British Virgin Islands Unleashed
Finishing the jump from Perth to Los Angeles, it was no time at all before I was enjoying Mahi Mahi tacos at Jones café and taking in the sights of Venice Beach. With only a 6 hour layover to live it up, and having spent far too long in one particular Venice beach bar, it was soon time to sample the wares at Sasabune, reputedly LA’s finest sashimi restaurant. Coming highly recommended from my brother Nick, who has eaten more raw seafood than an Eskimo, I knew that I was in for a treat. Amongst offerings of Pen Shell with Yozu Koshou (Japanese lime and chili paste that beats the hell out of wasabi), Abalone Gizzards and Ingawa (Halibut dorsal fin muscle), there were also many pieces that were unrecognizable and, if it wasn’t for the fact that they tasted so good, I would have been a little more than worried when my questions to the chef as to their identity were met with laughter. It was a stellar meal and soon it was time to get my belly full of beer and raw seafood back to the airport to continue my travels. Fingers crossed!
After 48 hours of transit, and a final puddle jump from San Juan to Tortola, I arrived in the British Virgin Islands (BVI’s) where I was greeted by Nick and his partner Shideh. There is something special about being picked up by boat from an airport, it definitely gets you in the holiday mood! Especially when it’s a Pursuit 3070 centre console – 30 foot of fishing machine powered by twin 225hp Yamaha four strokes and decked out with all the bells ‘n’ whistles.
A short boat ride later we were pulling alongside the dock at Eustatia Island, our base for the next two weeks. Eustatia is a small private island at the eastern end of the BVIs, right on the convergence of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. After a brief tour of the island and some celebratory drinks, Nick suggested we hop in the Panga and run over to Oilnut bay to see if there was any bait holding up inside the reef, perhaps get some runs on the board before the nights festivities.
Within minutes Nick pulled the throttle back at the entrance to the bay where large numbers of black pelicans could be seen dive bombing over what looked like an expansive weed bank. But as a sandy road opened up ahead of our boat I realized the bay was actually filled to the brim with baitfish. Redear herring (Harengula humerali) and some sort of engraulid (Anchovy) I was informed – apparently this was a good thing.
Lure selection for that first cast was easy – Cultiva Savoy Minnow 112SP in Chartreuse. Hal Harvey had gone to a lot of effort sourcing the last few in Perth days before I left so I thought I’d better lose them. Floating in a sea of bait it was difficult to work out where to fire that first cast so I took a punt towards the shore. Two cranks of the handle, a brief feeling of déjà vu as something skipped across the surface, and everything came up tight. Except this Carribean beastie felt all too familiar! ‘Damn’, my arch nemesis the needlefish (longtom in Australia) had followed me all the way to the Atlantic Ocean!
After the usual expletives that go with releasing a longtom that is doing its best to inflict as much pain as possible on you, while doing everything in its power to entangle itself in anything nearby, I was ready for cast number two. Nick pointed out some tell tale white striations rippling through the bait school and the Cultiva touched down right amongst it. A fast erratic retrieve changed everything and soon bait fish were rushing everywhere as black torpedoes engaged and disengaged the lure. The scene was reminiscent of a fired up school of small trevally chasing down a popper, and when one of them finally hit the target, I was sure I was connected to one of the many species of jack (trevally) prevalent in the area. Given the light outfit, I was not too surprised at the speed at which the fish took off, but the length of the run was impressive and when the spool started singing at an even higher pitch, eyebrows were raised. No sooner had that first run ended and the beast was off again, this time in a different direction across the front of us. The braid left a shower of spray behind as it cut through the water, creating untold carnage under water as it sliced through the baitschool.
Following the third run the fish moved almost within view and I assumed Nick was giving me a brotherly jest when he called it for a bonefish. “On a bibbed minnow? Not falling for that one mate!” I replied, but soon ate my words as the grey ghost slipped past the boat and took off on another scorching run. The drag did its best to muffle my excitement about the “bloody big bone” and after a few heart in mouth minutes, I had released my first bonefish. “Your itinerary is stuffed Nicko, I thought we were gonna do bones on day three?”. Now I just needed one on fly.
