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December 21, 2004

Shadowed By The Northdrop

Discover uncrowded waters in the British Virgin Islands

Talk usually turns to the Virgin Islands' North Drop when the subject of marlin fishing in the Caribbean comes up. St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, garners the spotlight because it hosts well-known events such as the Boy Scout tournament and offers several marinas within easy reach of world-class offshore action. Ironically, the fishing grounds for which the USVI has become so famous actually lie within the jurisdiction of the British Virgin Islands (BVI).

 The possibility of raising three to 10 or more blues per day draws many American boats to St. Thomas and the North Drop for the full-moon periods of July, August and September. Tournaments scheduled during this peak season attract hundreds of anglers eager to enjoy the fantastic billfishing, festive atmosphere and dockside camaraderie. But some of us may prefer a quieter, less crowded destination - that still serves up good fishing, of course. You'll find it in the BVI.

Wind and Waves
At the invitation of Nick Willis, operations manager of Leverick Bay Resort and Marina, I visited the island of Virgin Gorda last May. A week before the trip, Willis sent me some good news. "Yesterday we released our first blue marlin of the season, an estimated 300-pounder caught on the South Drop," he wrote in an e-mail.
Anxious to see if that blue was a harbinger of an early start to the billfish season, I arrived in Tortola accompanied by Sport Fishing's national sales manager Scott Salyers and Eros Cattaneo of Alutecnos USA. We couldn't help noticing an ocean full of whitecaps as our plane descended toward the runway on Beef Island, and the not-so-smooth ferry ride from Tortola to Leverick Bay gave us a taste of what the next three days would bring: 6- to 8-foot seas and strong winds, thanks to a weather system roaring across from the northeast.
Weather or not, we planned on fishing, damn it. So did Capt. Sanford "Sandy" Flax and deckhand Leslie "Shabba" Shott. The crew greeted us the next morning as we boarded Mahoe Bay, a Hatteras 46 featuring an open salon and a Pompanette fighting chair. Although the boat carries a full complement of well-maintained custom rods and Penn International reels, Flax didn't object when Cattaneo suggested we use his Alutecnos gear.
"We're headed for the South Drop this morning," Flax explained while steering past sailboats and luxury yachts moored in the protected bay. "It's just 2 miles off the southern tip of Virgin Gorda. We usually make the run in 30 minutes, but it will take longer in today's seas."
Flax admits that the North Drop, which lies better than an hour's run from Leverick Bay, boasts better marlin fishing than the South. However, he and most other skippers based in Virgin Gorda and Tortola prefer the South Drop. "It holds plenty of fish, it's close to port, and," he adds with a grin, "I can see my house while working the South Drop."

A native of Virgin Gorda, Flax grew up fishing these waters - but don't bother asking him about the bottomfishing. "I'm a dedicated troller," he says. While dragging lures over the South Drop in 1998, Flax hooked the biggest blue he has ever seen. "It weighed over 1,000 pounds easily. We fought it for six hours before the hooks pulled right beside the boat," he says.
As for numbers, Flax's best single-day release tally on the South Drop stands at three blue marlin, "caught by a group of rather inexperienced anglers." He reckons that on an average day of trolling during the summer, one to five blues will visit the spread.
Knowing that we faced equal odds of hooking tuna, wahoo, or dolphin, with an outside chance at blue marlin, Shott set out a mixed-bag trolling spread on 30- and 50-pound gear. He deployed a doorknob-type lure for marlin in the long left position, a chugger head/ballyhoo combo in the long right, a jet head in the short right and a Sea Witch/ballyhoo on the downrigger. Except for the marlin lure, Shott rigged all the baits on wire leaders to prevent wahoo bite-offs.
Prior to our visit, Willis had explained that  during the winter months the area offers consistent fishing for the offshore trinity of tuna, wahoo and dolphin. These species become less evident, though still remain available, when marlin move in for the summer. According to Shott, BVI yellowfins average 40 to 80 pounds (his personal best tuna weighed 165, an island record he caught with Flax at the helm), wahoo usually check in around 20 to 50 pounds, and dolphin run 10 to 40 pounds.
After an hour or so of bumpy but eventless trolling, Flax suddenly cranked Mahoe Bay into a hard turn to port. Salyers pointed to the motive for our captain's maneuver: a lone frigate bird soaring above the waves, 200 yards away. Minutes later, the right-rigger clip popped, and line peeled off the reel. Cattaneo picked up the rod while Salyers hedged toward the left side of the cockpit. His hunch proved correct when the downrigger bait got nailed. Slipping and sliding in the sloppy seas, Cattaneo and Salyers battled a dolphin doubleheader until Shott deftly gaffed each fish. And just like that, we had two 30-pounders on ice. Cattaneo tallied one more dolphin, an 18-pounder, before rough seas convinced us to call it an early day and head back to Leverick Bay.

