Every sport has its hallowed ground, its must-see destination. Lambeau. Wrigley. Augusta. Daytona. For blue marlin fishing, it’s the North Drop. This roughly 12-mile stretch of undulating Caribbean seabed—where the east-to-west Puerto Rico Trench takes a 90-degree elbow to the north just above the Virgin Islands—quickly earned a reputation in the early days for offering the most consistent blue marlin fishing this side of the Panama Canal. Visiting boats made it an annual pilgrimage every year, reliably returning to fish the days before and after the full moons from July through October.
Ask any passionate blue marlin enthusiast—captain, angler or mate—about their favorite part of the game, and nearly every one of them will say it’s the bite. For reasons known only to the fish themselves, in the days leading up to the moon, the fish on the Drop seem to crash baits and teasers with an amplified fury and a reckless abandon that’s just not consistently found in other destinations. After the moon, they can turn a bit lazy, but when it’s on, it’s an incredible sight to witness. When the conditions are right, it’s a full-on omigod-there-he-is bite.
In the Beginning
As more boats started traveling abroad from the US, the fishery grew in popularity and led to the formation of the USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament, the legendary Boy Scout. The first event was held in 1972, organized by Chuck Senf, with none other than Winthrop Rockefeller among the early supporters. Jimmy Loveland, who had come to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands in the 1960s, was Rockefeller’s captain during the 1974 tournament, and they won all the marbles that year. Loveland took over running the tournament in 1980, and did so until the event’s final year in 2017 (he passed away in 2022). Participation numbers had been steadily on the decline during the last decade of the event, due in part to the rise of other prominent fisheries in the Dominican Republic and on the deep seamounts off Costa Rica. The British Virgin Islands, in whose waters the North Drop is actually located, also asserted its control over visiting vessels, rightfully requiring them to check into the BVI prior to fishing. For those and many other reasons, the popularity of the Drop as a first-rate blue marlin hotspot waned.
The BVI is a calmer version of the USVI, more like a laid-back yacht club located across the street from a rowdy college frat house. The Dutch settled the western end of Tortola in the mid-17th century but were replaced by the British, who annexed the small archipelago in 1672. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the BVI began to prosper as a yachting, tourist and international-financing center. Today, only about half the 50 islands, islets and cays are inhabited. Tortola is the largest of these islands and is the center of the territory’s commerce and government, which is conscious of the need to preserve its pristine beauty and marine ecosystems.
A New Development Emerges
For years, the knock on the BVI was that there was no solid place for the sport-fishing fleet to call home. That changed for the better when Scrub Island Resort, Spa and Marina opened in 2010, to eventually become one of the most luxurious private island resorts found anywhere in the world. It’s the first new marina development in the BVI in more than 15 years.
Perhaps the best part? As they say in real estate: location, location, location. With easy access to the waters of the North Drop, as well as the often equally productive grounds located off Anegada, it’s centrally located with good access to either. The marina offers 55 deepwater short- or long-term slips, including five specifically for larger yachts or mothership operations up to 160 feet. Travel is easy as well because the resort is within a stone’s throw of the airport on nearby Beef Island. A water taxi runs nearly all the time between the two islands, so it’s very easy to connect in from just about anywhere. And while the resort brings in a fuel barge during the tournaments, there is a plan to install permanent fuel at the marina, which would be one of the few remaining pieces of the puzzle yet to solve (currently the closest source of fuel is on Tortola).
Damon Chouest, a Louisiana native and owner of the 68-foot American Custom Yachts Mon Chari, is one of those truly marlin-addicted personalities—calm and laid-back but all business and absolutely zeroed-in on the game when he’s in the cockpit as his team’s lead angler. I spoke to him as the boat was checking into the BVI in early November. His team was fresh off a win in the inaugural Scrub Island Invitational Billfish Series earlier in the season, where they swept both legs as well as the top angler trophy for Chouest. Now they were on the hunt for his 2,200th lifetime blue marlin, probably one of the few anglers in sport fishing to achieve such a remarkable career milestone.
“We love fishing the North Drop—and have for a long time—for a lot of reasons, but mostly it’s the consistent bite,” he says without hesitation. “You can start a week on the front side of the [full] moon in August or September and fish through to a few days after, and be pretty confident of good fishing.” The savagery of the bite was another box to check. “We fish with all bait rather than lures, and the teaser bites are usually pretty amazing to see.”
