The Billfish Foundation
When Winthrop P. Rockefeller, Don Tyson, Tim Choate and Dr. Eric Prince decided that something needed to be done to ensure that billfish stocks would survive for future generations, they immediately started working on two goals: getting anglers to consistently think about and practice tag-and-release and convincing billfish tournaments not to kill every fish. Over the past 25 years, the organization has made tremendous strides on both fronts. It wasn’t until I went to Washington, D.C., with Ellen Peel that I saw how well our fish are represented — and how much they needed to be represented. The really impressive part was to witness the respect that TBF commands from their foes and how they lead the way in the meetings on Capitol Hill. In order for billfish to have a real voice in the confusing world of NMFS, ICCAT and other political arenas, TBF’s initial focus was on research and educational programs. In 1990, TBF expanded to include advocacy for responsible fisheries management. They recognized that influencing decision makers with sound science was a crucial step in successful billfish conservation.
Capt. Ron Hamlin
In the 1970s, in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Ron Hamlin wanted to troll faster, as he believed that blue marlin responded better to a quicker pace. So he experimented with different brines on his mackerel baits until he discovered that “juicing” the baits with formaldehyde was the key to holding the baits together at high speeds. His catch rates went through the roof, and St. Thomas was imprinted with Ron’s magic touch. Hamlin has fished all over the world (he and Tim Choate were on one of the first American crews to ever fish in Venezuela) and was one of the first captains to catch more than 1,000 billfish in a single year — he’s done it several times! Always an innovator, Hamlin is constantly trying to improve the sport and find better, easier ways to catch marlin. He also never fails to share his success and innovative techniques with his fellow captains and crews.
Capt. Bobby Brown
Capt. Bobby Brown leads by example. A true fishing gentleman, Brown is the epitome of grace under fire, and you’ll never see his name mired in any sort of controversy. Capt. Brown is world-renowned as the ultimate captain, as much for fishing prowess (he presently holds the IGFA world record for Pacific blue marlin — a 1,376-pounder) as for his cooking, boat maintenance and teaching ability. Brown’s real legacy is his large number of past deckhands who went on to become the next generation of professional captains — a legacy that reverberates from Kona to the U.S. Virgin Islands and beyond.
The consensus among most of the top captains and anglers I’ve spoken to is that Stewart Campbell was probably the best angler in the world! Period. Besides all the giant blue marlin on all kinds of tackle, he also caught 73 giant tunas in one day. A soft-spoken Texan who just loved to fish, Campbell could chase redfish in Texas on one day and then hop a flight to Madeira to catch giant blue marlin the next. One of his best qualities was his humility. It was never about him — he always gave credit to his captain and crew. He was also humble enough to show the dangerous side of the business when he was jerked over by a giant marlin on 30-pound tackle, and let everyone see it on video. Campbell never stopped trying to understand his prey better, and at the same time always gave back to the sport. He helped set out many of the first satellite tags on marlin and giant tunas. He served as a trustee for the IGFA for many years and headed up the organization’s prestigious International Angling Rules Committee.
Don Tyson was probably the most traveled angler in the world. I can’t think of a place that he didn’t try to fish for billfish. He fished Cabo San Lucas and Chile, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Brazil, Madeira, the Ivory Coast, Hawaii, Australia and many other places too numerous to mention. Tyson also gave generously of his time and finances to many conservation organizations. It was Tyson’s devotion to conservation and his growing concern about the future of the world’s fisheries that led to the creation of The Billfish Foundation.
Fishing with his father and the rest of his family, catching giant tunas from Cat Cay to Nova Scotia, Roy Merritt grew up with his feet on the decks of some of the finest sport-fishers of the day. This experience gave Merritt an almost innate understanding of what owners and captains wanted in their ultimate fishing machines. As a result, Merritt boats still command respect and attention on every dock they tie up to. The Merritt family has been involved with many of the innovations that we use today, from the rocket launcher and fighting chair to the air-conditioned mezzanines we nap on. Roy Merritt has unselfishly shared his boatbuilding expertise (he says “learning from his mistakes”) with all of the builders. And Merritt is an enormous supporter of both the IGFA and TBF.
Tropic Star Lodge
Robb Report magazine ranked Tropic Star Lodge (TSL) the No. 1 top saltwater fishing resort in the world. It’s the ultimate lodge! Terri and Mike Andrews (along with the indomitable Raleigh Werking) keep every billfisherman’s dreams alive! Not only is the resort itself accommodating, TSL has always waved the flag for conservation issues, leading the way with the use of circle hooks and satellite tagging. The group also spurred on the Panamanian Presidential Decree that recently passed, abolishing longline fishing within 250 miles of the shore. They are, and have been from the beginning, huge supporters of the IGFA and TBF. Terri Andrews also serves on the board of the IGFA, working to ensure that future generations will get to enjoy the oceans as we have.
Jerry and Deborah Dunaway
Jerry Dunaway started traveling the world just as Marlin made its debut. Dunaway provided many photos and stories for the early editions, and the adventures came fast and furious once he started chasing IGFA world records from his soon-to-be-famous Madam and Hooker mothership and game-boat combination. Sure, there were a few other mothership operations before Dunaway’s, but no one had ever attempted to carry a 48-foot sport boat on the back deck and start globetrotting. And when Deborah started to share time fishing for records with Jerry, it started to open a lot of people’s eyes to the talents that lady anglers could bring to the table — at one point, Deborah held an IGFA world record in every billfish category. Nobody had ever done that before.
Introduced to offshore fishing in the ’70s, Tim Choate was mating on a sport boat by the early ’80s, and was one of the first to be involved in catching and releasing more than 1,000 billfish in one year. After that spectacular year — and seeing some fish swim away a bit too slowly — Choate became motivated to protect the billfish fishery. Consequently, Choate was first executive director of The Billfish Foundation. Once he got TBF started, he set out to share the joys of billfishing with everyone. He headed off to the rich waters of Costa Rica and started a charter fleet that set the textbook example of how a catch-and-release fishery could thrive. Once that was established, always looking for more productive waters, Choate pioneered charter fleets in Guatemala and then, later, in the Galapagos. Along with Ron Hamlin, he was a huge advocate in switching to circle hooks for billfish. The Costa Rican Ecological Watch — an organization he formed with a group of local fishermen and ecologists — urged the government of Costa Rica to ban the killing and sale of sailfish. No one is a bigger advocate for the state of worldwide billfish stocks than Tim Choate. HONORABLE MENTION: Captains Charles Perry and Bark Garnsey, and photographers Scott Kerrigan and Richard Gibson.