Bermuda's seasoned charter boats are always players on the big-game tournament circuit.
A League of Their Own
The welcome mat is always out in Bermuda. A friendly attitude matched by beautiful beaches and luxurious accommodations draws tourists from around the globe. The island nation’s world-class blue marlin fishery is another major attraction. The Bermuda Triple Crown was created to showcase the island’s trophy potential, and to offer an extra incentive for traveling game boats to cruise over and compete. When they do, however, visiting boats go up against the Senior Circuit. Bermuda’s big-game charter crews are among the most experienced in the sport, and they should never be taken lightly, as the scorecards clearly show.
Take Capt. Allen DeSilva, a likely Hall of Fame candidate after a charter career spanning decades. DeSilva won the 2016 Sea Horse Anglers Club Billfish Tournament at the helm of Es Mucho, a 65 Hatteras. In 1995, aboard his previous boat, De Mako, he landed a 1,352-pound blue marlin, the current Bermuda record and the second-largest blue marlin ever caught in the Atlantic.
Capt. Peter Olander is another possible Hall of Famer. Olander runs Albatross for his charter business, but he takes the wheel of the private Queen of Hearts during tournaments. Olander and his team won the 2007 Blue Marlin World Cup Championship with a 728-pound blue, which was also good for third place in the Billfish Blast. He took home a nice payout in the Big Game Classic that same season. He repeated a World Cup victory in 2012 by boating a 768-pound blue. That fish also earned the Blast’s largest jackpot.
If DeSilva is the Babe Ruth of Bermuda anglers, Capt. Alan Card is the Ty Cobb equivalent. This veteran has been fishing professionally for 50 years, the last 18 aboard Challenger, a 40 Gamefisherman, with his son Ian alongside him. Card often fishes with the same tournament anglers every year, although he’ll be hosting a new team during the 2018 Billfish Blast and World Cup.
Card won the 1993 World Cup and the first Big Game Classic in 2001. The World Cup fish weighed 1,195 pounds. Card also has six other granders on his ledger, including fish of 1,130.5 pounds (1983), 1,190 pounds (1989), 1,153 and 1,162 pounds (both in 1995), 1,199 pounds (2002) and 1,289 pounds three years ago. Alan also has a 782-pound bluefin tuna to his credit, while Ian holds the Bermuda record for the largest mako shark at 821 pounds. Card says more than 25 granders have been caught in Bermuda waters, with Challenger having had the honor of catching the first. Except during tournaments, fish weighing more than 1,000 pounds are typically released.
“I started using 130-pound-test line back in 1980,” Card explains. “Before that we were getting our asses handed to us. We were hooking plenty of big fish, 800-, 900-pounders, a few granders probably. But with 80-pound line, we kept breaking them off. We really had no idea how big these fish were until we started using 130 in earnest and landed a few. If you’re deliberately going after bigger fish around here, you need that heavier line. But I tell people I don’t know what a grander looks like, ’cause all mine have been over 1,100 pounds."
Card says six of his seven trophies were aged by the Bermuda Department of Fisheries. The biologists determined those fish were 18 to 28 years old.
“Bermuda is in the middle of nowhere,” Card says. “So we don’t get the pressure like other big marlin hotspots. The oceanic currents can come from any direction, east to west, north to south. The island is basically a platform with a couple banks around it and deep warm clear water. We see a ton of bait — small tuna, bonito, squid. It’s a natural draw for marlin to stack up around here and feed. We get a lot of big females, with the prime time for spawning during June and July.”
Card doesn’t feel like the locals have an edge over the U.S.-flagged competitors, but he is convinced they can hold their own against any team.
“We get along great with the visiting teams. They’re all first class, with A-1 boats and great crews. But the charter boats are just as capable, based on the number of fish we catch each year. Not all have landed granders. But most have 600- to 800-pounders to their credit. These guys have been fishing for years.”
