The Hunters and the Sea: Caribbean Sportfishing

Prowling the Caribbean for big game and some of the liveliest tournaments on the sportfishing calendar

A 426.5-pound blue marlin was the reward for Robert Fournellier (stooping) in Tobago’s Carib International Tournament. Photograph by Ranji Ganase/CaribA colourful dolphin being landed off Tobago(no relation to Flipper- what the Caribbean calls dolphin is the fish known as dorado or mahi mahi in the United States). Photograph by Abigail HadeedA hopeful hunter. Photograph by Darrell JonesA magnificent sailfish falls prey to the game of the fisherman. Photograph by Darrell JonesA sailfish leaps high above the water in the struggle to break free. Photograph by Darrell JonesBoats from Curaçao, Bonaire and Venezuela gather for the Aruba Nautical Club’s sailfish tournament. Photograph by Peter TysonPicturesque Pigeon Point is the headquarters for the annual Tobago tournament. Photograph by Peter TysonSpoils of the hunt: Caribbean sailfish. Photograph by Darrell JonesThe hunt begins again…Photograph by Darrell JonesThe hunted: Caribbean sailfish cruising the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Photograph by Darrell JonesThe hunters: triumphant. Photograph by Darrell JonesTools of the trade: plastic lures, successfully used in Hawaii, have found their way into the Caribbean. Photograph by Peter TysonWatchful anglers in the Carib International Game Fishing Tournament in Tobago. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed

It was late in the afternoon of the last day of the tournament. For those aboard the big sportfisherman, it had been four days of frustration, concentration and eyestrain in the hot sun. Scanning the sea, the anglers watched for any sign of life behind the splashing trolled baits. Birds wheeled and dived; schools of flying fish broke the surface of the water, gliding through the air just inches above the glassy surface. But — nothing.

“Five minutes to lines out” crackled a voice over the radio. The captain relayed the message to the angler and crew in the cockpit below. “Well, I guess that’s it,” said the angler quietly to himself.

Then came a shout from the bridge. “Watch the right out- rigger! ” Instantly the angler jumped into action. He grabbed the big 80-pound class rod from the rod holder and dropped the bait back in free spool as the marlin took it. It was a big one, he could see that, and he knew he was in for a tough fight.

Time was called. The tournament was over, but since this marlin had been hooked before the deadline it would be a valid entry. There were still problems, though: this was the final day of the tournament, and it would have to make the weigh-in by 7 p.m. to be eligible. The pressure was on. Several other boats gathered around, a safe distance away, to watch the action in the waning afternoon.

The angler was experienced, the crew top-notch, the boat highly manoeuvrable, and soon the fish began to tire. It came up alongside and the mate’s heart beat hard as he grabbed the wire leader and tried to pull the fish within the range of the gaff. He had never seen such a marlin. The gaffs were driven home, the huge fish was secured, but time was now very short. “Can the fish be transferred to a faster boat?” the captain asked the tournament chairman by radio, knowing that they would never make the weigh-in station by 7 p.m. otherwise. A quick discussion took place ashore. “Yes,” came the reply. The big fish and the proud angler were on their way in.

The marlin was hoisted onto the scales with five minutes to spare. The weight: 1,061 pounds. A single fish at the 11th hour turned into a tournament winner, a circuit championship winner, a record, the largest ever caught in the scattered islands of The Bahamas.

Big game sportfishing can be electrifying; it can be hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer panic and total chaos. It’s never knowing what will come up behind the bait, or when, or how big it will be. It requires not only finesse in hooking up and playing the fish, but pure brute strength as well. It can be a humbling experience, battling a monster animal for hours only to lose it. But it’s also the sheer pleasure and reward of bringing a beautiful marlin to the boat and releasing it to swim away unharmed.

Naturally, man’s competitive nature has led him to develop sportfishing into organised contests that not only pit man against fish but man against man (or woman, as is quite frequently the case). Fishing out in the blue is a great equaliser. First you must get the strike, then hook, play and land the fish or release it. The most successful anglers are the ones who know how to make the most of the chances they get. Of course a good crew, good tackle and a good boat all contribute to the team effort that is needed to be successful at this game.

