FAT LADY'S MARLIN
Marlin catches off Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands
are a new discovery for the international sport fishing set.
Attractive resorts dot the mountainous terrain that
juts from the deep emerald waters.
by Larry Larsen
The owners, captains and anglers aboard the nine sport fishing yachts moored quietly at
the small Biras Creek marina were concerned. The following day was the first of the
international billfish tournament and they were being forced by the tournament director to
fish a relatively unknown and unproven area nearby. What they found out on that first day,
however, would set the sport fishing crowd on its ear.
Without exception, all nine vessels fishing the South Drop of Virgin Gorda in the
British Virgin Islands caught more blue marlin than ever, anywhere. The
"reluctant" discovery of a blue marlin fishery of such magnitude just 30 minutes
away from the marina obviously pleased everyone.
Each afternoon of the four day tournament was a celebration of sorts. The boats would
approach the marina with multiple marlin flags strung up on their antennas. The flags
flying upside down denoted releases, but some anglers actually caught and tagged more
blues on a particular day than they had flags aboard.
The nine sportfishermen waved a total of 87 blue marlin during the Biras Creek
International Team Fishing Tournament held in September, 1988. That's almost a ten fish
average per boat for the four days. The winning boat, the "Escape", caught and
released seven blues on day one alone and looked like a Christmas tree with its flag
display as it approached the Biras Creek marina that afternoon.
The "Escape" finished the tournament with 19 blue marlin, an obvious all-time
all-tournament record for big game fishing tournaments. The boat's owner, Charley
Campbell, and guest angler Doc Stewart, caught 9 and 10, respectively. While all of their
tagged-and-released blues were under the tournament-imposed size limit of 300 pounds, they
lost one that was much larger. It was estimated to be over 450 pounds.
Don Stallings, owner of the "Sea Eagle," landed 11 blue marlin alone over the
four days. His five on day one was his best day ever, and he reported that his 11 that
week would have made a good "season" for him many years. His wife, Billie,
helped him land the first blue marlin double in his long-time angling experienced.
All of the participating boats had on doubles, and most reported triples and even quads
on their baits during the event. The fish caught off the newly discovered South Drop
ranged from 100 to 200 pounds, and only two over 300 pounds were brought to the scales.
That's a positive note for conservation and for those anglers who want to keep the
discovery of the area's fishery to themselves.
The South Drop area, as it is known locally, lies a few miles off the northeastern
point of Virgin Gorda. On the map, the area lies just off Horseshoe Reef on the eastern
side of Anegada, and it is quite possibly the best blue marlin area in the Caribbean. The
number of blue marlin that inhabit the area is unfathomable.
Waters there drop from 30 fathoms to over 200, and the bottom is an irregular recorder
plot revealing numerous peaks and valleys. Huge schools of flying fish are on the surface
and dense "clouds" of bait hug the bottom of the South Drop. Both apparently
attract the concentrations of blue marlin.
June through August are thought to be prime marlin months, but the South Drop fishery,
being newly discovered, could reveal new information. September is typically a productive
month as well for blues, and one of the anglers in the Biras Creek tournament predicted
that fishing the South Drop in late September or October would result in the biggest blues
from that area.
Blues of 800 and 900 pounds are taken just 25 miles away at the famous North Drop area
off Jost Van Dyke. To date, most of the big Virgin Island blues have come from that area
and from the area fished by charters from St. Thomas in the U.S.V.I. The mountainous Jost
Van Dyke lies west of the remote island of Anegada. Those experienced now on the South
Drop believe it will yield monsters in the future.
"If we ever fish the South Drop as hard as we do the North Drop, there's no
question that we could catch as big a blue the South Drop average 75 pounds and are
frequently caught during the summer."
