68th San Juan International Billfish Tournament
August 17-22, 2021
Story by: Art McDonald
Well, the 68th San Juan International Billfish Tournament is in the books – and what a great time was had by all. 14 IGFTO Observers (Mark Tobias, Walter Rowan, Derwood Roberts, Marvin Badler, Ron Teke, Ed Hails, Pat Moore, Greg Moore, Barbara Evans, Mike McCorkel, Karen Nix, Ollie Bass, Rick Wesley, and Yours Truly) participated in the Tournament which included fifty-two boats that released a total of 64 Billfish – 63 Blue Marlin and a single White Marlin.
A little history: The International Billfish Tournament (“IBT”), at 68 years, is the oldest, continually running, salt water big game fishing tournament on the planet – a fact the sponsors at Club Nautico take very seriously. The past 4 years have been trying, indeed, with the killer hurricane of 2017 (Category 5 Maria) having a direct hit on San Juan, to the COVID-19 problems of 2019, 2020 & 2021. Each year, in between, the Tournament had to change dates several times, but persevered allowing the Tournament to proceed so as not to break the chain. Marlin Magazine touts the IBT as one of the top ten saltwater tournaments in the world! This year was a little different, as it had been planned a year in advance with dates intact – even with strict COVID-19 protocols. The IBT differs from many as it is a team, and international tournament with anglers from several countries participating. In earlier years teams would fish with 4 team-members, one of whom would float daily to a different boat than with his teammates and represent his/her team on those different boats. Anglers would rotate rod positions every hour thereby assuring each angler equal opportunity at the desired pitch-bait position. In essence, the rotating angler functioned as a de facto Observer. Over the years several boat owners disliked the idea of breaking up their team, which promulgated a rule change to allow boats the opportunity of fishing with all of their teammates – provided a seasoned, experienced observer was aboard. It was at this point that the IGFTO became involved. Teams were permitted to fish together, provided an IGFTO Observer was assigned to that particular boat.
The Tournament: IGFTO members got together at the registration party on the evening of August 17th, mingled together and with anglers & crews of the 52 boats and enjoyed the surroundings. The following day Observers attended the mandatory rules meeting which emphasized IGFA Rules and rules specific to the tournament (hourly rotation of anglers, bait position relative to teaser placement, pitch baiting protocols, etc.) This was followed by The Formal International Flag Ceremony followed identifying the participating countries with yours truly, chosen to represent the United States – quite an honor! It was at this ceremony that news was released that the San Juan International Billfish Tournament would join as a participant in the Sport Fishing Championship International Offshore Series in 2021. This will be an 11-event competition series that will award one grand champion in the sport of offshore fishing. The San Juan IBT will be the concluding tournament in 2022 which will include such prestigious tournaments as The Louisiana Gulf Coasty Billfish Classic (Venice, LA), Club Nautico de Santo Domingo White Marlin Tournament (Punta Cana, DR), Gulf Coast Masters (Orange Beach, AL), Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic (Miramar Beach, FL), Charleston Offshore Classic (Charleston, SC), Texas International Fishing Tournament (South Padre Island, TX) Oak Bluffs Bluewater Classic (Martha’s Vineyard, MA), Pirates Cove Billfish Tournament (Manteo, NC) among others. Think the NASCAR circuit with an overall champion decided at the last event – which, in this case will be the San Juan IBT – certainly encouraging more anglers to fish next year.
Expectations were in full bloom at 5:30 AM on the morning of August 19th – the first day of fishing. This was the day where the world famous “San Juan Bimini Start” takes place with the backdrop of Castillo San Felipe del Morro – AKA “El Morro” – the magnificent fortress built by the Spanish between the 16th and 18th centuries to guard the entrance to the Port. Picture 52 sport fishing boats waiting for the magic countdown at 8:00 AM to hit the throttles in search of the motherload of Blue Marlin – a spectacular site to see. With lines in the water at 8:00 AM it didn’t take long for Alberto Serra to hook up on the Reel Affair with a subsequent release of a blue marlin at 8:32 – and so the Tournament was off to a roaring start. For the rest of Day 1 and the subsequent 2 days many fish were hooked, some were lost and a total of 63 blue marlin were released along with 1 white marlin. When the smoke cleared on Day 3, the 54’ Hatteras, First Class, with 4 releases claimed first place, followed by Pasion (61’ Viking) with 3 releases, and Pink Lady (40’ Cabo) taking third place. A total of 38 boats released at least one fish!
A gala awards banquet followed with presentations galore. Sadly, at the end of the evening it was time to call it a Tournament with all observers leaving the following day. Old friendships were renewed, and new friendships were initiated. A special thanks go to Roger Casellas, the IBT Tournament Director who has persevered over the past couple of years with tremendous obstacles thrown before him with this dreaded virus – and Roger always overcame every one of them. Also, a tip of the hat to Ricky Jaen and Ricky LaFranc on the Tournament and Rules Committee for their confidence in the IGFTO Observer program – we are proud to be associated with such a wonderful Tournament. Of course, let’s not forget the members of IGFTO who, not only traveled a significant distance to participate in this event, but in some cases sacrificed their bodies when Father Neptune decided to greet us with 8-10’ seas 2 of the 3 mornings. Thankfully, they settled down as the days wore on. If you haven’t participated in this Tournament, look for the Call for Observers early next Summer – you don’t want to miss it!