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September 21, 2007

Saint John Sojourn

Best known for its white-sand beaches, crystal-clear waters and spectacular coral reefs, the Caribbean island of St. John also offers excellent fishing for a variety of inshore and offshore species.


Fast fishing lies just minutes away from St. John's beautiful beaches.

I'll be the first to admit that my fishing exploits on the island of St. John haven't been much to write home about. Until last year, the only creatures I've been able to remove from the crystalline waters surrounding this Caribbean paradise have been a bar jack, a little tunny, a pompano and a half-pound squirrelfish. My lack of success might not seem so pathetic if it wasn't for the fact that I've been vacationing on St. John since I was two! Over the course of 21 trips to the island I've spent numerous hours casting lures from shore and driven myself crazy in my attempts to catch what has to be the world's most uncatchable bonefish, all to no avail.

My luck finally changed last April when I did a little research and hooked up with local charter captain Loren Nickbarg. A former resident of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, the 48-year-old Nickbarg moved to St. John permanently with his wife in 1989 after visiting the island several times on vacation. Loren cut his teeth on chartering during a two-year stint in the Florida Keys, where he fished with the legendary captain Jimmy Albright. When he moved to St. John, he brought with him the live-bait chumming techniques he had learned in the Keys, eventually purchasing a custom-built, 33-foot center console with a 70-gallon live well that holds up to 1,000 baits. Loren is the first to admit that this style of fishing takes some extra work, such as rising before dawn in order to net a day's worth of pilchards. But when it comes to producing consistent, fast-paced action, nothing beats live chum.

Saint John Sojourn
Captain Loren Nickbarg displays a rainbow runner caught by Chrystal Richardson off Congo Island.

Inshore Variety

I learned this firsthand when my wife Elizabeth and I, along with my brother Matt and his wife Chrystal, joined Nickbarg for a day of inshore and offshore fishing last April. We met Loren at the U.S. Park Service docks in the town of Cruz Bay, then headed for an inshore hump not more than five minutes from the dock. The spot lay to the north of Congo Island, a towering edifice of hardened lava not far from some of St. John's most popular beaches.

Although Loren doesn't really need his sophisticated color depthsounder to pinpoint his hot spots, he turned it on for my benefit. When the bottom rose from 80 to 65 feet, he dipped out a netful of pilchards from the live well and flung them into the cobalt water behind the boat. Almost immediately, boobies and frigate birds swooped in from the rocks to pick off the panicked prey, which was leaping from the water to avoid the onslaught of frenzied game fish.

As boils appeared around the boat and the baitfish flew in all directions, Loren calmly plucked a 20-pound-class spinning outfit from its holder, flipped a live bait amid the melee, and handed the rod to Chrystal. The baitfish lasted all of three seconds before an unseen predator grabbed it and began ripping off line. The mystery fish turned out to be a beautiful rainbow runner-a common catch in these parts, according to Loren. Next up was an African pompano taken by my brother, followed by a cero mackerel and a little tunny, also known as bonito in the Virgin Islands.

Saint John Sojourn
Nickbarg and fellow captain Jonathan Gatcliffe, right, with a blackfin tuna, one of several offshore species available during the winter and spring.

Variety and fast action are major attractions of the live-chumming game, and the hit parade of inshore species one can expect to encounter off St. John includes jacks, barracuda and king mackerel. Sailfish and tuna have even been known to crash the party. "Sometimes, 50-pound yellowfins come through the inshore humps and blow big holes in the water," Loren told us. "Plus, you'll see humpback whales moving through the area in winter."

Occasionally, Loren will send a live bait to the bottom while the surface blitz is raging. This sometimes produces grouper and snapper, although the area's healthy shark population makes it hard to get a large fish to the surface.

When the action died down off Congo Island, Loren fired up the engines and we roared off to another hump, this one a little farther to the north and in deeper water. Over the years, Loren has accumulated lots of these little spots, which he relocates through dead-reckoning.

