July 27, 2001 – The territory's biggest spectacle in sportfishing — the annual event commonly called the "Boy Scouts" tournament and officially known as the USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament — gets under way Tuesday.
Set for July 31 – Aug. 5, the 29th tournament is based, as always, on St. Thomas's East End, and coincides, as always, with the full moon (on Aug. 4), said to have a beneficent effect on the finding of fish. This year, 35 boats are taking part, many of them based in Florida but some coming from as far away as Venezuela.
The competition is open to a minimum of two and a maximum of four anglers per boat. Entry fees are $3,500 for two anglers, $4,000 for three and $4,500 for four. Who would pay that kind of money to go fishing? Seriously competitive anglers intent on winning both prestige and prizes.
Cash and tackle awards add up to more than $350,000 these days. The top angler gets $10,000 cash, with $5,000 and $3,500 going for second and third, respectively. Top crews divide $3,500 in prize money. And the offer stands of a cool million (in the form of a 30-year annuity) for the first person to catch a blue marlin weighing over a thousand pounds.
Last year's event raised $140,000 for the V.I. Council, Boy Scouts of America — even though fishing was on the light side "by Virgin Islands standards," according to a release from the tournament organizers. The final statistics: 79 blue marlin tagged by 38 boats in four days.
"You can bet tournament organizers the world over would kill to catch that many blue marlin during their event," Dave Ferrell wrote in a six-page spread on fishing the North Drop off St. Thomas's East End in the July issue of Marlin magazine. The publication hit the stands across the nation last month, just in time to promote interest in the competition, with extensive quotes from veteran co-director Jimmy Loveland and comments by local captains Red Bailey, Spike Herbert, Eddie Morrison and Bill McCauley.
The top anglers of last year's event were John Bates (the first to record four releases) aboard Cutting Edge; Parke Berolzheimer (also four) aboard Byrd's Nest, and Robert Osborn (three) aboard his Bob Along. The top boats were Lady Lou (the first to record six releases), Cool Runnings (also six) and Cutting Edge (five).
The tournament has been a "modified release" competition for the last 20 years, during which more than 2,000 catches-and-releases have been recorded. It was the first major tournament to promote the release of blue marlin, rather than boating and killing them. "We attribute the success of our modified release program to the quality of our observers, the crews and the true desire of the anglers to let their fish live," the release stated.
Loveland adds matter-of-factly, "We were catching too many of them."
As a result, "The Boy Scout tournament hasn't put a fish on the dock in 14 years," he says. "The only way we do it is with observers." More on that later.
The rules and the reasoning
The minimum weight for tournament consideration is 400 pounds. The average blue marlin caught in the Virgin Islands weighs about 275.
The tournament uses 50 lb. test line and, at the hook end, 30 feet of "leader," which can be up to 500 lb. test. Last year, the Board of Captains that oversees the tournament changed the modified release rules to increase the length of leader from the previous 20 feet for all boats.
The rules of the International Game Fishing Association, which maintains world records and certifies record holders, specify that a mate cannot assist an angler until the swivel at the other end of the leader from the hook is within the grasp of the mate (who wears heavy gloves), or the swivel touches the rod tip. For the Boy Scout tournament, "We've chosen the rod tip for the purposes of observing — to see it and hear it hit," Loveland says. As a possible result of the longer leader, he says, the average "fighting time" — from hooking to release — was reduced to 14.19 minutes last year from 15.88 minutes in 1999.
Loveland, who wrote the original "modified release" rules, favors less leader because "I want the observers to be able to identify the fish in the blue water … Sportingwise, I want to get close enough to the fish, if possible, to remove the hooks, which can hurt the fish and hurt the crew." Mates have succeeded in removing hooks "at least half the time," he says.
He holds that tournament fishing must be "a fair match between anglers and the average-size blue marlin," and that "a high degree of difficulty should be the norm of every encounter." The choice between 30-foot and 20-foot leader, he says, is between "more catches and points" and "quicker identification and more sport."
In a mailing to the blue marlin sportfishing community, Loveland shared his views. This "brought a lot of awareness and generated a lot of discussion," he says. He and the Board of Captains have agreed to "stay with the 30-foot this year and possibly reconsider next year."