We returned to the bay a few days later with fly rods, high hopes and Gangajang’s ‘This is Australia’ providing a (un)suitable soundtrack. While the scenery reminded me of some parts of Australia – as I caught sight of a huge tarpon patrolling the edge of the bait school – I thought the fish, or in this case the size of the fish, did not. I’ve caught plenty of tarpon whilst fishing North Queensland waters, but the size attained by our Indo-Pacific tarpon (Megalops cyprinoides) does not compare to that of the Atlantic tarpon (Megalops atlanticus). This was no record breaker, but at well over a metre long it was a serious bar of silver and sure to give the Orvis 8wt a good work out. Although tempting to give the Savoy Minnow another run, this was a text book Swoffing opportunity not to be missed. Nick lay the baitfish imitation a few metres ahead, and off to the side of the cruising fish, one strip and it responded positively, immediately deviating its course towards the fly. The tarpon slowly closed gauge before ever so gently inhaling the offering, Nick responded with a sharp strip but was met with no resistance. “Bugger” or some such words were muttered under his breath and the tarpon turned away, unfazed to continue its patrol.
We had a few similar opportunities over the next hour that unfortunately ended the same way, it reminded me of my frustration while fishing for their smaller, but equally boney mouthed relative in the water hazards at any one of Townsville’s golf courses – where success was counted by fish jumped, not landed. Given the fine point to our hooks we concluded that perhaps larger flies, or more specifically wider gaped hooks, may give us the upper hand in the future. There would however be other chances and for now our focus moved to bonefish as we moved closer to shore where we had seen some commotion earlier.
The author slides a grey ghost down the side of the Panga.
Downsizing to a pink Crazy Charlie, we started casting to the shore and retrieving the fly under the extensive bait school. Sight fishing in this fish soup was proving difficult but we knew sooner or later we would come across our quarry. With the aid of pool net borrowed from the house, we poled ourselves the length of the bay, but with no luck other than the odd blue runner (Caranx crysos). Motoring back around to the start of the drift we noticed some bigger jack harassing baitfish in the corner of the bay. A quick change to a bigger fly, a fast retrieve and it was no surprise to come up tight. The fish took off on a thumb busting run and this time Nick called it early, “bone for sure”, I wasn’t getting my hopes up though. Whatever it was, it was making a very good account of itself and had me struggling to keep up on a few occasions when it decided to change direction. After four solid runs I finally led a silver bullet down the side of the boat and into the net, how sweet it is – bonefish on fly in the Caribbean.
This chunky bone was not at all deterred by the large fly – while not conventional, the oversized offerings worked a treat on Virgin Gorda bonefish
Everything I had ever read about bonefish had engrained in me the idea that you must fish small flies and fish them slowly. But I had overlooked the number one rule – match the hatch. In fact I had more than overlooked it, I was blind to it. The bay was full of baitfish, and that first bone on a bibbed minnow should have been a dead giveaway. It was just good fortune that we upped fly size when we did or we could have spent the next week tossing undersized offerings at what were obviously very hungry fish. Luckily however we clued on at this point and went on to land several good bones on both fly and spin over the course of the afternoon, Awesome!
While it was a fantastic experience to nail a few on fly, there is no doubting that you can gain a much greater respect for them with light spin gear. We were using a Daiwa Sol 2000 loaded with 10lb Fins PRT and matched with a Nitro 007 Magnum Butt 4-6kg rod (great little travel stick) which gave us an excellent connection to the fish, with the ability to feel every surge and change in direction the minute it happens. The fish no doubt offer a bit more ‘Grrrrr’ as well as they don’t have to drag around a heavy flyline for the duration of the fight.
