I can still see the two greyhounding blue marlin — a doubleheader with one fish significantly larger than the other — leaping in near-perfect unison across the water’s surface in a series of jumps that defy imagination (and gravity). There was also the incredible teaser bite we had on a different occasion: The enraged 250-pound blue came into the spread and ate the starboard-side squid chain with such a vengeance that it threatened to rip the halyard completely off the outrigger. When that fish inhaled the pitch bait just a few feet off the transom, you could almost hear everyone’s jaws drop open in amazement. Those vivid memories from blue marlin fishing down in Puerto Rico still resonate in my mind on a daily basis.
It’s one of the top tournaments in sport fishing: the International Billfish Tournament of Club Náutico de San Juan, also known as the IBT. I was invited to fish as a visiting angler, so I grabbed Marlin’s ace freelance photographer Austin Coit and headed south to check it out … and I can’t wait to go back.
Fishing the IBT
Marlin fishing is expensive. But there’s a reason the International Billfish Tournament of San Juan has become such a popular event for visiting anglers, aside from the amazing blue marlin action. For less than $2,000, a single angler can fish for four days on some of the best boats in the Caribbean, plus take part in all the tournament functions, including a welcome dinner, dockside cocktail parties, breakfast at Club Náutico each morning, a beach party and pig roast during the lay-day festivities, and awards banquet. And while you won’t win a million bucks, there are some beautiful trophies and great prizes for those lucky enough to have a podium finish.
This historic event celebrated its 63rd anniversary in 2016, making it one of the oldest billfish tournaments anywhere in the world. Visiting anglers are grouped into a team with other visiting anglers and assigned to different boats each day, where they join the hourly angler rotation in the cockpit. All of the blue marlin caught by any angler on board is scored for that boat, but those fish also earn points for the individual angler who caught the fish. It’s a system that works very well — it’s fair and very competitive. A bonus for visitors: You fish with a bunch of different people during the week.
Puerto Rico itself is an easy destination to visit, especially from the United States. There are no hassles with customs or immigration. In less than three hours from takeoff in Miami, I was in San Juan waiting for my rod case to come through baggage claim. Along the way, I bumped into Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs and his lovely wife. Boggs was also participating as a visiting angler in the tournament, hoping to scratch an Atlantic blue marlin off his royal slam bucket list. We had a few cold Medalla beers together along with the other recent arrivals before the tournament-supplied van transported us from the airport to the hotel. First class all the way.
The Growth of FADs
One incredible aspect of chasing blue marlin off Puerto Rico is the proximity to the fishing grounds. Just a few miles from the entrance to San Juan Harbor, the depths plummet sharply amid a series of underwater hills, valleys and trenches. In order to concentrate the fishing action, the government recently deployed a series of fish-attracting buoys on the northern end of the island about 4 miles offshore.
I thought it was unusual that these big, yellow steel buoys didn’t have any additional attractants attached to their mooring lines as I’d seen on FADs in other locations, but the plan is to expand the FAD areas gradually and add subsurface and bottom structure in time. It made sense, and even just the buoys and their mooring cables attracted shoals of bonito as well as mahimahi and small barracuda.
If there’s an adrenaline rush in sport fishing that doesn’t involve a blue marlin on the other end of the line, it is the kickoff of the IBT. Imagine the scene: 50 big sport-fishers jockey for position at the mouth of the harbor with their captains’ hands on the throttles. The flare goes up and the word crackles out on the VHF, and it is go time. The roar of 100,000 horses of raw diesel power is incredible, and the sight is simply amazing. I was fortunate to have drawn B-Way, a 64-foot Spencer owned by Alexie and Abner Barbosa, for Day One.
Their captain, Humberto Hernandez, must have taken racing lessons from Reggie Fountain, because B-Way roared her way to near the front of the pack by the time Hernandez pulled the throttles back to a more reasonable speed. In less than 15 minutes from the shotgun start, we were lowering the riggers and deploying the spread. No two-hour-plus runs here. We were even within cellphone range most of the day (just don’t tell the boss).