Tournament rules also mandate that each boat carry a captain and two mates in addition to between two and four anglers. One mate is there to tag a catch and the other is to "wire" the fish with the leader. At least two anglers must have their hooked lines in the water at any time, unless they declare at the start of the day that they are going to fish using the "pitch-baiting" method instead of traditional trolling.
This method involves one competitor, called the "pitch angler," having his or her baited hook in the boat while the other or others troll what are called "teasers" — bait without hooks — in the water, Loveland explains. "When a fish come in range, the pitch angler will throw the baited-hook line overboard. The other anglers can't do anything to attract that fish."
This clearly works to the advantage of the angler with the hook. What levels the playing field is that the anglers must rotate positions every hour, taking turn being the "tease" or the "pitch angler."
Tagging of fish is not mandatory; of the 79 released last year, 40 were tagged first. The idea of tagging "is for research purposes," Loveland says. "It provides data about migration, survival of encounter, growth and so forth."
The recorded "fighting time" is from when the fish is hooked until it is verbally declared released by the angler, in the hearing of the official observer on board. The angler has credit for the catch-and-release as soon as the leader touches the rod tip and the release is declared so that the mate can cut the fish free. Anglers have three hours of fighting time, unless a fish is deemed to be over a thousand pounds, in which case the time is six hours.
Each fishing day has an end time of 5:30 or 4:30 p.m. for "hooks in the water." An angler who hooks a fish at the very last minute still has three — or possibly six — hours in which to bring it in for credit.
The game is the most points. One fish released is 400 points, regardless of size. Keep in mind, however, that the minimum size for tournament consideration is just that — 400 pounds. Now, for fish weighing over 400 pounds, the "modified release" format offers two options — turn the fish loose and get 400 points, or boat it for weighing and collect one point per pound, provided it's over 400 pounds. If it's 399, you get nothing. Also, to be boated legally, a fish must be at least 98 inches in length.
How do you know if a fish is over 400 pounds and at least 98 inches long in deciding whether to boat it — and even whether it qualifies for tournament points? "You guess," Loveland says, deadpan. Actually, it's the official observers who do the guessing. And they make highly educated guesses. That's why
they're there.
The essential observers
Each year, the tournament organizers put out the all for official observers who are willing to pay for the privilege and accountability of watching the action up close. Candidates (and there is no shortage of them) need to document that they have plenty of billfishing experience — and upon acceptance, are asked to help subsidize the observer program by making a $500 donation to the Boy Scouts. That's no deterrent, for observers get round-trip airfare from Miami, deluxe hotel accommodations, meals and ground transportation — plus, they see some of the world's greatest blue marlin fishing right before their eyes.
"One observer is placed on each boat, and they rotate every day," Loveland says. "Most are from the mainland, but a few are from here and other islands. Many are at the top of their game. Quite a few repeat year after year. We try to blend them with new ones so the talent pool keeps perpetuating itself."
He noted that while there are separate judges to rule on protests, "the judges pretty much are going to go with what the observer says."
A truck stop on the blue-marlin highway
The overall blue marlin world record does not currently reside in the Virgin Islands. For 15 years, though, it was the 1,282-pound behemoth caught off St. Thomas in 1977. In 1992, one weighing 1,402 pounds was caught off Brazil, using 130 lb. test, for the all-tackle record that still stands.
The territory still does hold two women's records: For 130 lb. test, a fish weighing 1,073 pounds, caught by Annette "Maudi" Lopez, an Australian, in 1982; and for 8 lb. test, a 295-pounder, reeled in by Marg Love in 1992.
The Virgin Islands has held 15 blue marlin world records at one time or another. In 1964, the overall record was an 810-pounder caught off Cape Hatteras, N.C. — until St. Thomas's John Battles caught one weighing 814. Four years later, that record was topped by St. Thomas's Elliot Fishman, who brought in an 845-pounder. And the 1,282-pound fish? It was caught by a crewman, Larry Martin, who went out for a day of fun fishing.
"There is no professional angling circuit in this sport," Loveland says. "The crews, if anything, are the professionals. The boats are mainly 31 to 70 feet, and they range from the Pacific side of Colombia and Peru to Panama and down to Brazil. St. Thomas happens to be one of the truck stops of blue-marlin fishing."