The action at the second hump proved to be just as hot. Cero mackerel, little tunny and jacks were the main fare, but there were other, larger creatures in the waters below, as we discovered when several of our lines came back without a fish-or a hook. The culprits were reef sharks, and we decided to see if we could turn the table on these bad boys.

Saint John Sojourn
If you like to battle big sharks, St. John has got you covered!

Within minutes, Loren had coaxed a 250-pounder to the surface with an injured bonito on a 50-pound outfit. When Loren began to reel the bait away, the huge shark barreled forward, chomped the bonito and disappeared into the depths. What followed was 30 minutes of backbreaking battle that ended with Loren handlining the fish to boatside for release. We didn't want to eat up valuable fishing time on the shark, but Loren has other clients who don't feel the same way. "Hey, some people just like to come out here and pull on sharks," he said.

Action on The Drop

At noon, Loren ran us back to Cruz Bay for a short break prior to round two of our fishing adventure. After grabbing some lunch and relaxing on a nearby beach for a few hours, Elizabeth and I rejoined Loren and his close friend, St. Thomas charter captain Jonathan Gatcliffe, then set a course for the famous North Drop, some 18 miles north of St. John. The North Drop is a section of the Virgin Bank drop-off that's world famous for its blue marlin fishery (Loren once caught a blue from a flats skiff when he first moved to the islands), which runs from June through October. Although marlin aren't as numerous on "The Drop" during the winter and early spring, this period offers excellent action with blackfin and yellowfin tuna, dolphin and wahoo.

Getting to the North Drop took about 50 minutes in the mild seas. Once we arrived, Jonathan and Loren quickly deployed a spread of four 30-pound trolling outfits, two armed with Braid Little Speedy lures and two with small, blue-and-white Doorknob trolling lures. Our plan was to blind-troll along the edge of the bank, looking for bait and birds until the tuna staged their predictable evening blitz.

Saint John Sojourn
Nickbarg and Elizabeth Richardson pose with a North Drop mahi.

Both Jonathan and Loren swear by the Little Speedys, which swim down to about 20 feet and will take dolphin (mahi), tuna and wahoo. They are also great for high-speed search trolling. "If I had to troll one lure here, it would be the Braid Speedy," says Jonathan. "You can troll it up to 12 knots without it flying out of the water."

Having once fished the North Drop during the height of the summer marlin season, when there can be as many as 30 large boats from St. Thomas trolling 'rigger-to-'rigger along the bank, I was amazed to see we had the place all to ourselves. Loren explained that this is usually the case during the winter and spring, which is just fine by him.

One of the main indicators of fish activity on the North Drop are frigate birds, and Loren soon turned the Avante in the direction of one that was circling suspiciously. As we approached, a school of flying fish burst from the water and sailed over the wavetops.

"Hey, mahi!" someone cried out as a pair of dorsal fins suddenly streaked towards our wake and one of the 'rigger lines popped from its clip. Elizabeth took the rod and got her first taste of how hard a big dolphin can fight. Unfortunately, the fish threw the hook on one of its spastic jumps, but my wife got another chance a few minutes later when a second dolphin crashed the spread. This one didn't get away, and the 25-pound bull was soon thrashing and thumping in the fishbox, destined for the grill at our rental villa that evening.

Saint John Sojourn
Gatcliffe and Nickbarg welcome another hefty dolphin aboard the Avante.

According to Loren and Jonathan, dolphin in the 20- to 30-pound range are a dependable target off St. John throughout the year. The best action occurs along the North Drop from December through early April before shifting to the South Drop-the southern edge of the Virgin Bank that runs ten miles south of St. John-through the summer.

Wahoo are also abundant throughout the Virgin Islands from November through April, with March being prime time. They congregate over seamounts and along the edge of the Virgin Bank, and are suckers for high-speed diving plugs and ballyhoo fished on downriggers or planers. Another good spot to find them is the fish-aggregating device (FAD) installed by the government off the North Drop. This manmade structure holds all kinds of game fish, including the occasional marlin, but can be fished out if pounded daily by commercial boats. We gave the FAD a few passes ourselves, and found it loaded with dolphin. We boated several and were bitten off a few times by what may have been wahoo or barracuda.

