Jim Lambert, a longtime avid Virgin Islands sports fishermen and owner of the Hillsboro, Florida-based 82’ Merritt, Reel Tight, lost his long battle with cancer in June. A month later, his family and crew rallied around, entered the 45th annual July Open Billfish Tournament (JOBT), July 14-17, and won.
"It was always his idea that we would continue. We all have a shared love of fishing," says Reel Tight mate, Robert ‘Fly’ Navarro.
Tournament fishing started out slow for the fleet of 16 boats and 44 anglers. Reel Tight was one of the boats that went fishless on the first day.
"It was one of those ‘aww-man’ type of days," says Reel Tight captain, Eddie Herbert. Luck changed the second day.
"It was about 11 a.m. when we rigged Jim’s special Reel Tight lure and put it in the water," says mate, Joe Figiel. "We didn’t catch anything on it, but just putting it in the water changed our luck."
Reel Tight released three fish on both the second and third days of this three-day tournament to end with six releases and the Top Boat prize.
"We’ve never won this tournament before," says Lambert’s son, Jimmy Lambert, who fished as one of the anglers. "I think you could say my dad was with us in spirit."
The Big Oh, a Ricky Scarborough 63 owned by Gray Ingram of Jupiter, Florida, finished Second Best Boat with five releases. Ingram, who earned the prestigious Top Angler ‘Give ‘em Line’ perpetual trophy, made all the releases.
Meanwhile, Black Gold, an AYC 65 owned by Boca Raton, Florida’s Harry Sargeant, rounded out Third Best Boat with the release of four blue marlin.
While a tropical low and the run-up to the full moon were bantered about at the docks as the reasons for the slow start to fish-catching, not all anglers and crews were happy about this year’s rule to use only circle hooks with live or dead bait. Traditional “J”-hooks were still permitted, but only with lures.
Capt. Red Bailey, aboard the St. Thomas-based sports fishing charter boat, Abigail III, summed up several anglers’ sentiments when he said, “a hook is a hook and a fish is a fish and that’s how you catch them,” referring to the “J”-hook.
According to the science behind the use of circle hooks, it’s the unique configuration of the curved-style hook (which looks like a capital “G”) that allows it to only catch on an exposed surface such as a fish’s jaw or mouth. In action, the fish takes the baited hook, swallows it, and as the angler reels in, the hook is safely pulled out of the fish until it lodges in the corner of the mouth. The anticipated end result is less gut-hooked fish, fewer billfish deaths and ultimately billfish conservation.
“We usually fish with baits, but we stuck with lures this tournament so that we could continue using J-hooks,” says Matt Melchiorre, mate on Black Gold. “There’s a learning curve to circle hooks and we weren’t sure we were there yet.”
Capt. Mike Lemon, on the Revenge, wasn’t happy about circle hooks on the tournament’s first day. “We saw one (blue marlin) and tried to catch it twice and missed. Circle hooks didn’t really work for well for us.”
Hooking a marlin on a circle hook wasn’t a problem aboard the Gulf Rascal. Two anglers hooking the same fish was.
“We were pitch baiting when a marlin came up and Rod (Gulf Rascal owner, Rod Windley) got him on the line,” explains Capt. Billy Borer. “The fish went crazy and was jumping all over. Then, the other angler went for his rod and yelled that he was hooked up. Well, as time went by, we realized both guys were fighting the same fish. The marlin had a circle hook in each side of its mouth.”
Borer self-disqualified the fish since rules say only one angler can fight a fish. He won the sportsmanship award for his honesty.
According to federal U.S. law, which became effective January 1, 2007, anglers fishing in a tournament that lists billfish as a target species must use non-offset circle hooks with all natural baits (dead or alive). This ruling does not apply to non-tournament ‘fun fishing’ and does allow the use of “J”-hooks with artificial lures in tournaments.
Proceeds from the JOBT benefit the Boys & Girls Club of the Virgin Islands.