The first tournament was held in 1972, organized by Chuck Senf, with Winthrop Rockefeller among its supporters. Loveland, who came to St. Thomas in 1964 as legendary angler and sportfishing entrepreneur Johnny Harms' mate, was Rockefeller's boat captain in the 1974 competition, and "we won it."
Informal pools among the competitors before fishing actually gets under way are a fixture of the event. "It's traditional to have these little pots and pools in golf and boat tournaments," Loveland says. "The whole idea is you're going to make back a little if you win, not enough to cover your costs of being in the tournament." The Boy Scouts get a portion of the proceeds, and they can be substantial.
"There actually are three tournaments," Loveland notes — the primary event among the anglers, the boat competition for accumulated angler points, and the crew contest for most angler points aboard their respective vessels as well as most fish tagged.
Loveland took over running the tournament in 1980. His co-director since the '80s has been Jackie Marin. "She runs the budget and the domestic arrangements, making sure we keep costs down and make money for the Boy Scouts, and I run the fishing end of things," he says. "Everybody who works for this tournament, period, including Jackie and me, are volunteers."
Marin was suddenly out the picture as of Tuesday, with the sudden incapacitation and death of her husband, Mark Marin. "You wouldn't believe the number of people who have been calling the office to volunteer to help out because of that," Loveland said Friday. "And that's good, because it takes about 10 of us to do what Jackie does."
Mark Marin, he noted, has also played a key role in recent tournaments — and was to have done so in this one — as a member of the judging panel that rules in cases of protest. "He was invaluable," Loveland said, "not only because of his fishing knowledge but because of his administrative expertise. He looked at the rules for what they were, without trying to read anything into them between the lines."
The tournament not only serves as the major annual fund-raiser for the Boy Scouts. It also brings a sizable infusion of cash into local commerce — and thus, government coffers. Anglers, observers, crew and others involved in the event stay at hotels, fuel and provision boats, eat, drink, go shopping and go out for entertainment the week they are on island. The Renaissance Grand Beach, Sapphire Beach, Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas and Secret Harbour Beach Resorts are providing accommodations at special tournament rates.
Charles Tinsley, the new chief executive officer of the V.I. Council of the Boy Scouts of America, sees the blue marlin tournament as not only a valuable fund-raiser but also an opportunity to showcase scouting in the community. He means "not just boys wearing uniforms, but self-sufficiency and reliability in the form of performing jobs like helping with cookouts and registration, or participating in the flag ceremony."
The tournament schedule
Each day begins with continental breakfast at both the American Yacht Harbor and Sapphire Beach marinas.
Monday, July 30:
Arrival of observers.
Tuesday, July 31:
1 p.m. — observers' meeting.
6:30-11 p.m. — kickoff party, Wyndham Sugar Bay.
Wednesday, Aug. 1:
6:45 a.m. — flag raising and blessing of the fleet, American Yacht Harbor "A" Dock.
8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. — fishing the North Drop.
7:30 p.m. — "Outback Night" dinner, AYH grounds.
Thursday, Aug. 2:
8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. — fishing the North Drop.
6:30 p.m. — dock parties at both marinas.
Friday, Aug. 3:
8:30-5:30 pm. — fishing the North Drop.
7:30-11 p.m. — AYH Caribbean Night at the marina with a calypso show at 8:30 p.m. and the Boy Scouts and Customs Explorers cooking "cheeseburgers in Paradise." This event is open to the public, with food and drinks available for purchase.
Saturday, Aug. 4:
Free day.
6:30-9 p.m. — Full Moon Party at the Ritz-Carlton with a silent auction.
Sunday, Aug. 5:
8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. — fishing the North Drop.
9:30 a.m.-2 p.m. — Innovative VitelCellular Handline Tournament for kids, AYH docks. This event is open to anyone under the age of 18. Registration is free and starts at 9:30. Prizes will be awarded and lunch will be provided.
4:45 p.m. — "Jim Smith Race from the Edge" to the finish line at Sapphire's Pretty Klip Point pool bar.
7:30 p.m. — awards banquet, Renaissance Grand Beach Resort.
For additional information, call (888) 2FISH-VI or 775-9500. For background on the history of the tournament through 1999, see the www.usvi.net/bsa web site.


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