The waters off Virgin Gorda are always very clear, so the billfish there are not used
to moving in and out with the clean waters. The clarity is excellent because there are no
rivers or other pollution sources that could present silt to the waters. The height of
their mountains seem to dictate the climate and the amount of rainfall. Since they are
low, rain clouds pass by the BVI. Abundant semi-arid plants, such as cactus, are the norm
on Virgin Gorda and other islands in the BVI.
Other Caribbean islands with taller mountains, like Puerto Rico to the west and the
French West Indies to the south, block the moisture-laden air from passing on by. The
showers fall on their rain forests as the moisture condenses. Those islands have rivers,
waterfalls and estuary areas which can dump silt into the water and influence the area's
billfish waters. The BVI's just do not have similar problems.
Most frequent showers on Virgin Gorda occur during May and then later in September and
October. While the islands may experience rain with a tropical wave, seldom do hurricanes
hit the BVI. The last to hit the islands was of minimal strength. Most hurricanes pass to
the south of those isles or form after they have passed as a tropical squall or
Sport fishing weather in the BVI seldom varies; it's warm year around. Daytime highs
are rarely in the 90's, and during the winter, the lowest temperatures to expect are in
the low 70's. Highs then might hit 80 degrees. Water temperatures will fluctuate about 10
degrees, according to locals. They'll hit mid-70's in the coldest months and warm up to
the mid-80's at the end of the summer. It's wise for anglers to wear their fisherman's
sunscreen year around.
Wind can be a factor to the smaller sportfishing boats, since the BVI gets steady trade
winds. They are predominantly out of the east and average 15 knots throughout the year.
Calm days are rare, but winds exceeding 20 knots are not. Seas may average around 4 or 5
feet, and some days they will be less (2 to 3 foot) over the course of the year. Summer
winds are normally calmer than those in the winter months.
The remoteness of the islands and minimal population makes the area a great place for
anglers to get away from hustle and bustle. Half the islands in the BVI are totally
uninhabited, and all of the islands' beaches are open to visitors. For those offshore
anglers wanting to stretch their legs or have a picnic lunch, there's usually an island
with a scenic beach within 15 or 20 minutes from the big game action.
Tides around Virgin Gorda are usually less than one foot, so misjudging them is not a
problem for sport fishermen. There might be more fluctuation around the new and full moon
periods. Local charter captains use caution around the island of Anegada, which lies to
the north of Virgin Gorda. It's the only major isle in the BVI that is not mountainous,
and has the second largest reef system in the western hemisphere surrounding it.
The reef has over 300 shipwrecks, counting both pirate vessels of old and modern craft.
The barrier reef skirting Anegada is, in fact, twice as long as the island. Other than
that, there are few navigation problems in the BVI. The few hazards around are quite clear
on the charts. Although markers are few, the water is extremely clear, the islands are
close together and the bottom drops off quickly away from the mountainous terrain.
Charter captains can easily navigate by eyeball. They simply look at their destination,
seldom needing the compass. As they pass through a reef system, they read the water: dark
blue or dark green is always deep enough, light green is probably o.k., and brown or white
could be extremely shallow and dangerous.
Other Line Stretchers
Wahoo, often called, "billfish without bills", can be caught year round off
Virgin Gorda. Some moon phases are better than others, according to the local captains.
The full moon is most productive for fooling a smart wahoo. The fish in the area average
around 40 pounds but may weigh as much as 70 pounds.
Schooling dolphin weighing up to 50 pounds have been caught at numerous spots
throughout the BVI. Find water deeper than 150 feet and an angler may quickly load the
boat with them. The winter months are good for finding the roving dolphin schools. Their
appearance close to the islands is influenced by winds and the moon phase, full being the
best according to local anglers.
