Capt. Johnny Harms is credited with ‘discovering’ the magnificent blue marlin fishery in the Virgin Islands. That was back in the 1950s when Laurence Rockefeller brought Harms down to explore the possibility of big game charter fishing for Rockefeller’s guests at St. John’s Caneel Bay Resort. Yet charter fishing isn’t the only thing for which Harms has received recognition. In the early 1960s, in the evenings in the tiny bar at the Lagoon Marina, Harms’ adrenalin-pumping stories about ‘Big Daddy’, or thousand-pound blue marlin he’s glimpsed out on the North Drop, ignited a competitive spirit among his fellow fishermen. It was Elliott Fishman’s catch of a ‘Little Daddy’, a 500lb blue marlin, while out fishing with Harms aboard the Savannah Bay that sparked the idea for the newly-formed Virgin Islands Game Fishing Club to organize a tournament. The first July Open Tournament was held on July 4 1964.
“Back then it was a hometown tournament with 30 to 40 boats from Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands,” explains Capt. Red Bailey, of the Abigail III, who moved to the Virgin Islands from his native Antigua in 1966, worked as a mate for Harms and fished the tournament in its early years. “The Puerto Ricans would bring their boats over and leave them for the summer.”
Elliot Fishman’s catch of an 845lb blue marlin during the 5th July Open Tournament, on July 4 1968, brought national attention to the Virgin Islands. In an interview conducted in the early 1990s, Fishman explained, “We had just set out the lines when Harms yelled: ‘left outrigger’. It was then that I saw the massive marlin, lit up like a blue neon sign, was after my bait. The fight I thought might be easy turned into a three hour and 28 minute struggle. What a sight – that huge marlin jumped out of the water nineteen times! When we got back to the dock, the fish weighed in at 845lb and measured thirteen-feet, one-inch long with a girth of 71 inches. Not only did I set the new all-tackle world record for the Atlantic Blue Marlin, but because I was using 80lb pound test, I held that record too. My catch was broadcast worldwide in papers ranging from Copenhagen, Denmark, to New York City, USA.”
In those first years, Capt. Spike Herbert, who arrived in the Virgin Islands from Nevis in 1966 aboard a sports fishing boat whose owner wanted to learn how to catch blue marlin from Harms and who, in 1980, just a day after the July Open ended, caught a 1192lb blue marlin in Virgin Islands’ waters, says, “We use to kill everything back then, but that changed through the years.”
Over the past 50 years the July Open Tournament has welcomed anglers from around the Caribbean, the U.S. and the world and moved away from the Fourth of July holiday to the July full moon. It has also been a trendsetter in sports fishing innovation and conservation. In the 1970s, the modified release rule was implemented, meaning that the minimum weight for a boated fish had to be at least 400lb. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Capt. Bailey called for single hooks only. This was based on research that the double-hook arrangement could cause severe damage to a marlin if the hooks weren’t removed. In the early 2000s, the July Open became a 100% release tournament, meaning winners were based on how many marlin they released and not the biggest brought to the scales. Today, fish-friendly circle hooks are most popular and fishermen get their rush not by killing a fish but instead teasing it up on a pitch-bait, watching the incredible bite, and releasing the marlin to swim free another day.
Dates for the 50th Anniversary July Open Billfish Tournament are July 19, 20 and 21, 2013. For more information, visit: www.vigfc.com
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.