East of Anegada
"Conditions look better today," Cattaneo observed wryly as we chugged through 7-foot seas early the next morning. He was right; the wind seemed to have dropped by a knot or two.
"On a day like this, you won't see Anegada until we get pretty close," said Flax, referring to the low-lying coral atoll situated about 20 miles north of Virgin Gorda. "The highest point sits only 28 feet above sea level."
The long reef extending from Anegada's eastern tip has claimed many vessels over the years and presents a navigational hazard to this day. "There used to be a prominent wreck right off the end of the reef, and a number of submerged shipwrecks dot the area. That's why locals call this spot The Wreck," Flax explained when we saw white breakers contrasting against a background of deep, blue water. The attractive combination of structure near a sharp drop-off draws an abundance of tuna and wahoo.
Our morning's efforts produced six knockdowns but no solid hookups, although the place certainly felt fishy. Flying fish constantly lifted off all around us, and we saw both types of dolphin - Flippers playing in our bow wave and a mahimahi in hot pursuit of fleeing flyers. Several flocks of birds working over baitfish got our hopes up, but we couldn't buy a strike when trolling close to the melee.
Anegada's tempting proximity prompted Cattaneo to suggest a shore lunch, so Flax took us in to the wooden pier at Setting Point. Sitting at a beach-side cheeseburger stand in Loblolly Bay, we talked about the gorgeous white-sand flats we'd passed during the taxi ride along the island's west shore. Back at Leverick Bay that evening, I met two men who had fished Anegada's flats the previous day. Stiff winds made fly-fishing impossible, so the pair drifted while blindcasting jigs and shrimp. Despite less-than-ideal conditions, they managed to catch and release a half-dozen bonefish to 3¼ pounds.

Mounting Hopes
Winds and seas calmed a bit, but the weatherman still gave us no real break on our third and last day of fishing. Once again, Flax described the fishing grounds while we made our way to the target area: "Just 13 miles southeast of Virgin Gorda, the Seamount rises from a depth of thousands of feet to within 125 feet of the surface. It measures about 6 1/2 miles long by half a mile wide."
Upon reaching the spot, Shott lowered the outriggers, and Salyers helped deploy the baits. He had just set out the right rigger line and was reaching for the right short bait when the clip snapped open and the drag screamed. We all looked back to see a small blue marlin make a splashy jump and spit the hook. Flax worked the Seamount hard all morning, but, unfortunately, no more blues came up to investigate our baits.
Had we been able to coincide our visit with the July or August full moon rather than May's, we would be singing a different tune. Since few boats fish the South Drop, Wreck and Seamount around Virgin Gorda, it's hard to generate a stack of statistics concerning numbers of fish raised in any given period of time. Leverick Bay Resort & Marina organized a small tournament in August 2001, and the results provide an idea of this area's billfishing potential. In four fishing days, a field of six boats released 20 blue marlin.

Anglers looking for a different way to celebrate Easter should spend Holy Week at Leverick Bay, culminated by the Fisherman's Jamboree. This year's edition of the two-day tournament, which emphasizes fun fishing, produced 49 wahoo, 60 dolphin and 12 yellowfin. In 2003, a 100-plus-pound wahoo hit the scales to establish a new event record.
While tournaments offer a convenient source of data reflecting numbers of fish raised or released per day, visiting anglers should note that the BVI billfish scene does not revolve around competitions. Rather, these islands make an ideal venue for anglers looking to leave the hustle and bustle behind for a while. Willis suggests that anglers and crews who travel to St. Thomas for the tournament circuit extend their stay in the area by spending some time at Leverick Bay to unwind after an event. It's the perfect place to relax in uncrowded comfort, yet remain within easy striking distance of mixed-bag offshore fishing.
The BVI tourism board touts the islands as "nature's little secrets." It's about time more anglers discovered some of the big blue secrets that swim along the South Drop.