Anglers come from all walks of life, but they have a common love of the sea and solitude, a competitive spirit, a sense of fun, and a desire to catch the biggest fish ever. Many own their own boat with full time professional crews, while others choose to charter for particular tournaments, sometimes further afield than they would choose to take their own boats to.

Fishing tackle varies from venue to venue, based on tournament rules and the species sought. The blue marlin tournaments usually require 80-pound gear, heavy tackle which usually requires the use of a big fighting chair where the angler sits, assisted by a bucket or kidney-type harness. The sailfish events will drop to 20-pound tackle and the angler will fight the fish standing up with the use of a gimbal belt and harness. You can bet the rods and reels will be the finest money can buy, and no expense is spared for the best of hooks, line, bait or favourite lure.

Big game tournament fishing is not a spectator sport. It takes place offshore, out of sight of those waiting anxiously on the beach or wharf. If you are lucky enough to be invited to “ride along”, you feel a bit of an outsider, not part of the team of angler and crew; but it is worth the chance of seeing the electrifying strike and fight of a marlin or other offshore game fish.

Those ashore only see a dead fish stiff and black, hanging by its tail from the gantry, its lifeless pale blue eyes staring into space. Little can they imagine that this beauty of a beast was once an indescribable brilliant blue with iridescent stripes and fins, thrashing the water to a froth and jumping, leaping and greyhounding around the boat, linked to the angler by an absurdly thin line. With the emphasis on conservation, many tournaments now are strictly release events, so the fish is returned to the ocean and spectators on shore have nothing to help their imaginations except a flag flown proudly from the halyard to tell them of the action which took place offshore.

The billfishes, marlin and sailfish, frequent the warmer waters of the world, including the Caribbean, and maintain a healthy population. The Caribbean marlin species include the mighty blue and the smaller but cagey white marlin. The sailfish is of the Atlantic variety, and occasionally a rare spearfish is caught.

Tournaments are now held in virtually every island nation of the Caribbean and the nations bordering the Caribbean Sea. The earliest contests were held in Bimini in The Bahamas. With Florida close by, boats could easily run across the Gulf Stream to fish, and they produced great results. Today, the Bahamas Championship Series holds contests on several of the different islands, many of which hold their own events in addition to the circuit contest.

The Club Nautico de San Juan in Puerto Rico, founded in 1931, began holding its international Blue Marlin Tournament in 1953; it is the oldest continuous event in the Caribbean. Today it draws anglers and teams from all over the world, and is one of the biggest and best organised international events. Anglers draw for different boats each day, so they fish on a different boat for each day of the tournament. They can fish just one line and must rotate positions around the boat every hour.

Since no two anglers fish together for more than a day, it is a great opportunity to meet others with similar interests from all corners of the world. Besides fishing, the shoreside events cause quite a stir, with fashion shows for the ladies, sightseeing trips and tremendous parties. It can be solitude at sea, but not so on shore.

Some of the finest anglers in the world participate: but fishing is a great equaliser. One year, a Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club member fell ill and a substitute angler was required at the last minute. She was a petite lady, the wife of one of the other team members. Well, she caught three blue marlin, all much bigger than her own 90 pounds, and finished in second place. Last year, for the 39th event, a lady angler did it again. With a release format firmly in place and only blue marlin over 300 pounds allowed to be boated, she released two and boated a whopping 602-pounder on the very last day of the tournament, to take top honours.

In the southern Caribbean, the fishing is excellent and a nice southern circuit is developing with well-organised events in Tobago, Grenada, St Lucia, Martinique and Barbados. There is a lack of sportfishing pressure in many of these islands, so the results of an organised tournament can be quite outstanding. The 1992 Tobago event produced large quantities of yellowfin tuna, 223 to be exact, and a 142-pounder caught by a Barbadian angler netted $25,000 for breaking the Trinidad and Tobago record. A sailfish of just under 84 pounds netted a Trinidadian angler $25,000 for breaking the Trinidad and Tobago sailfish record. It was an outstanding tournament with great fun ashore as well as superb fishing.

Grenada has held a well-organised tournament for over 25 years, and though it is just to the north of Tobago sailfish are in much greater abundance there than marlin. Of course this tournament is held in January and illustrates the seasonal variations which affect billfishing throughout the Caribbean. Tournament organisers are fishermen themselves so they schedule their events to hit the peak fishing season in their own area.