Large yellowfin tuna are often caught during the winter months. The Sea Mount, about 10
miles south of Virgin Gorda, and the South Drop, to the east of Virgin Gorda, yield
yellowfins of up to 75 pounds or more. Kingfish are also numerous and are often seen free
The winter months also attract other billfish. Excellent white marlin and sailfishing
occurs through February. Sails as large as 75 pounds can be caught, and doubles are
frequent then. As is the case elsewhere, ballyhoo are the preferred attraction for the
Finding The Bait
Follow the birds and you'll find the bait. That's true everywhere, but don't look for
birds in overabundance off Virgin Gorda. Flocks of "Booby" birds often indicate
schooling baitfish, and that's a good sign that larger sport fish are cruising the depths
beneath. Frigate birds that sometimes hover in the sky above search out tuna and dolphin
while, at the same time, pinpointing marlin for observant captains.
Small birds, called locally "tuna birds," feed on baitfish that venture near
the surface. Those birds are most often present along the dropoffs over baitfish, and the
Sea Mound south of Virgin Gorda attracts more than its share. Local charter captains have
noticed, however, that the bird activity is not as prevalent as it used to be. Trolling
through a school of birds doesn't always guarantee a fish, as it once did a few years
Common schools of baitfish include flying fish, squid and allison skip jacks. The
flying fish are as numerous and as large off the South Drop area as anyplace around the
Caribbean. Huge schools roam the surface and scatter to the air as boats approach. Spanish
mackerel are abundant and range up to five pounds.
You can usually buy your ballyhoo bait at a local marina. Biras Creek has a
full-service marina for those wishing to bring their own boats or charter the local
captain. They'll accommodate boats as long as 100 feet and having drafts of up to 12 feet.
They offer water, electricity, fuel and dockage for up to 12 large boats.
The friendly marina manager, Bob Hartman, has worked for Biras Creek for 10 years and
is most familiar with handling the sailing craft for which the British Virgin Islands are
renown. Since there are over 3,000 boats in those islands most months of the year, that's
considerable work. The docks are full of sport fishing boats during the annual Biras Creek
tournament, though, and Hartman can find bait for those needing it.
Catch Your Bait
Some anglers prowl the shallows for diversion, others for bait. Bonefish are an
excellent marlin bait and some astute anglers are using them also for teasers behind their
large sportfishing boats. A 12-inch long specimen is considered appropriate for the marlin
that swim in those waters. They can be caught right in front of the Biras Creek Marina and
along the flats near the resort's service docks.
The best bonefishing in the area lies a short 10 minute boat ride across North Sound to
the shallow flats of Mosquito Island. Feeding schools of bonefish numbering up to 150
create "muds" as they move through an area in search of crabs. Shrimp, jigs and
flies will attract the bones which may average 5 to 10 pounds each, and an angler can
expect around 10 fish in a 3 hour trip. Permit as large as 20 pounds can be a bonus on the
flats which average one foot deep around the island.
The volcanic rock ledges and cliffs right at seashore usually denote some excellent
reef areas adjacent. Bottom fishing for grouper is an easy task with the complimentary
Boston Whalers with 6 horsepower motors that the Biras Creek resort offers each guest.
There are at least 30 different spots within a 20 minute ride from the marina. Eustatia
Reef, which lies just east of Deep Bay, is a prime spot for bottom fishing.
Bottom fish are abundant and you can catch them or watch them. Snorkeling and scuba
diving opportunities in the BVI are numerous. Kilbride's operates through Biras Creek
resort and offers BVI's most impressive dive - on the HMS Rhone. The 19th century British
mail ship that was used as a movie set for Jacqueline Bissett in "The Deep" a
few years ago. Exploring the 310-foot ocean steamer wreck takes at least two dives, with
the bow normally explored first.
The wreck's hull has become the home of numerous coral, a 300 pound jewfish and
colorful marine life. While the Rhone may now be attracting more underwater sportsmen to
the BVIs, that will change when word of the South Drop's virgin marlin fishery gets out.
Sport fishermen won't want to miss the newest attraction off Virgin Gorda! Note: Larry
Larsen is author of "Fish & Dive The Caribbean" which is available
for a special price of $11.95 (postpaid). Lakeland, FL 33813.