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September 21, 2007

Bermuda High

With yellowfin tuna, blue marlin and wahoo just a short run from port, it's no wonder why Bermuda remains one of the world's top offshore destinations.


Yellowfin tuna are abundant off Bermuda from May through September. Here Capt. Allen DeSilva, right, and mate James Robinson heft a 100-pounder taken on a chunk bait last August.

The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries had his hands full. Burly, white-bearded and looking not a little like Hemingway, John Barnes had hooked a big yellowfin on 30-pound line, and was now trying to wrest the stubborn fish from its holding position some 200 feet below the boat. Captain Russell Young sidled over and took a look at Barnes's deeply bowed fiberglass rod. "I'm telling you, that rod is gonna to break if you keep holding it so high," he warned the sweating official.

Barnes grunted and lowered the rod a bit as Young turned to me. "I've seen it happen before with this type of rod. Put too much strain on them and they'll break."

Ten minutes later, Barnes was still fighting his fish when we heard a loud crack. Sure enough, the rod had shattered a foot from the tip. A collective groan of disappointment rose from the cockpit, but then someone shouted that the line was still intact. The fish was still on. Not wanting to lose a good tuna, Young took the rod away from its contrite owner and began the grueling task of slowly pumping the fish up from the depths.


Big marlin are a Bermuda specialty.
Big marlin are a Bermuda specialty. Seven blues weighing over 1,000 pounds have been taken off the island to date.

The abbreviated rod and awkward fighting position made for a long bout under the blazing late-August sun, but Young kept at it, sweating and straining like a man
possessed as he gained line, lost it, then gained it back. It took close to an hour, but our stalwart skipper eventually managed to crank the 80-pound yellowfin out of the cobalt depths. When the fish was flashing gold and blue next to the boat, mate Brooks Rans did the gaffing honors and slid the catch in the fishbox, alongside the smaller tuna we had taken earlier.

Bermuda was living up to its billing as a summer offshore hot spot, even if we had yet to encounter one of the big blue marlin for which the island is famous. Instead, yellowfins were picking up the slack, and no one was complaining, least of all me. When it comes to offshore fishing, I'll catch whatever comes my way and be happy about it.

Blue Marlin Mecca

I'm lying, of course. Deep down inside, I really was hoping for a monster marlin, something to brag about back at the office. I actually thought I had a good chance of achieving this goal, especially since I knew that the abyssal waters surrounding the volcanic island of Bermuda had already produced seven blue marlin over 1,000 pounds, and that most of them had been caught in August. If this wasn't enough to get my hopes up, I also learned that I'd be fishing with two of the island's top skippers.

I got my first taste of Bermuda salt aboard the Mako IV, a beautiful 53-foot Jim Smith skippered by Captain Allen DeSilva, the man responsible for two of the island's grander marlin. With such a prestigious resume, you might think that DeSilva would suffer the kind of ego problem associated with many celebrated captains. Nothing could be further from the truth. Short, tan and clean-shaven, and sporting a head of short-cropped curly hair, DeSilva is as friendly and unassuming a charter captain as you'll find. His humble demeanor, low-key drawl and almost boyish appearance belie the fact that he has become somewhat of a legend in marlin-fishing circles, having led anglers to a 1,031-pounder caught in August '93 and a 1,352-pounder taken in August '95. DeSilva has also put clients on a 996-pound marlin and numerous blues over the 500-pound mark. In fact, just two days before I arrived he had released a 700-pounder.


Chumming is the preferred method of attracting tuna when they're feeding on tiny bait.
Chumming is the preferred method of attracting tuna when they're feeding on tiny bait.

Why is Bermuda such a mecca for big blues? As the only landmass within 650 miles, the island and its two adjoining seamounts serve as a kind of food-rich way station for migrating marlin and other game fish. The season gets under way in May and runs through August, with the full moon in July being prime time for big fish. It's also thought by many anglers that marlin gather here to spawn during the summer. Although this has never been proven, John Barnes told me that the ovaries of many female marlin taken in the past were found to be full of roe.

