He is off the dock by 0600 and back by 1200, usually, and only then does his work really begin. The days Captain Carl Holley spends working as a commercial fisherman and charter captain are fun, he says. He loves being out on the water, showing his charter guests a good time, whale watching—and fishing.
When the 1974 Hatteras 36, Mocko Jumbie, returns to the dock in Christiansted, Holley proudly displays the dolphin (mahi-mahi), wahoo or tuna they have caught. Out come the cameras, while Carl and mate Adam Adcock clean the catch for the guests.
“Send them home with their catch—keep them happy,” says Holley, who has become one of the most successful charter sport fishing captains on St. Croix. That seems to be a good business plan, as many of his guests return, and new clients are often gained by word-of-mouth. He has a website, www.fishwithcarl.com, but does little advertising.
However, posing for photos with a large bull dolphin on the scale, just steps from the Christiansted boardwalk, gets the tourists’ attention. As he fillets the tasty pelagics, tossing scraps to huge tarpon beneath the dock, Captain Carl’s audience grows; some record the phone number on the metal sign attached to the cleaning station.
Recently, Holley and some friends won the St. Thomas Dolphin Derby’s Best Boat award, based on the number of fish caught between 0600 and 1500. The friend’s boat has faster engines than Mocko Jumbie, so they sped around looking for birds: the Run & Gun strategy. With two Caterpillar 3208 engines, Holley’s boat does not go as fast, but it burns only four gallons per hour.
At slower speeds, Holley must be in tune with the fish and pay attention. He is an expert at spotting birds, especially frigates and boobies, which fly above areas where larger fish are feeding on smaller fish, pushing them to the surface. He also knows how to spot a weed line, caused by intersecting currents, under which smaller fish hide, attracting predators.
The less visible side of Holley’s operation is commercial fishing. A licensed commercial fisherman, he says the income from that is about even with his charter boat income. Selling to the restaurants means no filleting: they take the whole fish.
Holley prefers catching his own bait with a throw net from the end of the dock but when that is not an option, he buys from a local bait seller or uses artificial bait. In this era of ecological awareness, nothing is wasted: fish the guests leave behind are sold to the local restaurants, given to friends, or consumed by Holley’s family. Often, the carcasses are given to a passerby who will make soup stock. And then there are those hungry tarpon, which have become a tourist attraction.
Out on the water, off the north shore of St. Croix, Holley’s lines occasionally snag something other than dolphin, tuna or wahoo. Barracuda and undersized fish are also returned to the sea alive; billfish are tagged and released. His largest billfish was 350 pounds, and Holley felt it was worth more in the water. He tagged the behemoth and hopes to catch it again, perhaps during a billfish tournament. His largest fish were a 66-lb. dolphin, 81-lb. wahoo, and a 92-lb. tuna.
He has noticed the big fish and large schools once found easily are more elusive lately. His best day this year was on St. Patrick’s Day: 25 dolphin and 16 wahoo. Last year he had days of more than 50 total. There are many reasons, of course, from fluctuations in currents and water temperature to the presence of long-liners, gillnets and float nets in the area. Fishing with rod and reel means no by-catch and destroys no cetaceans, sharks, juveniles or turtles. Releasing a dolphin weighing less than five pounds is a smart thing to do, Holley says, it will come back in a year weighing six times that.
For Holley, it’s all about making enough to support his family while having fun. Originally from Austin, Texas, he came to St. Croix in 2002, leaving behind jobs in financial management and credit counseling. While working at a waterfront restaurant, he noticed many charter boat captains were not wholeheartedly professional, courteous, or competent. Customers at the bar would ask about chartering, and Holley saw an opportunity to use what he had learned as a youngster in Texas about fishing. His first boat was a 26 ft. center console; he bought Mocko Jumbie in 2005. He and his wife, Anna, now have two children, Savanna, age 2 ½, and Sawyer, born in February 2009. With them, Carl enjoys life in paradise, working hard at what he enjoys most.
Ellen Sanpere has lived aboard Cayenne III, a refurbished Idylle 15.5, since 1998. She and her husband Tony started from Annapolis and have cruised from Maine to Venezuela. St. Croix is their home port.