Des Westmore kills two birds with one rock by building fishing time into the family holiday to Antigua. The trip was competitively priced, provided stunning locations, arm-arching action and a clutch of priceless memories.
The continuing UK economic shambles has spellt a rough ride for many people, with those fortunate enough to keep their jobs still juggling finances to keep heads above water. From a personal perspective, there no new car in the offing and the house isn’t getting re-decorated any time soon, but the annual family holiday is ring-fenced as essential. I have always tried to work some fishing time into the holiday itinerary, not because I am obsessed, but simply because, like many people, I cannot justify a dedicated far-flung fishing jaunt at the expense of the sacrosanct family holiday.
Competitively priced all-inclusive deals have meant our last two holidays were in the Caribbean. Previously, I had come back from the likes of the States with some hefty credit card bills, mostly from dining out, and choosing an all-inclusive package takes the guesswork out of pre-trip budgeting. So back in November of last year we made a decision and travelled to Antigua, one of the islands that collectively make up the Leeward Islands, which form part of the West Indies.
I plotted my fishing ahead of arrival using the Internet and by making good contact with staff at our hotel. The main ports on Antigua are English Harbour and its neighbour, Falmouth Harbour, situated at the southern end of the island. Most of the serious fishing on offer operates out of here, though there are smaller, more casual operators dotted around the many tourist beaches.
Our first trip afloat was with ‘Obsession Sportfishing’ on a tide that owner and Captain Derek Biel had recommended. Obsession is a 45ft Hatteras Convertible with Twin Detroit-Diesels that’s moored in the Catamaran Marina in Falmouth Harbour. Derek also showed us his new 55ft Hatteras ‘Double Header’ which will be ready for the 2011 season. This beast is equipped for long-range fishing and will offer fishing charters to Antigua’s sister island of Barbuda, and extended trips to the islands of St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat. Wahoo would be the target fish in this instance, but as is often the way, you never really know what might turn up. Visiting anglers can bring their own gear but Derek keeps everything needed on board, including custom-made rods and reels by Penn and Alutecnos.
With a coastline circumnavigating 54 miles Antigua cannot be described as a large island. In fact it’s not that different to the Isle of Wight, where I live. We stayed on the western side of the island and it was an easy taxi ride to the boat. We had booked an all-day (eight hour) trip with a start time of 07.00. This gave us the chance to appreciate the Antigua’s early morning beauty… at least that’s how I sold it to the family when the alarm went off in our room at 05.30.
Obsession headed due south towards a bank that rises up from a depth of 800ft to a height of 350ft below surface, where we would concentrate on wahoo, but we trolled baits en route for billfish or tuna. Captain Derek employs a mate also named Derek who quickly set up four trolling outfits for the trip out. All were based around Alutecnos 30W 2-speed reels; three of which were spooled with mono topped off with wind-on leaders. The remaining reel was filled with single-strand wire line and the rod incorporated a clever, swivelling tip roller that always points in the direction of the line, even if the butt is in a gimble.
Breath of Fresh Air
Mate Derek informed me that wahoo can favour a deep bait and the rod rigged with wire line is often the one that scores the most hook-ups… knowing words as it would turn out. Most of the lures were baited with ballyhoo, a long-nosed (half-beak) baitfish. These were stored pre-rigged on wire traces in a chest freezer in Obsession’s main saloon. When needed, the complete trace was slow-thawed on ice before being clipped to the leader. Another trace would then be retrieved from the freezer to begin thawing. This baiting cycle was efficient and meant downtime when re-baiting was at a minimum. Like most UK anglers, I normally nip into the cabin/saloon to warm up on a charter trip. It is therefore, a bit of a shock when you walk into the air-conditioned cabin and find it refreshingly cooler than the deck.
At the bank, our first hit wasn’t long in coming. Unfortunately, despite both the Derek’s doing everything they could, the fish made a clean getaway. Wahoo are incredibly fast fish that can swim up to 50 mph, so the take is usually pretty spectacular. We were soon underway again and didn’t have to wait long for the next run. Mate Derek set the hook and indicated for me to sit in the chair and take over. Skipper Derek reduced throttle and line was spilled off the reel at an alarming rate. As I took the rod and placed it in the chair’s gimble, I let the line touch my forearm and was rewarded with a painful burn from whizzing mono… a mistake I wouldn’t quickly repeat.