One of the many nice things about fishing in Bermuda is the proximity of the fishing grounds. From his slip on the north side of the island, DeSilva has less than an hour's run to reach the Challenger and Argus Banks, although lines generally go out after clearing the inshore reefs in the hopes of picking up a stray wahoo, tuna or marlin along the way. Because the potential for monster marlin is so great, most Bermuda crews troll with 130-pound gear and big artificial lures. Fishing is generally concentrated around the two banks, since there are very few visual clues to go by. Bird activity is rare (there are no frigates to follow), and Bermuda rarely sees the sargassum weed-lines and prominent rips found in some other offshore spots.


Banking on Chunks

After trolling big Konahead lures around the banks for two hours without raising a marlin, DeSilva decided we'd be better served by setting up a chum line near the bank drop-off and chunking for tuna. Chunking has a long history in Bermuda (some say the method originated here), where it was used for years by commercial fishermen. It's a lot like tuna-chunking anywhere, and works best when the fish are feeding on very small baitfish and refusing to hit trolled baits and lures. Chunking is also popular because it saves on fuel (it was four bucks a gallon for diesel last summer), and because yellowfin command a good market price.


Andy Hahn of Sport Fishing magazine fought this fish for a good 45 minutes before Robinson could plant the gaff.
Bermuda offers plenty of "quality-size" yellowfins to keep anglers busy if the marlin action is slow. Andy Hahn of Sport Fishing magazine fought this fish for a good 45 minutes before Robinson could plant the gaff.

Once DeSilva had positioned the Mako IV along the edge of the Challenger Bank, mate James Robinson began periodically doling out handfuls of glass minnows and a few bonito chunks. With the chum slick established, we hooked chunks of bonito and free-spooled them behind the boat on 30- and 50-pound tackle. The object was to let the hook baits sink at the same rate as the chum as we drifted off the edge of the bank and into deeper water.

Although action was slow in coming, the sight of tuna crashing the surface all around us told us we were in the right spot. Sure enough, two of our baits were eventually picked up in rapid succession. The first tuna turned out to be a 30-pounder, but the other was a brute in the 100-pound range that fought for well over an hour before being brought to gaff.


Tuna Time

Tuna action off Bermuda is pretty dependable through the summer and fall, and you can expect plenty of quality-size fish, too. May sees an influx of 30- to 40-pounders, while August to October is best for bigger tuna.

Five or six years back, Bermuda became popular as a good spot to target small yellowfin and blackfin tuna on flies and light tackle. The fish could be easily chummed up behind the boat - along with the occasional wahoo - where flies and chunks could be sight-cast to individual fish. Although this kind of sport is still available, particularly in the spring, the light-tackle craze seems to have died down somewhat, especially since blackfins have become rather scarce in recent years.

My day with DeSilva had given me a good idea of what to expect on the banks, so it didn't surprise me that Russell Young was keen to start chunking for tuna right off the bat. However, our first fish of the day turned out to be a 20-pound wahoo that slammed a ballyhoo as we were trolling to the grounds.

Wahoo are another extremely reliable bet off Bermuda, and they get big, too. While the fish are available year-round, the best action occurs in spring and fall. The period from Labor Day to November in particular is anxiously awaited by Bermuda fishermen, as the fish tend to run bigger than in the spring. Incidentally, the largest wahoo recorded off Bermuda weighed a staggering 132 pounds.


Skirted ballyhoo
Skirted ballyhoo are fished on downriggers to catch wahoo, but they sometimes stir up tuna as well.

Shortly after dispatching our 'hoo, we stopped over a high spot on the bank to collect some "ocean robins" (what U.S. anglers call cigar minnows) to use as live bait. Robins can be chummed in behind the boat and caught on small hooks baited with bits of tuna flesh. Once we had captured one, Young hooked it through the back and fished it from a kite while the rest of us drifted chunks.