Evening Blitz

Saint John Sojourn
Chumming with live pilchards sparks spectacular feeding blitzes with a multitude of species.

As promised, the dolphin action was merely a prelude to the evening tuna blitz, which erupted as the sun dipped close to the horizon. Diving boobies and frigates pointed the way to breaking fish that were gorging themselves on tightly packed schools of baitfish. Once we arrived on the scene, Loren began scattering live pilchards, which immediately disappeared in a barrage of crashing tuna. Any nose-hooked pilchard unlucky enough to find itself lobbed into the midst of the carnage soon vanished in a burst of whitewater.Jonathan and Loren were hoping for yellowfins, which range in size from footballs of ten pounds to 100-pounders, but the tuna turned out to be blackfins in the 15- to 20-pound range. Even so, they proved to be tough little customers, even on the 30-pound gear we were using. When I asked if we should perhaps scale down to lighter tackle, I received an emphatic "no" from both Loren and Jonathan. They explained that sharks can be so numerous on the Drop that they'll devour any tuna not brought to the boat in less than a few minutes. "Sharks are such a problem here that some days we'll maybe land one out of 30 fish," Jonathan lamented.

Indeed, we soon experienced the shark problem firsthand, as several of our fish were plucked from our lines almost as soon as they were hooked. Needless to say, the shark factor rules out any fly-fishing or light-tackle options. "Fly fishing for tuna doesn't work here because of the sharks," Jonathan told us, "but you can have a blast with the mahi and the inshore fish."

With the fishbox loaded and twilight descending, Loren pushed the throttle forward and pointed the Avante toward the lights of St. John and St. Thomas. Back at the dock, eager buyers from the local restaurants would be waiting to buy Loren's fish (he supplies much of the fresh fish dinners consumed by tourists in St. John), but Elizabeth and I had made sure to reserve a few choice fillets for ourselves. As we rocketed home, bathed by the balmy air, it occurred to me that I had finally figured out a way to catch fish on St. John. At last, my squirrelfish days were behind me!

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Charter Boats

Loren Nickbarg is one of the few charter captains on St. John, and an expert at employing the highly effective live-chumming technique. His boat Avante is a 33-foot, custom-outfitted, inboard center console with a 300-hp turbo diesel. A full-day charter runs $750, while a half-day is $400. Loren can arrange combined sightseeing and fishing trips, as well as combo trips to remote beaches. Call him at (340) 779-4281.

Jonathan Gatcliffe is based on nearby St. Thomas and can easily pick up clients on St. John. He also runs a large center console and specializes in live-bait fishing, both offshore and in. Call DoubleHeader Sportfishing at (340) 777-7317.

Capt. Eddy Morrison of the 45-foot Viking Marlin Prince specializes in offshore fishing for marlin, tuna, wahoo and mahi. He is based in St. Thomas, but will pick anglers up in St. John. Call (340) 693-5929.

Capt. Bill McCauley runs a 45-foot Hatteras and specializes in offshore trolling for marlin, tuna, dolphin and wahoo. He can arrange for St. John pickups. Call Prowler Sportfishing at (888) 514-4292.-Tom Richardson

St. John Travel Info

St. John is the least-developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands, due to the fact that a full two-thirds of the island is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. National Park Service. St. John's white-sand beaches are among the most beautiful in the world, and the snorkeling and diving are world-class. As for accommodations, there are numerous rental villas and guest houses, as well as two luxury resorts and campgrounds to choose from. To get to St. John, visitors must fly to St. Thomas (the airport receives direct flights from major East Coast cities) and take a ferry to the island's capital of Cruz Bay. For more information, check out the excellent website http://www.stjohnusvi.com, or call the U.S. Virgin Islands Tourist Board at (212) 332-2222.-Tom Richardson