The first time I visited the Dominican Republic, more than 15 years ago, I almost twisted my leg off trying to keep Tred Barta from prematurely entering Davy Jones’ locker. It all went down when my buddy Dan Jacobs and I were staging an event for Bacardi rum that would become a precursor to Marlin University.
We put together a three-day curriculum and had about 15 people show up at the Bavaro Beach Resort to fish with Tred Barta and party in the Caribbean. One of the first problems we encountered was a lack of good working charter boats in the area. We booked three boats for the event, and Jacobs and I were making bets before the start on which ones would be able to fish the entire three days before breaking down. We gave Barta the best of the lot but warned him repeatedly to take it easy or he might not be coming back.
The fishing was pretty slow for the first two days. We caught a single blue and a bunch of big dorados on my boat, and the billfish weren’t showing for anyone else much either. The other two boats might have had a whitey or two apiece.
On the last day, Barta decided to head out wide and try to catch a big one, and sure enough, he hooked a big blue that he said would have gone 800. Unfortunately, Barta got a little overzealous during the backing-down stage and managed to rip off the swim platform. The resulting holes were under the waterline, and the boat began to sink. The marlin got off, and Barta got on the radio and started calling for assistance. The only problem: The boat didn’t have any kind of positioning gear on board. After a brief bit of back-and-forth over the radio, Jacobs and I both started steaming out to sea to search for the stricken boat.
We were pushing the little boats about as fast as they would go, and I was holding onto the flybridge railing, scanning the horizon for any sign of Barta’s boat. The seas were building in the afternoon sea breeze, and the little boat hit a wave that almost stopped it cold. The railing in my hand snapped like a dry twig and sent me hurtling outboard, with one hand reaching out and grabbing the bottom rail after twisting completely around on my one good knee. I felt a pop and watched as my knee started to swell to the size of a basketball. Just about that time, we spotted Barta and came upon one of the most bizarre sights I’ve ever seen on the water to date. The boat’s captain was standing at the helm in his underwear and was shouting instructions to Barta and the crew below, whose heads were sticking out of the lazarette! The quick-thinking captain had used his clothes to stuff in the transom holes to try and keep them afloat. It worked. In the end, my leg stayed on and Barta and his crew were rescued, with the best story by far from the trip!
Man, what a difference 15 years makes. Nowadays it’s relatively easy to secure a top-notch charter in Punta Cana, Cap Cana Marina or Casa de Campo; and the fishing has been off the hook for the past several years.
More Than Just Whites
The Dominican Republic first started emerging on the American angler’s radar around 2000, with boats concentrating on the large numbers of white marlin that show up in the spring. The whites gather on a broad, relatively shallow bank just offshore to feed on the numerous bait schools, to spawn or both. Boats here can average more than 20 bites a day at the peak of the bite, and 10-bite days are common. Most crews here have adopted the dredge-and-dink ballyhoo pitch-bait program, which works wonderfully here, due to the good numbers of blue marlin that begin to show as the summer progresses. (Pitch-baiting allows you to control which bait goes to which fish on your choice of tackle.) Most of the blue marlin caught here are between 150 and 300 pounds, but a 500- or 600-pounder pops up in the spread with enough frequency to keep things interesting.
You can start fishing out of Marina Cap Cana at just five miles out — but it’s not always a short, pleasant trip. The Mona Passage enjoys a well-deserved reputation for producing rough seas, and the fishing grounds in the D.R. either lie within the passage itself or are just skirting the edge. Either way, the wind and currents here can push up some pretty tall swells topped with nasty wind chop. It’s that current, however, combined with the area’s rugged, varied bottom structure and banks, that make it so productive. The torrid currents create nutrient-rich upwellings that sustain the bait, which in turn attract the top predators.
Up around Casa de Campo, about 40 miles from Marina Cap Cana as the crow flies, teams rely on the presence of commercial fishing FADs (fish-attracting devices) to attract and hold large numbers of blue marlin, especially during the summer months, and sometimes throughout the fall. A couple of years ago, several of the top captains I know ended up spending the entire winter in the Dominican Republic when the blue marlin refused to stop biting!
These FADs are anchored to the bottom and are usually embellished with a couple of dozen palm fronds to attract and hold bait. Crews should take note, however, of the fact that some commercial fishermen guard their FADs with gusto, so it’s a good idea to agree to hand over any game fish, like dorado or tuna, that you catch to the fishermen, with the caveat that you’ll release all the billfish you catch.
We just completed our second Marlin U. session in as many years, and we experienced great fishing in 2011 and pretty good fishing in 2012. In 2011, we found a good blue-marlin bite in mid-May. We were getting 10 or so white-marlin bites per day, with two or three blues thrown in as well — the students had a blast. This past year, we fished during the same week in May, and our four boats didn’t see a blue one. We had plenty of shots at whitey, though — usually six or seven bites a day, sometimes more. But that’s still pretty good fishing. I think we caught 40 whites in four days.
It’s hard not to like the Dominican Republic, because there’s always something biting, no matter what time of year you choose to make the short trip down.