Up the island chain, coming after the Grenada and Tobago events, newer competitions are showing great promise in Martinique, St Lucia, Barbados and (in May and June) St Maarten. Excellent catches of yellowfin tuna, wahoo and the billfishes — blue and white marlin — and sailfish have been made.

Fishing for sailfish is great in Cozumel and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula in April and May, so a number of tournaments are held there. Many boats come down from the USA to fish during this two-month season, and those that don’t return move on to the Cayman Islands, where June is Million Dollar Month, a month-long tournament now in its 10th year and bigger and better than ever.

Further east, July, August and September are the hot months in the Virgin Islands for some of the best blue marlin fishing in the world, with plenty of big catches. Maudi Lopez caught a women’s world record of 1,073 pounds off St Thomas a few years ago, and from 1977 until just last year the all-tackle 1,282 pound Atlantic blue marlin record was also taken off St Thomas by the late Larry Martin. The boat’s owner was at the airport awaiting his flight back to the US, the captain was taking a day off and having lunch with his wife, and the rest of the crew and some crew members from another boat went fun fishing. Martin, the boat’s mate, hooked, fought and landed this huge fish: big game sportfishing again the great equaliser. A replica of the monstrous creature was presented to the Governor and people of the US Virgin Islands and now resides in the new airport terminal in St Thomas.

The USVI Open Tournament draws top boats from the US and the Caribbean and anglers from all over the world in September. The fishing can be superb, and there is always a chance for that “grander” (thousand-pounder). An excellent tournament at Biras Creek in the BVI follows soon after.

The top Jamaican tournaments at Montego Bay and Port Antonio are held in September and October and draw a huge number of participants. The marlin here are generally smaller but the action can be fast and furious and the shoreside activities organised by the hospitable Jamaican hosts are hard to match.

In the southernmost reaches of the Caribbean, interest in offshore angling is as keen as anywhere else. The white marlin fishing off Venezuela is the best in the world, and big blue marlin begin to show up in December. A number of tournaments are held here annually, and the world-renowned ILTTA (International Light Tackle Association) tournament has been held in Venezuelan waters seven times in its 53-year history. One year, ILTTA anglers released 451 white marlin on 20-pound tackle fishing out of the port of Macuto in just four days. That’s some action!

Tournaments sponsored by local clubs in Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire also attract anglers from the far corners of the world, and there is intense rivalry between Aruban and Venezuelan fishing club anglers in an annual round-robin tournament circuit.

So there is no shortage of fishing enthusiasm around the Caribbean, and the fish tend to be — for the most part – cooperative! Whether you have an intense competitive spirit or just want to take a shot at that big one, there is a destination not too far away which will provide just what you’re looking for.

 

SOME CARIBBEAN GAME FISHING TOURNAMENTS

 

Spice Island Game Fishing Tournament 

Grenada/january

 

Bahamas Billfish Championship 

Bahamas/island tournaments March-July

 

Lions Annual Fishing Tournament 

St Maarten/March

 

Bacardi Rum Billfish Tournament

Bahamas/March

 

St Maarten/St Martin Anglers Big Game Fishing Tournament 

St Maarten, St Martin/February-March

 

Caribbean Liquors Annual Fishing Tournament

St Maarten/April

 

Carib International Game Fishing Tournament

Tobago/May

 

The Marlin Open Tournament

St Martin/May-June

 

Antigua and Barbuda Sports Fishing Tournament

Antigua/Whit weekend (May-June)

 

Cayman Islands Million Dollar Month 

Grand Cayman/June

 

Annual International Billfish Tournament

Turks and Caicos Islands/July

 

St Barth’s Open Tournament

St Barth’s/July

 

Virgin Islands Open Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament

St Thomas/August

 

Biras Creek International Team Fishing Tournament 

British Virgin Islands/August

 

International Billfish Tournament

Puerto Rico/August-September

 

Annual Open Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament

St Thomas/September

 

Montego Bay Marlin Tournament

Montego Bay, Jamaica/September

 

Nautical International Fishing Tournament

Aruba/October

 

Blue Marlin Fishing Tournament 

Port Antonio, Jamaica/October

 

Bucuti International Fishing Tournament 

Aruba/November