Capt. Peter Rans was born and raised in Bermuda and has been fishing professionally for 22 years. Like the others, he has an impressive tournament track record. Competing aboard his 42-foot Carolina custom sportfisher Overproof, he was named the top Bermuda boat in the 2003 and 2005 Classics. His 850-pounder in 2005 earned third-place honors. He won the second-place trophy in the 2008 Sea Horse tournament and third place again in the 2016 Classic based on points. Rans does feel the charter skippers have a slight advantage due to local knowledge.
“It helps to know where the bait is, where the fish are,” he says. “The tide constantly changes, so knowing which side of the bank to fish on has some advantage. But after a day or so, everybody has zeroed in on things.” Like many of the locals, Rans normally fishes lures during tournaments. He adds an extra mate to help clear lines or man a pitch bait.
“We can hold our own against the visiting boats,” Rans adds. “We’ve got a lot of experience in the big-fish department.”
Capt. Sinclair Lambe is another 20-year veteran charter skipper. He fishes aboard Mega Bucks, a 43 Torres. Lambe scored a 661-pound blue in the 2008 World Cup. That same year he boated an 832-pound fish, good for a second-place finish in the Classic. That was also the biggest overall fish that season. The next year he straightened the hook on an even bigger one, according to his estimate.
“The charter boats always have a good chance because of everyday, local knowledge,” Lambe says. “Most can only run so far because of their size, so we just stop and start trolling. You have to be at the right spot at the right time to catch that big one.”
The Barnes family tournament team is led by Capt. David “Bounce” Barnes, a 25-year charter pro. He is joined by his dad, two brothers and a cousin, who all take vacation, chip in on expenses and fish for fun during the local contests. The team boated the largest fish in the 2015 Big Game Classic, a 741-pounder. They’ll be campaigning aboard a 41-foot Hatteras this season.
“The charter fleet has proven its own against the private boats,” Barnes says. “We’re not as pretty, but we’re effective. And on any given day, we’ve got as good a chance as anyone at winning.”
Capt. Cragin “Curley” Curtis and his team were the first Bermuda-based boat to win the Triple Crown in 2016. Curtis, another native islander, has been fishing professionally for 30 years and is now operating his third boat, Reel Addiction, a 48 Billy Holton Carolina custom. Winners of the Blast in 2008, Curtis and his team also boated a 625-pounder to win the 2016 Blast and the Big Blue Optional Challenge in the World Cup. The team earned third place overall in last year’s release division and have pocketed numerous daily cash prizes over the years.
“I’ve never caught a grander, but I do have a fair amount in the 800- to 900-pound range and tangled with a couple larger than that in my career,” Curtis says. “Bermuda is a premier big-marlin spot in June and July. August can be great too.
“I’m a lure fisherman now. We all grew up here fishing big ballyhoo, but not on circle hooks. So we pull plastics. Even our pitch baits are lures. Once those fish are fired up, they’ll eat anything.”
Curtis says the visiting boats are typically bigger, with large professional crews and state-of-the-art equipment, but he welcomes the challenge of competing against them.
“It’s all about timing and having your stuff right. I’ve learned, if you’re getting bites, stay in that spot and sooner or later you’ll get lucky.”
Even though he has been fishing since 1989, Capt. James Robinson represents the latest generation of Bermuda charter-boat skippers. He learned his trade by mating for Alan and Ian Card, as well as Allen DeSilva. These days Robinson runs Wound Up, a 37 Duffy, and he quickly established his own legacy. It started with a 1,049-pound blue in 2008. That fish was the only grander ever boated by a lady angler in Bermuda, and it was her first time fishing offshore. The next year Wound Up combined to win the World Cup and Blast with an 865-pound blue. The team missed winning the Triple Crown in 2009 by a mere four pounds. Top money prizes in 2012 and a third-place finish in the 2014 Classic confirm the team as a perennial contender.
“Bermuda is the same as everywhere else,” Robinson explains. “Bottom structure and currents are the key. So I don’t think there is a local advantage. Points wise, the edge goes to the visiting boats. They have the money to compete with the technology, large professional crews and investment in baits, dredges. But if you look at what hangs on the scales, fish 700 pounds plus, most of those fish were caught by locals.
