the Atlantic blue marlin, arguably unequaled anywhere else in the world.
Fishing numbers from both daily charters and tournament fishing define just how many blue marlin are in Virgin waters. Over the last five years, McCauley has been top St. Thomas captain for blue marlin catches, averaging 60 to 80 fish per year. "Last year was our best with 84 blue marlin," McCauley said.
In 1996, one of the best blue marlin years on record, Damon Chouest fishing on the 63-foot American Custom Yacht Freedom caught an amazing 168 blue marlin in a calendar year - 43 of these while fishing off Venezuela and the remaining 125 from St. Thomas. The Freedom racked up 177 marlin for the year, with 134 of them in the Virgin Islands.
Anglers Sam and Jon Jennings fishing on the Revenge managed to surpass Chouest's incredible feat by releasing 162 blues in just 72 days on the North Drop that same year and still hold the Virgin Islands' record for most blues released in a year.
And the fish here aren't just plentiful; they can be big as well. St. Thomas fish average around 350 pounds, but 400- and 500-pounders are caught regularly and giant fish make their appearance as well. Capt. Spike Herbert, who runs the 46-foot Rybovich, Phoenix, is one of only four Virgin Islands captains to boat a 1,000-pound marlin - a 1,192-pounder, on July 8, 1980 - but says, "There are still Big Daddy's out there."
Johnny Harms - a legend in the local fishing community - holds the credit for pioneering the sport-fishing industry in the Virgin Islands. Back in 1992, visiting at the Virgin IslandsGame Fishing Club's July Open Tournament (an organization and event he helped to found), Harms reminisced about the days of exploration. "They told me there were no fish over there, but I knew better," Harms said about the second-hand reports he heard while working to establish an economy-spurring sport-fishing industry in nearby Puerto Rico.
With the help of fellow Florida fisherman Red Stuart, Harms studied a chart of the Virgins looking for a likely spot to fish. He quickly decided that the area north of the islands where the ocean floor dropped off steeply might be worth a try. Late one October day in 1963, Harms and his crew ventured eastward into Virgin Islands waters. "Having a slow boat as the time, we only made it to the north shore of St. John," Harms said. He tossed a line over and in less than 30 minutes of trolling had a marlin. The catch - not even in the location he had thought ripe for big-game - fired his intense interest in the Virgin Islands. That interest lasted for the rest of Harms' life and was the seed that focused worldwide attention on the Virgin Islands.
Since then, Virgin waters have produced 15 world-record marlin catches, including the former all-tackle 1,282-pound blue marlin caught by Larry Martin on August 6, 1977, and they have birthed a top-notch charter sport-fishing fleet.
Anglers of all ages, nationalities and experience levels come to the Virgin Islands for a marlin-fishing charter. "In the winter, it's more families; in the summer, it's more men and more experienced fishermen, with the tournaments drawing the professional anglers," says Capt. Kelvin "Junior" Bailey son of St. Thomas veteran Capt. Red Bailey, aboard the custom 40-footer Abigail III.
"Since we're known for our blue marlin bite, we get a lot of first-timers," adds Capt. Don Mertens, who runs his 44-foot Bluefin II. "Many first-timers might be experienced anglers, but not when it comes to blue marlin," says Morrison. "The marlin behave differently here, and anglers are never quite prepared for the size, aggression and number of blue marlin in our waters." It's the amount of marlin in Virgin waters that makes the St. Thomas charter fleet among the most competent in the world.
Before leaving the dock, captains and mates instruct or refresh anglers in proper marlin-angling technique. "Either the mate or myself will let them get the feel of the chair," Morrison says. "Then we'll hook the harness around their waist, place in the rod and run out some line." The mate jumps to the dock and pulls down the line so that the angler will have the idea of just what a marlin strike feels like. "Many times they're afraid that when a big fish does strike, they'll be pulled overboard. We let them know this won't happen," Bailey says.
Once out on the Drop, anglers often forget all their instructions the moment a marlin strikes. "We set the hook for the first one," Bailey concedes. "Even for experienced anglers, we give them the option of setting the first hook. Once comfortable, they can set their own." For experienced anglers, many St. Thomas charter boats are equipped for light tackle and fly fishing, but it's angling forms "we're getting more and more requests for," Morrison says.
Almost all marlin caught in the Virgin Islands are released, and most are tagged. "The National Marine Fisheries Council says (we can keep) one marlin per boat per day," says Capt. Red Bailey. "In the Virgin Islands, though, it's hardly one marlin per month." When clients request mounts, skippers recommend release mounts, where length and weight estimates, and maybe a photo or two, are all that's required for the construction of the trophy.
More Than a Summer Fishery
While summer and early fall is the best time for a marlin charter, billfish are caught year-round in Virgin waters. In fact, there is a friendly local rivalry among the St. Thomas fleet over who catches the first blue marlin of the New Year. "That was us this year," Morrison said. "We got about a 125-pounder out on the North Drop January 3." Marlin Prince also caught the first white marlin of the season on March 3. "I'm always rigged for marlin, since we've got one of the most predictable marlin bites in the world here," Morrison says.
Moon phase impacts fishing, especially during the marlin peak season. "I recommend planning charters for about 10 days before and six to seven days after the full moon," Morrison says. "For each full moon, there's about 17 days of really good fishing, and five of them are fantastic." Unfortunately, Morrison says, you need to fish all 17 to find the five fantastic ones.
The July moon starts the peak for marlin productivity. "Earlier in the season, the marlin are not as big in numbers as they are in size," Bailey says. "While in the fall, the fish are smaller, but there are more of them." The October moon has long been a local's delight and a more recent splash among international anglers who have been extending their summer stays and reveling in raising nine to 12 fish per day. "The November moon is good if it's early in the month; otherwise, it gets too late," Morrison says.