Although the energetic robin looked pretty tempting as it splashed about on the surface, the chunk baits ultimately proved more effective, and we were soon experiencing multiple hook-ups. Most of the fish ran in the 30-pound range, save for the 80-pound rod-breaker mentioned earlier, but the action was a bit steadier than the previous day. By the time 4:00 rolled around we had several tuna, plus the lone wahoo, to show for our efforts.

Even though my two-day trip wasn't very long, it gave me a good sense of Bermuda's unique offshore fishery. I also got to see why this country is so popular among U.S. travelers. Let's face it: if you're looking for an easy-to-reach destination with a warm climate, a wide range of excellent accommodations, a low crime rate, a fleet of fine boats, and great offshore fishing, you can't beat Bermuda.


Bermuda Charter Boats & Info

Offshore Fishing
Mako IV, Allen DeSilva, (441) 295-0835; www.fishbermuda.com
Sea Wolfe, Russell Young, (441) 234-1832; www.sportfishbermuda.com
Challenger, Alan Card, (441) 234-0872
Equalizer, Reggie Horseman, (441) 296-9158
Gringo, Joey Dawson, (441) 295-3500
Jamie C, Sinclair Lambe, (441) 234-3081
Knock Down, Steven Rance, (441) 236-3551
Playmate, Keith Winter, (441) 292-7131
Somethin' Hot, Cragin Curtis, (441) 297-2715

Flats Fishing
Jump 'Dem Bones, James Pearman, (441) 292-2190;
e-mail: jhpfsh@ibl.bm

General Information
(800) BERMUDA; www.bermudatourism.com

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Bermuda Bones?

We often found ourselves stared at by frolicking tourists or curious homeowners stringing up their laundry.
James Pearman poles the flats in a quest for huge but hard-to-catch bonefish.

On my last morning in Bermuda, I had the chance to fish for bonefish with the island's only full-time flats guide, James Pearman. Over the years I have heard a lot of rumors concerning the island's bonefish, chief among them that the fish were all but impossible to catch. Not so, insisted Pearman, although he did admit that this wasn't Christmas Island.

After meeting me and fellow writer Andy Hahn at the dock in front of the Pompano Beach Club, Pearman ran a short distance before shutting down the engine on his 18-foot Dolphin skiff. As he poled us along the volcanic shoreline, he explained that Bermuda lacks the kind of expansive, shallow flats found in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys. Instead, anglers must hunt for them in small coves and along the narrow band of sandy bottom that skirts the rocky shore. Another difference is that the fishing takes place in a somewhat urban setting. Indeed, we often found ourselves stared at by frolicking tourists or curious homeowners stringing up their laundry.

But there were bonefish - huge bonefish - in these waters. The first one we saw was a single fish that had to be all of eight pounds. I made a decent cast to it, but the big bone wanted nothing to do with my tiny crab fly. My next cast to a second, equally large fish produced nearly the same reaction. The fish ambled over to my fly, inspected it, then moved on at an unhurried pace. Pearman sighed, and told me that this was the thing about Bermuda bones: they were huge, but really hard to fool.

We spent two hours trying without success to convince one of the local bones to take our fly before we had to get back to the resort and pack for the trip back to the States. As we waited for the airport shuttle van to arrive, Hahn and I relaxed on the terrace overlooking the ocean. As I gazed down upon the small manmade beach below, I noticed a pale shadow moving across the sandy bottom. At first I thought it was a small shark, until I saw the fish pause and tip its snout into the sand. Yes, it was a bonefish, and it was a monster. It had to be over 12 pounds, and was easily the biggest bonefish I have ever seen. For the next ten minutes we shook our heads and watched as the behemoth bonefish cruised calmly past the legs of several nervous swimmers. And I didn't feel so bad about not catching one.
- Tom Richardson