The British Virgin Islands have always played second fiddle to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands when it comes to blue marlin fishing, but all that might be changing. The full moon in August is considered prime time for blues on the famous North Drop, a 10-mile stretch where the Puerto Rico Trench takes a 90-degree turn to the north. For decades, sport-fishing boats from the United States have migrated to St. Thomas just to fish the North Drop in August. The upwelling of currents on the edge of the North Drop congregates baitfish, which in turn concentrates the large number of blue marlin in this specific area.
Blue marlin spawn at night on the full moon in August and then feed along the North Drop during the day. The big females are often followed by one or two smaller males, so double hookups are pretty common for these crews. Boats routinely raise a dozen blues in a single day along the North Drop, but what most people don’t know is the North Drop is actually in the British Virgin Islands rather than the USVI.
A Sport-Fishing Secret
The BVI are a quieter, calmer version of the USVI. The Dutch settled the western end of Tortola in the mid-17th century but were replaced by the British who annexed the small archipelago to the Leeward Islands in 1672. By the mid-19th century, the former slaves on the island made up most of the population, and the major industries were farming and fishing. 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 the 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. The BVI have attracted sailors for years and are often labeled the “yachting capital of the world,” but recently sport-fishing boats have been quietly finding its secluded, peaceful anchorages. All that was lacking was a major marlin tournament. Enter Capt. Skip Smith.
A New Tournament
In 2016, Smith added Scrub Island in the BVI to his list of big-game fishing events after thoroughly checking out the docks, restaurants, hotels and fuel capacities on the island. Naturally, the debut of the Scrub Island Blue Marlin Invitational was held on the full moon in August, and the event was based at the Scrub Island Resort, Spa and Marina. This amazingly beautiful private luxury resort has crystal-clear waters, underwater lights and resident tarpon that visit the boats each evening. The marina has 55 deepwater slips and is the closest anchorage to the North Drop — one couldn’t ask for a better spot to start a tournament.
The tournament rules encompassed the standard international billfish tournament regulations: 60-pound-test line, the use of J hooks only on lures and an all-release format. Smith didn’t provide observers, but he did require the use of photographic evidence for each catch. Photos or video needed to show the angler with the day’s colored ribbon while they fought the fish, as well as the leader in the rod tip or being touched by the mate and a clear shot that identified the catch as a blue marlin. It was this photo requirement that got me invited to ride along with Joe Rahman and Capt. Danny Lombardo aboard Auspicious, Rahman’s 74-foot Viking.
I flew from Miami over to Puerto Rico, then hopped a short flight over to Tortola. Actually, the flight wasn’t really to Tortola but rather to Bush Island right next to it. From there, it was a short ferry ride to Scrub Island. The first person I ran into as I boarded the ferry was master angler Capt. Robert Collins, who was there fishing with Bobby Jacobsen aboard Marlin Darlin. It turned out that Key West legend Capt. RT Trosset was also fishing with Jacobsen, and it already felt like home, although I hadn’t even arrived yet.
The ferry dropped me off at the dock next to Auspicious, where I was met by another old friend, Brendan Burke, who was also fishing with us. I’d fished with Burke many times, but it had been many years since he ran Magic for Tim Choate. Rahman had rented a house on Scrub Island, and it didn’t take long to get settled in. We had several practice days before the three days of tournament fishing, so I was pretty eager to get started.
Auspicious cruised easily at 30 knots as we headed directly to the North Drop for our first day of fishing. In a short while, the boat’s state-of-the-art electronics clearly displayed the contours of the North Drop — we were there. The bottom fell from 100 feet to over 3,000 feet in a relatively short distance, and it was easy to figure out why the area is so productive for targeting blues.
Lombardo grew up in the Florida Keys and is very experienced in the ways of marlin, and Rahman was catching up fast. The crew aboard Auspicious spent most of 2016 in the Dominican Republic. They won the Casa de Campo Blue Marlin Classic and also placed second in the Cap Cana Billfish Shootout, so these guys knew what they were doing. During the practice day, they decided to run two baits long and two lures short, with a dredge and a squid-chain teaser. They also had a pitch bait ready, just in case. Despite the usual rough conditions on the North Drop, we were met with calm seas — something unexpected. During the times I had fished the North Drop before, we were ecstatic when seas dropped down to only 6 feet.