Make the Call: Lures or Pitch-Baiting
Most teams chose to fish with either a standard spread of artificial lures or a hybrid approach using lures and teasers with pitch baits ready in the cockpit — what we called the St. Thomas-style spread. That’s the approach we took on B-Way: We pulled a pair of artificial dredges down deep, a pair of squid chains from the bridge and two large lure-style teasers from the cockpit teaser rods, in addition to two smaller lures with hooks deployed from the outriggers. Our plan was to pitch circle-hooked mackerel or mullet from the cockpit to any blues raised on the teasers.
I was about halfway through a midmorning snack of tostones when Hernandez suddenly went ballistic from the bridge, screaming in rapid-fire Spanish. I could tell by the tone of his voice that we had a blue one in the spread. A quick scan and yep, there she was on the right-long teaser — my position. I scrambled to get the pitch bait back while the marlin made a half-hearted swipe at the hookless Black Bart lure. Unfortunately, the blue just shadowed my bait and never made an attempt to eat it, despite my best efforts of dropping back and reeling up several times. Maddening, but that’s marlin fishing. After what seemed like five minutes, the fish eventually faded from sight.
The Daily Win
On the second day, I was invited to fish with tournament director Sal Egea Jr. and his team aboard Panama Jack, the family’s 50-foot Viking convertible. Panama Jack had recently undergone a loving restoration and proved to be an excellent fish-raiser. We headed up the line and away from the fleet, hoping to find a promising finger of water Egea had spotted on a satellite shot.
We arrived to find Lasik, a 70-foot enclosed-bridge F&S, already hooked up. They pulled the hook on their fish after a short fight, but seeing the action certainly gave us a boost of optimism as we set out the spread and started working the area.
A few minutes after 11 a.m., we had a nice blue charge in on the purple Flippy Floppy teaser on the port side. The fish ate with such a vengeance that the captain had a hard time pulling the teaser away from it, and a quick tug of war ensued. Angler Tim Mossberg was on the rod in a flash, dropping back a black Mold Craft Super Chugger with the inner skirt removed, which was immediately inhaled by the now-enraged blue marlin just a few feet from the transom. Most will say that marlin fishing is all about the bite, and that one was one for the books.
Forty minutes later and we had the fish on the leader. After a quick bite for lunch, a small blue nailed Egea’s Pakula Mouse on the left-long rigger. The crash bite happened suddenly: One moment his lure was smoking and popping along nicely; the next it disappeared in a swirl of blue. That fish stayed up jumping and, thanks to some tricky boat work by Capt. Otillo Espinal, Egea released the blue in just six minutes. The second blue was enough to give us the daily prize for Day Two, as we had our two releases ahead of Legal Drug, the only other boat to score two blues on Day Two.
That fish stayed up jumping and, thanks to some tricky boat work by Capt. Otillo Espinal, Egea released the blue in just six minutes. The second blue was enough to give us the daily prize for Day Two, as we had our two releases ahead of Legal Drug, the only other boat to score two blues on Day Two.
A Day Off
Tournament lay days have mostly fallen by the wayside. Having a break in the middle of the event lets everyone relax a bit and gear up for a big finish. In this year’s IBT, the Hilton Caribe hosted the lay-day celebration with a phenomenal beach party and Puerto Rican-style pig roast, complete with open bars and live entertainment. The food was terrific, and the band had everyone dancing in the sand, especially after a few potent Don Q rum drinks. Knowing we still had two more days left to fish, I called it an early night, but be warned: If you stay late, you’ll end up being over-served in the very best of Puerto Rican drinking traditions. Consider yourself warned!
There were more than a few hazy anglers and crews the next morning at breakfast, including one of the team’s anglers when I showed up to fish on Arabita, a 43-foot Viking, with Ricky LeFranc. He was the tournament director back in 2005 during my first trip to the IBT, so we had fun catching up on old times. We had two lazy knockdowns on the lures, and that was it for the action. It was the first day following the full moon though, so that may have had the marlin off the bite.
