Stepping onto the airport tarmac, the fragrance in the air is unmistakable: The clean tropical breeze is scented with hints of cloves, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg, mixed with salty sea spray. You’ve just arrived in Grenada, the Caribbean’s legendary island of spice. Adventure awaits. I was invited to this incredibly beautiful nation to cover the 49th annual Budget Marine Spice Island Billfish Tournament and learn more about the offshore opportunities available here. While doing a bit of pre-trip research, I discovered that the SIBT is not only one of the Caribbean’s longest-running tournaments but one of its most popular as well (this year’s event hosted 56 teams from throughout the region and well beyond). I also didn’t realize there is a great multispecies billfish bite here nearly year-round, plus some terrific opportunities for big yellowfin tuna and bragging-size wahoo as well. The billfish bite peaks in the winter, so it’s a great time to schedule a getaway to a tropical warm-weather destination that’s also relatively unknown by most outside the Caribbean.
Grenada is a comparatively small island, just 12 miles wide by 21 miles long, yet it’s also incredibly friendly. Everyone — from the immigrations officers to the taxi drivers — knew there was a big marlin tournament going on the week I was there.
Walking the docks at the Grenada Yacht Club in St. George’s, several points became readily apparent. The event is a big draw throughout the eastern Caribbean, with teams from Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Martinique, St. Lucia and other nearby islands participating, in part due to the great facilities available in Grenada. Boats moor stern-to and line every inch of available dockage at the Grenada Yacht Club; across the harbor, at the C&N Port Louis Marina, were more competitors, sandwiched among several impressive 200-plus-foot megayachts. Next year, the club hopes to expand its available space in order to accommodate even more boats.
Most all of the teams are composed of owner/operators, just a bunch of regular guys who had done well enough in their business careers to afford a nice sport-fisher for themselves and their families — very few boats have professional captains and crews. More likely, the deckhands and anglers are the boat owner’s family and friends, and they truly enjoy seeing everyone else as they come together for these tournaments. With only trophies and prizes at stake, the bragging rights are more valuable to them than anything else, and it’s refreshing to see that in tournament fishing these days. The passion for billfishing runs high in this crowd.
And because of this laid-back atmosphere, the SIBT is pretty much one big party from start to finish. Each evening, the docks are alive with food, drinks and music, all fueled by some of the best rum in the Caribbean. Boat-hopping from cockpit to cockpit is encouraged, and it’s as if you just made a few hundred instant best friends overnight.
Head for the Hump
On Day One, I fished with George Bovell on his beautifully restored 65-foot Monterey, Pair-a-Dice. George’s son Nick, once an Olympic-level swimmer, has emerged as a top professional mate and is currently fishing all over the world, but George prefers chasing blue marlin a little closer to home after spending a good bit of his life owning commercial longline boats, among other ventures. The weather was unseasonably squally, with some wind and rain during the tournament’s boat parade past downtown St. George’s and the Bimini start that followed, but we made the most of it during the day as we headed for an offshore seamount known simply as the Hump.
About 15 miles west of St. George’s, this immense structure emerges from the 7,000-foot surrounding depths to within about 1,500 feet of the surface — at nearly a mile across, it’s a dominating terrain feature. It holds blue and white marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna and the occasional spearfish. Bovell’s strategy was to work the Hump early with a mixed spread of lures and ballyhoo on heavy tackle behind teasers and dredges, then work off toward the west in search of tuna later in the day. While we returned with just one sailfish flag on the right rigger, having jumped off another, it was still a memorable day with a seasoned fisherman.
Finding the Magic
Day Two found me on Abracadabra, a 54-foot Bertram owned and skippered by Stuart Dalgliesh. Those who remember the heyday of the Bahamas Billfish Championship series might recall the story of Capt. Ronnie Riebe, who captained Abracadabra when they fought a massive blue marlin for hours on end before finally breaking off the huge fish, which was estimated at over 1,200 pounds. Dalgliesh was so fond of the boat and the story that he kept the name, so the Abracadabra legend lives on in the eastern Caribbean. It has won the SIBT twice, catching a grand slam for the win in 2012 and again topping the standings in 2014. Unfortunately, the magic didn’t help us; we were two for three on sails for the day. But that’s why they call it fishing. The Hump was loaded with birds, bait, porpoises and other kinds of life, and we could see 75- to 100-pound tuna crashing bait around us at times. It’s definitely a fishy spot.
Lazy Lay Days
While many other billfish tournaments have done away with a midtournament lay day, the SIBT teams always enjoy the break after the first two days of fishing. That afternoon, a huge dock party at the Grenada Yacht Club brought everyone together for yet another highly enjoyable afternoon cookout. I was able to tour the island with Edwin Frank, a now-retired longtime public relations officer with the Grenada Tourism Board and a wealth of knowledge on all things Grenadian. We drove the width and breadth of the island during the day, with Frank providing a running commentary of the history, geography, biology and botany in a nonstop monologue. From the Diamond chocolate plantation and the spice-growing operations to the waterfall at Concord Falls and the rainforest surrounding the 2,700-foot Mount St. Catherine, the island’s highest point, we covered a lot of ground. The people are some of the friendliest in the world, and Grenada has the lowest crime rate in the Caribbean. The snorkeling and scuba diving is world-class, and the sightseeing is outstanding as well.