For the most part, marlin fishing is watching baits skip over the surface. But when those neon pecs appear, everything changes. We raised several fish before one of them finally decided to attach itself to Rahman’s line. When it happened, controlled chaos ensued — the raw power of a blue marlin never ceases to amaze me, but it sure makes them a tough fish to photograph. The initial strike is usually followed by a long run, then a series of greyhounding jumps that seem to always be out of camera range. Then the blues tend to dive deep, and an angler needs to pump the fish grudgingly to the surface. If I’m lucky, there will be a jump or two close to the boat or on the leader — hopefully not while the boat is backing down and throwing a wall of water into the cockpit. After Rahman tagged and released his blue, we raised a few more, but none of them wanted anything to do with any bait that had a hook in it.
The next morning, we decided to run a few miles east of the North Drop to a similar ridge known as the Anegada Drop. The island of Anegada is the northernmost and second-largest island in the BVI. But unlike most of its siblings, it’s a coral-based island rising to only 28 feet above sea level with a population of around 200 permanent residents. The Anegada Drop itself is pretty much the same as the North Drop, and it holds just as many blues. Nevertheless, the key to blue marlin fishing is not how many fish are in the area, but really the number that pop up behind your boat.
We started the day with a series of wahoo bites, which would have been nice if we were rigged for wahoo. The first two blues we raised were just tourists and decided to eat elsewhere after inspecting several of the baits in our spread. Finally, Rahman hooked a huge blue. While the North Drop has produced several granders and numerous line-class records for anglers over the years, most of the marlin are in the 300-pound range. The one Rahman had on was closer to 600 pounds. The seas were still calm by Virgin Islands standards, but a 74-foot Viking backing down on a blue marlin still makes for a salty and damp cockpit. Obviously, that is not a good combination if you’re sporting a fancy camera, so I was perched just outside Auspicious‘ enclosed bridge with my telephoto lens. It took Rahman two hours to get that big blue to the boat, and its only jump was on the leader. It seemed we were attracting one-jump fish.
The Scrub Island Blue Marlin Invitational began the next morning with lines in at 8:30. We decided to run back to the Anegada Drop, even though most of the 14 boats were fishing 3 or 4 miles away on the North Drop. We missed a few shots, but both Burke and Rahman released blues. At day’s end, we were tied with a half-dozen other boats for second place. Then our luck turned south. On Day Two, Travis Upchurch, the team’s mate, fought a huge fish that never jumped. After two-plus hours, the leader was 10 feet away from the rod tip when the hook simply fell out. Losing the fish was bad, but losing more than two hours of fishing time was even more unfortunate.
During that time, RT Trosset released two blues in the 150-pound range aboard Marlin Darlin. Finally, Rahman hooked another monster blue on a pitch bait, and instantly we could tell there was something strange about this one. It was hard for me to tell because I’m always looking at the action through a half-inch viewfinder, but when the fish got close enough to the boat, we could clearly see it had a green lure in its mouth and no bill. If there was a bad-luck prize on the fish’s side, this guy would have won, hands down. Rahman released the fish in about 20 minutes, and the fish swam off strong. We could only speculate that its bill was stuck in the stern of someone’s boat from an earlier battle. That was the only release we managed for the day, but Jichi registered six releases for the day to take a commanding lead in the tournament.
Our third day was a disaster. We had four bites and missed every fish — bad luck, but that’s marlin fishing. To make things worse and more frustrating, it seemed other boats were hooking up all around us. And while Jichi didn’t fare any better than we did on Day Three, they still won the tournament with eight releases. Overall, the 14-boat fleet released a total of 64 blues over the three days of fishing.
A Bright Future
All in all, the new tournament was a rousing success, and the accommodations at the resort were perfect for both the anglers as well as those staying back ashore. And while Scrub Island and the British Virgin Islands as a whole have been overlooked by anglers in the past, you can bet this little secret will only get better as more anglers discover the many benefits of Scrub Island’s easy access to one of the best blue marlin grounds in the Atlantic Ocean.