Chouest enjoys the family-friendly environment of the island as well. “You can bring the wife and kids along, and if they don’t want to go fishing, they can explore around the island, go kayaking, or visit the Baths on Virgin Gorda,” he says. There are several options for bars and dining just steps off the docks, and the accommodations are as luxurious as anything in the Caribbean. Kids love ending the day watching the tarpon swim in the glow of the marina’s underwater lights.
From a captain’s perspective, Cory Gillespie knows the region well. Now running the Lunatico operation for boat owner Lance Converse, he’s been on the Drop for many years and remembers the glory days of the fishery: “It’s a place that will spoil you, that’s for sure,” he says. “You can go 3-for-4 here on some nice aggressive fish, and it’s just an average day. The consistency is what keeps us coming back.” He mentions that he also likes fishing structure, of which there’s plenty along the many dips and cracks of the North Drop; the underwater landscape offers an experienced captain plenty of room to maneuver, even with a varied current, from the inshore edge to the deep side and over to Anegada, which at times, can produce stellar fishing in its own right.
He also notes the proximity to the airport and frequent water taxis as another bonus for the owners and crews flying in and out. “At Scrub, you’re basically 20 to 25 miles from some of the best blue marlin fishing in the world,” he says. And because it’s been out of the spotlight for many seasons, it remains unpressured as well. Imagine sharing a wide-open blue marlin bite with just a handful of other boats during any given day, instead of a fleet of 50 or more. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
The elephant in the room has always been the difficulty of obtaining the correct permits and licensing to legally fish the waters of the BVI. The new administration, headed by Premier and Minister of Finance, the Honorable Dr. Natalio D. Wheatley, has made a strong commitment to help streamline that process. Wheatley personally attended the 2022 Scrub Island Invitational, where he was able to meet and get to know many of the owners and captains fishing the tournament. That face-to-face contact was a key step to gaining a better understanding of what catch-and-release marlin fishing brings to the nation, as well as the financial impact that sport-fishing tourism has on the host destinations. As Gillespie says: “That kind of personal contact and communication is really important for both sides to understand each other, that we’re not piling up dead fish on the dock—or having a negative impact on their fishery—and what we can bring to the table. I felt that they were pleasantly surprised to see how things are done these days, and that really helps us all.” Mon Chari was another boat that was able to receive a multimonth permit to help expedite the process of fishing here, and while things are slow to change in the Caribbean, it does appear that this is a step in the right direction.
So, just how good can the fishing on the North Drop be? Mon Chari won the Scrub Island series in 2022 with 17 blue marlin, one white marlin, three sailfish and one spearfish in six days of tournament fishing. When they returned to Scrub Island in November, their first day back saw Chouest’s team having an incredible day, going 9-for-9 on blue marlin (and saw two more), 2-for-2 on white marlin and 3-for-3 on sailfish. While the record of 10 blues in one day is one he shares with Sam Jennings, Capt. Mike Lemon and the Revenge team, he feels that this represents one of the most incredible days ever on the famed North Drop. On one memorable day in October, Gillespie and Converse went 9-for-12 on Lunatico, and placed second in the Scrub Island series. The fishing here is at least as good—if not better—than it’s ever been. And it’s ready for a comeback.
Visitors traveling by air to the British Virgin Islands will usually arrive at Beef Island Airport (EIS), where they can enjoy the tropical climate of an exotic destination that’s still just a relatively short flight from the United States. The US dollar is the official currency in the BVI, and credit cards are widely accepted. The water is crystal-clear; the snorkeling and diving are world-class. One of the most popular spots in the BVI are the Baths, located about a mile south of Spanish Town at the southern tip of Virgin Gorda between Spring Bay and Devil’s Bay. This is an area of unique geologic formations, with huge granite boulders forming natural tidal pools, tunnels, arches, and scenic grottoes that are open to the sea. You can channel your inner Capt. Jack Sparrow with a visit to the Callwood Rum Distillery on Tortola—in production for more than 200 years, it’s one of the oldest continuously operating small-batch distilleries in the Caribbean. Or head to the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke for an original Painkiller, a concoction of dark rum, cream of coconut, pineapple and orange juice topped with freshly grated Grenadian nutmeg that is the essence of the Caribbean at its finest.
Save the Dates
The two tournaments of the Scrub Island Invitational Billfish Series will take place August 27-31 and August 31-September 4. Teams must receive an invitation from the tournament to participate, and tournament boats are required to stay at Scrub Island Resort and Marina or an alternate BVI location. Once again, the series will have a government liaison in place to assist visiting teams with their licenses and permits.