Tarpon continued to evade us, however we were finally given a golden opportunity a few days later while drifting along the edge of a flat, sight casting to a brace of tailing bones in just inches of water. They were proving to be tough customers and Nick was doing an excellent job of positioning the boat, if only I could position the fly. I was so focused, the occasional explosion behind us in deeper water had not really sunk in, and it was only when it occurred a little closer to the boat that I subconsciously noticed Nick pick up the spin stick loaded with the trusty Chartreuse Savoy Minnow. It didn’t take long.
The Cultiva Savoy Minnow was a popular item on the menu – this tarpon didn’t think twice!
It took even less time for an ID as over a metre of silver king catapaulted skyward. While not the biggest tarpon we had seen, it was more than enough for the light outfit to handle. Picture a barramundi on Redbull, this fish did not like staying in the water one bit. After a very torrid close quarters battle full of Aerial displays, Nick had a very green tarpon boat-side and couldn’t understand why I was having so much trouble wrangling him into the boat for a photo. After a few snaps he was sent on his way to the cheers of onlookers from a nearby resort. Atlantic tarpon are one serious sportsfish and I cannot wait for a chance to tangle with one on fly.
Halfway through our trip we were greeted with the arrival of Hurricane Omar which kept us shore bound for a few days. While it would probably break up the baitfish and stir up the inshore areas making tarpon and bonefish more elusive, we hoped it would be a godsend for the Bluewater scene. The British & US Virgin Islands have quite a reputation as billfish hotspots and many readers will have read articles on the quality of fishing to be had at the North and South Drop near Anegada. While it was not prime billfish time, we were still in with a chance and Nick assured me there would be plenty of wahoo to keep us entertained.
Once Omar provided a break in the weather, we steamed towards the North Drop, deploying the spread just after passing Anegada reef. With little bird action and a mixed up sea, it was a slow morning aside from a few striped tuna and a decent hit on the Black Bart. Later inspection of the abraded leader suggested billfish and unfortunately it would be our first and last encounter for the trip. By the afternoon we had made our way around to the South Drop, east of Horseshoe reef, and it wasn’t long before something took a liking to one of the offerings. Once all lines were cleared, and after a blinding first run, Nick made short work of a sizeable wahoo that had sashimi written all over it. Shortly after the spread was fed back out, we were on again to another wahoo, a scene that repeated itself many times over the next few days as we worked the South Drop.
Aside from a few more stripey’s and a brief encounter with a dolly, wahoo were the only pelagic we encountered, so in need of some variety we decided a change of tactics was in order. While working the surface we had marked some good soundings at the edge of our fishable depth (400-500ft), so decided to investigate with some knife jigs. Having no huge expectations, I was surprised to see Nick stretched over the gunwale by some brute shortly after hitting bottom. It was not long before he was blown away as I hooked into a chunky little almaco jack (Seriola rivoliana).
Dropping down again, and paying far too much attention to Nicks blow by blow description of the beast that just did him over, I didn’t notice my braid start leaving the Stella at an increasing rate. The second I caught on and applied pressure everything went slack, “can’t get away from these ‘hoo”. Subsequent drifts saw more almaco jack come aboard and Nick continued to get tormented by unstoppables. I was delighted to also see a few black trevally (Caranx lugubris), a species whose strange looks have intrigued me for years, thrown in the mix.
Having barely scratched the surface of what the regions drop-offs and seamounts may offer deep water jiggers, I cannot wait to return this October to explore its potential further. The shallower inshore areas are also bound to yield a variety of large tropical snapper waiting to inhale a Lucanus style jig. I had the good fortune to observe some of these Lutjanid’s while diving nearby Eustatia Island and there were some absolute horses, reminiscent of offshore mangrove jack, amongst them. Poppers and stickbaits will also be in the tackle next time, if only for the wahoo. And then there’s always that tarpon on fly……..
A huge thanks to my brother Nick, his little piece of paradise and its finned inhabitants for a truly memorable few weeks of fishing!