My final day of the tournament was a gem: I drew Bolita, owned by Jaime Fullana, one of the true legends of Puerto Rican sport fishing. It was a real pleasure sharing the cockpit of the beautiful 74-foot Buddy Davis with the soft-spoken Fullana, who caught his first blue marlin in Puerto Rico at age 15. He chooses an old-school approach to his fishing: four bent-butt 50 wides, lures and a few teasers, including a bowling-pin chain. Fullana had a bite early that somehow ended up breaking the line, then we hooked a doubleheader of blue marlin a short while later. The first fish came up and smacked the right-short lure, then the second — a much larger marlin — sneaked into the spread unseen and then ate the right long in a beautiful going-away bite. I could only stand there by the left short as both marlin came up greyhounding across the horizon into the distance. It was one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever witnessed. Angler Jimmy Miragua nabbed the first release in about 20 minutes, then we set to work on the second fish for Rene LeFranc, Jaime’s nephew.
Capt. Alex Muñoz pulled out every trick in the book, but the big girl managed to elude our efforts, despite having an experienced angler in the chair with 50-pound tackle. Several times we had the knot to the double line out of the water before the fish would just effortlessly glide away once again. With the tournament-imposed time limit of two and a half hours nearly up, Rene palmed the spool and broke the fish off. We were one for three, the hard way.
That evening, the event coordinators put on a sumptuous awards banquet and presentation. With jackets required for the gentlemen and the ladies in their best dresses, it’s a far cry from the beer-soaked affairs I’ve attended at other tournaments. All this despite the fact that there was not a dollar of prize money at stake, just bragging rights and the respect of the fellow competitors.
As I reflect back on the experience — even though I didn’t catch a marlin myself — it was a trip I will never forget. I had fished on one of the smallest boats in the tournament at 43 feet and also one of the largest at 74 feet, and we saw blue marlin every day of the tournament. AD/HD, a 58-foot Revenge owned by Harris Lamont and captained by James Barnette, won the tournament with five blue marlin releases on 30-pound tackle. They finished just ahead of Sea Dream, which also scored five blues on 30-pound-test. It was an incredibly fun week, and I’m already making plans for the 64th annual IBT later this year.
Getting There, Staying There
Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is located in the community of Carolina, just 3 miles southeast of San Juan. No passports or immunizations are necessary for U.S. citizens: Travelers just need a U.S. federal or state-issued photo ID, although a passport is recommended. If you’re fishing the tournament as a visiting angler, the tournament will arrange complimentary hotel transfers from the airport, just look for an event representative in baggage claim.
Overlooking San Juan Bay Marina, the new Hyatt Place San Juan is within easy walking distance of Club Náutico. The Hilton Caribe is another great option for tournament participants. The IBT has a shuttle van that runs between both hotels, so transportation to and from the marina at Club Náutico is a breeze.
While San Juan is awash in chain restaurants, we chose to explore a few top local choices during our trip. One hot spot: La Casita Miramar. This cool little hangout has authentic Puerto Rican and Spanish food. It was so good, we ate there twice just to try different things on the extensive tapas dinner menu.
A trip to San Juan wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Fort Morro, the old Spanish fortress that guards the entrance to San Juan Harbor. It offers commanding views of the surrounding seas from its upper levels. Old San Juan is historic and easily seen on foot. Pop into Bad Ass Coffee for a cafecito or the historic La Mallorquina for a tasty margarita. The ride-sharing service Uber had just begun operating in Puerto Rico during our trip, so it’s an economical and efficient way to get around compared to the notoriously unreliable taxi services.
For the Ladies
The IBT also caters to those all-important significant others in our lives. Any ladies who are not interested in fishing have a schedule of guided island tours, shopping excursions, private luncheons and more. At the end of the day, they’re waiting back at Club Náutico, cocktails in hand, for the boats to return and the dock parties to begin. It’s a great time for the spouses who are all too often overlooked in many other billfish tournaments.