Eventually the run stopped and I dragged some line back. Obsession’s fighting chair helped because I didn’t have to work to keep balance in the swell coming in from the Atlantic, while the slotted gimble helped to control the wide-spooled reel. But we weren’t using any form of harness, therefore any decent fish was free to punish your arms and back muscles as it saw fit… and did. For those new to this style of fishing, it is not so much the strength of the fish that surprises but the powering speed. UK sea anglers just do not get to experience this and it is staggering and addictive. Eventually I got the wahoo to the side of the boat and Captain Derek went to work with the gaff as this fish was destined for the table.
Wahoo have some serious dentistry: what seems like hundreds of small razor-sharp teeth are bad enough, but the frightening part is the way the jaws actually scissor past each other like a battery of gruesome guillotines. Half a dozen blows with a heavy priest and then straight into the icebox was the order of events. Trophy photographs are much safer when the fish is dead, and I felt less of a fraud in my IGFA shirt
My daughter Bronwyn and I had decided to take the fishing it in turns. Bronwyn took the chair and took charge of the next run. The fish fought completely differently and she made short work of it once she came to terms with the unfamiliar gear. It was a barracuda, which was quickly unhooked and returned. Barracuda are not popular table fare because they can contain a high level of toxins caused by pollution. As I understand it, the same trouble can occur in mackerel, snapper and grouper.
The next fish was another wahoo that came to the deep-trolled wire line and I took my turn in the fighting chair. The fish’s strength and power were further amplified by the zero-stretch of the wire before it hit the deck boards. Bronwyn took the next unruly fish, which crossed a couple of other lines. The twin Dereks worked quickly to prevent some serious knitting occurring. Strangely, the fish then became subdued decided to come to the boat offering little resistance. I was wondering at this uncharacteristic behaviour when, in a breath, it turned and blasted towards horizon at ballistic speed. Bronwyn confidently took this in her stride, as Captain and mate monitored proceedings. Bronwyn eventually prevailed and what was definitely the longest wahoo of the day was brought into the boat.
Sport remained good for the rest of the day. We boated a total of nine good wahoo and missed double that number. Back at the marina we posed with our catch, which was then filleted ready for cooking. The remaining fish waste was thrown to some massive tarpon that hang around the dock that have become largely reliant on scraps from the fishing boats. It was a great day on the ocean that I thoroughly recommend. I would love to go back and try the same fishing with a stand-up outfit… just to make it even more interesting. Visit www.charternet.com for more information.
Beaches, Bays and Blue Waters
The waters surrounding Antigua are uniformly shallow with plenty of structure and reefs. Combine that with a coastline comprising many inlets, headlands and a reputed 365 beaches and there is a wealth of inshore, offshore and blue water fishing opportunities to explore. Inshore angling is my bag and I was keen to sample what kind of ‘Skinny water’ fishing was on offer.
I contacted Skipper Frank Hart whose business is based at English Harbour, in the part known as Nelson’s Historic Dockyard. Frank covers all the bases with two boats. A 40ft sport fishing boat named ‘Overdraft’ covers the offshore fishing, while ‘H2O’, a 26ft ProKat, is utilised for the inshore work. H20 can fish out deep but where she excels is searching out the inlets and lagoons around Antigua.
A few days later we stood on the quay at English Harbour, very possibly the most picturesque harbour setting that I have ever visited. Our trip to the fishing ground was only ten minutes distant at a leisurely sightseeing pace. Our destination was a sheltered rocky bay, protected by a curving headland crowned with a huge house owned by Eric Clapton. My preference is for shallow inshore fishing, but this is most vulnerable to the weather. I am not just talking wind but also other variables such as air pressure and like cold fronts also impact negatively. In Antigua’s case it’s rain that is a sport killer. There had been some heavy overnight rain, and the run-off had turned the water in the lagoon a dirty brown colour. Frank had warned me of this when I phoned the night before and suggested switching to offshore fishing, but I was happy to risk the dirty water.
Our first task was to catch some sprats for bait. This was accomplished with a cast-net that had to be thrown blind due to the coloured water. We knew there were plenty of fish there though as the pelicans were finding them easily enough. A couple of expert throws from Frank soon captured enough bait which my wife Marilyn and Bronwyn helped retrieve and sort.
