Summer marlin mania kicks into full swing with the July Open Billfish Tournament, the oldest sports fishing event in the Virgin Islands boasting a 44-year tradition of fishing fun. Customarily, this tournament has been fished over the Fourth of July holiday. But, since the full moon is better for a blue marlin bite, the host Virgin Islands Game Fishing Club (VIGFC) decided a few years ago to move the date to three days before the month’s full moon – July 27, 28 and 29.
The angler and boat to beat is Juno Beach, Florida’s Sam Jennings and his 58-foot Revenge. Last year, Jennings, who avidly angles with son, Jon, boasted a record by being only one of three anglers in the history of the tournament to win the prestigious Give ‘em Line trophy twice. The trophy is awarded to the angler that releases the most billfish.
The late Virgin Islands angler, Howard Crouse, won this honor in 1965 and 1988, as did Puerto Rico’s legendary angler Ralph Christiansen in 1973 and 1984.
This year, the event will be limited to twenty-five boats. Anglers and crews hailing from the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and U.S. mainland are expected to compete.
Tournament director Jeff Kreiner says, “We have capped this tournament at 25 boats because we need a IGFA (International Game Fish Association) certified observer on each boat. Each boat must have a minimum of one angler, one mate and one captain or a maximum of four anglers, two mates and one captain.”
Certified observers are responsible for verifying that all billfish are caught and released according to International Game Fish Association (IGFA) rules. This event is, and has long been, a 100 percent release tournament.
Kreiner continues, “This tournament is a fun event and we plan many nice things for the boat crews, the owners, and the anglers. So, when you have a party you need to know in advance how many will be coming.”
This year’s July Open Billfish Tournament will focus on keeping participants on the dock under the tents, says Kreiner, “and at our new Virgin Islands Game Fishing Clubhouse facility located across the street from the American Yacht Harbor (AYH) marina. We plan to make it easy for the teams by not busing them out of the area. There will be lots of music, food and drinks at AYH and the Clubhouse.”
Anglers will set their sights on scoring the most release points for blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish.
Kreiner says, “I would like to encourage anglers fishing with bait to use circle hooks. This is not a National Marine Fisheries law as of this year, but it probably will be by next year. Use of circle hooks truly saves ripping the guts out of the fish and killing them when using bait. We want to have as many fish live as possible until they can become more plentiful again.”
The July Open Billfish Tournament is steeped in history. The event made fishing headlines around the world in 1968 when on the first day of competition, St. Thomas angler Elliot Fishman brought in an 845-pound marlin that gained him the world record for this species. In 2001, the VIGFC started a tag and release format and no marlin have been boated since.
Signs by the end of May portend that this will be a great billfishing season. There have consistently been two, three, and more flags flying on boats such as the Revenge, Reel Tight and Miss Babbie. So, it seems the bite is on. Sports fishing crews will run a flag up their aft rigger at the end of the day to signal how many marlin they’ve released in that day.
Proceeds from the JOT benefit the Boys & Girls Club of the Virgin Islands. Tournament registration will take place beginning at 7 p.m. on July 26 at the VIGFC above the Frigate East restaurant in Red Hook, St. Thomas. For more information, call: 340-775-9144.