One memorable aspect is the way Grenadians referred to periods in history as either before or after Hurricane Ivan. Grenada went without a destructive storm for 49 years before Ivan stormed ashore in September 2004 and wreaked unimaginable havoc, destroying an estimated 90 percent of the homes on the island. It’s very similar to those along the northern Gulf Coast of the United States who mark historic milestones as either pre- or post-Hurricane Katrina.
Sails on the Drop
Frank Pettisani welcomed me aboard his 45-foot Hatteras, Exile, for the fourth and final day of the SIBT. We had met years before in Aruba, and Pettisani’s team of anglers was within striking distance of the lead, so I looked forward to the day ahead. Rather than running to the Hump, Pettisani was having better luck on the drop-offs closer to shore. Just 8 miles offshore is the 500-fathom drop, and 12 miles off found us on the 1,000-fathom drop, both creating walls that produce excellent fishing when the current pushes against the structure. Down to the south is a ridge called Reindeer Shoal that is a known hot spot for wahoo, and big ones at that: 70-pounders are fairly common, especially in the wintertime. And as Pettisani says, the fishing pressure is very light throughout the region, with just a few charter boats out fishing. We worked the drops hard but were rewarded with just one sailfish release. The elements for great fishing were all present: current, structure, birds over bait, good-looking water. I had a feeling the bite could turn on big-time, all day long.
After the score cards were tallied, the winners of the event were announced. The top boat was Magic Lady, out of Trinidad and Tobago, scoring 3,000 points with one blue marlin, two white marlin and five sailfish releases. Another boat from Trinidad and Tobago, EZ Axcess, placed second with 2,700 points from two blue marlin and four sailfish releases. Pettisani’s team aboard Exile held on to finish in third place overall with one white marlin and six sailfish releases.
For the tournament, there were 85 billfish releases in three days of fishing: 14 blue marlin, 14 white marlin and 57 sailfish. The game fish were also well-represented, with a yellowfin tuna weighing 165 pounds scaled by Avi Paul, from Black Child II (it was just 8 pounds shy of the tournament record of 173 pounds). Several more 100-pound-class tuna were also weighed.
A few weeks after the SIBT, the fishing turned on a bit: Exile had a memorable day in mid-February on which they were two for two on blue marlin, one for one on sailfish and landed two big tuna and a pair of oversize mahi, a nice day in anyone’s book. A local charter boat, Irish Cream, went tuna fishing and returned with nine yellowfin ranging in size from 80 to 140 pounds.
As the Budget Marine Spice Island Billfish Tournament celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2019, the island will once again come alive with its own brand of sport-fishing camaraderie and good-natured, high-spirited competition. If you only fish one tournament all year, the SIBT should definitely be on the list. Whether you’re in first place or last, a good time is guaranteed in Grenada.
Kick ‘Em Jenny
Located just 5 miles north of Grenada is an active underwater volcano with an unusual name: Kick ’em Jenny. It rises more than 4,000 feet from the seafloor; when it erupted in 1939, it sent a shower of water and debris 1,000 feet in the air and caused several small tsunamis in northern Grenada and nearby Barbados. The volcano is on the shipping route from St. Vincent to Grenada, and because of the activity, there is a maritime exclusion zone of 1.5 kilometers around Kick ’em Jenny. Because the bubbles of volcanic gases can create a sinking hazard by lowering the water density, this exclusion zone is increased to 5 kilometers during periods of high-volcanic activity. And the name? No one seems to know for sure.
First waterfall cascades for 35 feet at Concord Falls, Gouyave, Grenada.
Getting There and Staying There
Visitors arriving by air will fly into Maurice Bishop International Airport, which is just a few miles from St. George’s on Grenada’s western coast. Beware: They drive on the left side of the road in Grenada, and old habits are very hard to break. Taxis are inexpensive and readily available as an alternative to renting a car.
There are a number of great options for lodging. I stayed for a couple of nights at the Radisson Grenada Beach Resort, which is conveniently located right on Grand Anse Beach. The sprawling property is beautifully landscaped and has four island-themed restaurants on site, plus outstanding sunsets thanks to a west-facing orientation. For the rest of the trip, I based out of Blue Horizons Garden Resort, which has a less touristy feel; set amid tropical gardens not far from the beach, the airy studio rooms have kitchenettes and are a short walk from a well-stocked grocery store. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the property, and the Creole-themed restaurant serves excellent local cuisine.
Don’t forget to pack a 220-volt converter for your electronics. Some hotels have converted a few outlets to 110, but most are 220.
The dates for the 2019 Budget Marine Spice Island Billfish Tournament, the 50th anniversary, will be January 21-26, 2019.
Edwin Frank Taxi and Tours