We hoped for a juvenile tarpon or jack and free-lining sprats is the best technique. Usually this would be accomplished by sight fishing, but the murky water forced us to perform this blind as well. We drifted around the bay towards the mangroves. Every now and then tarpon betrayed themselves by ‘tailing’ and we knew there was a good chance of catching. Frank decided to position us outside the bay and to drift in towards the fish. Marilyn and Bronwyn were using mono fixed spool outfits provided by Frank, while I used Snowbee Travel spinning rod and an Abu Soron 40 fixed spool with 15lb braid.
Line started peeling off Marilyn’s open baled reel. Flicking the reel into gear set the hook, and she casually reeled in a lively jack, which proceeded to dig its spine into my wife’s hand. Bronwyn quickly followed with a slightly bigger, more colourful jack. The lack of lead weight meant these jacks could give a proper sporting account of themselves.
Things had gone quiet when just Bronwyn made to reel in, line started tearing off the reel and a silver shape jumped a full 4 feet clear of the water – tarpon on! What followed was a tremendous fight that towed Bronwyn all round the boat. Bronwyn exercised disciplined hands and did a great job of ushering the tarpon to the side of the boat. But then, the water erupted in explosion of spray and the fish shucked the hook. At around 15lb it wasn’t huge. Bronwyn was disappointed but reassured when Frank explained that she had done everything right during the fight. His only advice was to be a bit more aggressive at the start and set the hook much harder because a tarpon’s mouth is hard and the hook has to bed in early.
More jacks followed for Marilyn and Bronwyn and they were starting to get bigger. Bronwyn pointed out that I had not caught a fish just as my sprat panicked and line peeled off the little reel. I set the hook hard and the Snowbee rod took on a reassuring bend as a lively jack showed its mettle. If you like black bream fishing then you will love fishing for jacks. Like our bream, they scrap hard all the way to the net, but they also tear away on long runs against a well set drag. My first fish was only about 1 1/2lb and provided just as much fun as the earlier wahoo on the light gear. Unfortunately there were no more tarpon encounters, but after plenty more jack action we headed back to port around midday.
On the way back we trolled a couple of sprat baits as we headed past Mr Clapton’s house and spectacular cliffs known as the Pillars of Hercules. I spoke with Frank about the diversity of fishing on offer in Antigua. The long and short of it is there’s plenty to target and sport is all year round. April is a top month and ideal time for visiting UK anglers given that boat angling at home is indifferent at this time. Click www.antiguafishing.com for more detailed information.
Returning to Nelson’s Historic Dockyard we were once again treated to the sight of some massive tarpon that made short work of our leftover bait. The building of Antigua Naval Yard at English Harbour was undertaken in 1725 and was abandoned by the navy in 1889. The Admiralty released it to the Colonial Government in 1906. Restoration began in 1951 and it became known as Nelson’s Dockyard in honour of Admiral Horatio Nelson who had served as a Captain in the Leeward Islands from 1784-87. We decided to wander around the historic dock and came upon the studio of local woodcarver Carl A. Henry. His fish carvings are superb and incredibly detailed. We bought a carved tarpon in honour of Bronwyn’s fish.
This was a great trip to Antigua and I have no hesitation in recommending either Captain Hart or Captain Biel. We stayed at the Halcyon Cove operated by Rex Resorts. Rex offer solid value for money in a part of the world where there is seemingly no upper price limit on luxury accommodation. Some of the rooms at the Halcyon Cove were a bit tired in appearance but a refurbishment program is underway. The staff and food were excellent, and restaurant dining on the hotel pier while watching huge snook swam past was a magical way to end any day. The all-inclusive plan was brilliant for budgeting and the bar staff serve a great Margarita.
The entire trip was booked through Virgin Holidays as they came out best in price this time, but I have used Thompson & Expedia for Caribbean travel before. Both Virgin and Thompson have in-resort reps, while Expedia is more DIY. Virgin offer a concierge service where they contact you before travelling to advise of special offer trips with pre-booking opportunities. Frank Hart’s angling trips can be reserved using by this service. More information can be found at www.virginholidays.co.uk and for more on the hotel go to www.rexresorts.com
One final must-do activity in Antigua is swimming with the stingray at ‘Stingray City’. Boats take visitors to an offshore reef where they get the chance to swim with and feed stingray in open water. Some of these wild fish are huge. Check out www.stingraycityantigua.com