“It's a matter of risk and reward,” he adds. “Do you sacrifice points to hang the big fish? You have to get rid of the weak links for a better chance of catching that one big one. But if my anglers are calm under pressure and stubborn, I’ll be happy.”
For Robinson, Curtis, Card and the other seasoned members of Bermuda’s charter fleet, the game’s biggest stage isn’t October. For these boys of summer, July is when the spotlight shines the brightest and the odds favor their chances when big blue marlin are on the line.
Giant marlin are not the only targets for Bermuda’s charter fleet. White marlin and smaller blues are frequent catches as well. Yellowfin tuna swim through these remote Atlantic waters with frequency too. But the island shelf and surrounding banks are a huge magnet for wahoo, in terms of both numbers and size.
Double-digit tallies are common. The prime months are April and May, although the bite can carry over into June. It picks back up again in the fall. Capt. Cragin Curtis on Reel Addiction set an island record with a 43-fish day in 2007. Then Capt. James Robinson on Wound Up eclipsed that the next year with 51 wahoo boated in a single May trip.
“We often catch 20 fish a day in the spring months,” Curtis says. “Wahoo weighing more than 100 pounds are not unusual. We catch them on rigged Sea Witches with ballyhoo and trolling weights. When the bite is really on, they’ll hit lures.”
“We have a really good wahoo fishery here,” Capt. Alan Card adds. “The fish average 45 to 50 pounds with plenty of smaller and larger sizes in the mix. Ballyhoo behind Sea Witches is the favorite offering. We troll them at 8 to 9 knots around the bank corners below downriggers. The charter fleet here is full of really good wahoo and tuna fishermen.”
Beware of the Lobster Boats
It’s the maritime version of the classic David versus Goliath fable. Large, fast and well-equipped custom sportfishers with professional teams go up against atypical commercial boats half their size. But U.S. crews coming over to compete in the Bermuda Triple Crown quickly learn to never underestimate the local lobster-boat teams. The lobster-boat nautical design features rounded chines and a single screw, which produces a turbulence-free wake that definitely raises fish. A 35-foot Willis Beal, originally named Sea Scorpion, is a prime example.
In 2005 Sea Scorpion won the World Cup by boating a 712-pound blue. The boat was later sold and renamed Legasea. Last year, the family-and-friends team with Capt. Brian Hines at the helm put their native experience to work. Team Legasea released three blues and a white, earning 1,700 points and First Place Team honors. They also took home $106,350 in release jackpot money and a stage-full of merchandise. Other lobster boats have enjoyed similar success.
Capt. “Bounce” Barnes fished for many years aboard Shakedown, a 35-foot Bruno Stillman lobster boat. The family team has transitioned to a 41 Hatteras for the 2018 tournament season, but it was Shakedown on the troll when a 741-pound blue came to the wire during the 2015 Big Game Classic. That fish turned out to be the largest of the tournament.
“We’ve always done well in the lobster boat,” Barnes says. b“We’d run traps in the winter and fish tournaments out of it in the summer. Shakedown doesn’t burn much fuel and leaves a real clean wake so we can fish everything up close. There is just no whitewater. That lets us watch the lures all the time, which is a real advantage. You probably won’t ever see a lobster boat on the cover of Marlin magazine though.”
“The reason I fish a lobster boat is simple economics,” says Capt. James Robinson. His Wound Up is a 37-foot Duffy, which has a long resume of tournament accomplishments. “Most of us commercial fish when we’re not competing in tournaments, and I needed a boat I could handle myself. The Duffy is a single-screw design that’s built like a tank. It’s also very economical on fuel. I could fish for a couple weeks on what it would cost me to buy a Lindgren Pitman dredge reel. The lobster-boat style also really works well for pulling lures. The fish will swim right up under the transom because of the clean wake.”
Bermuda’s lobster boats may be diminutive and slow. But like David, they’re all quite capable of delivering a lethal blow when it comes to putting trophy-winning blues on the scales.