An epic billfish bite (and great food) dominated the Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament.
Last August, the 53 boats competing in the Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament (VBBT) enjoyed a three-day fishing frenzy. The anglers released almost 200 billfish—a surprising 160 of which were sailfish. All the while Hurricane Bill hung menacingly off the coast creating a solid heave on the ocean. It was a tournament for the history books.
Capt. Walt Spruill, who won his second VBBT aboard Hunter, a 63-foot custom Paul Mann, doesn’t have a complete explanation for the proliferation of sailfish on last year’s leaderboard. He believes, however, the hurricane may have had some hand in bringing on the unbelievable fishing.
“They usually bite real good before a storm,” Spruill says. Jim Bayne, whosits on the board of the VBBT and fishes it every year aboard Sniper, adds that he too was “scratching his head” with regard to the large body of sailfish around. “We usually catch about 30 [sails] a season, let alone in one day,” Bayne tells me. (The following month Virginia Beach-based anglers enjoyed an equally hot white marlin bite, which included some 20-fish days.)
Capt. Len Belcaro, who owns Offshore Satellite Services, a sea-surface temperature company that is often used by anglers to help locate fish, noted that while there was unfavorable (dirty) water at both the Norfolk and Washington canyons where competitors tend to fish, there was clean water between the two with “great dirty water, clean water edges.” The contrasting edges may have led to an increase in bait and, in turn, fish.
Whatever turned the bite on, fishing was still on fire as the tournament entered its final day. While there were a lot of great teams on the board, most had used up all of their available fishing days. Hunter was one of only eight boats able to fish and catch the leaders. Spruill had a plan, too. He decided to run out of Virginia Beach’s Rudee Inlet and fish south by Oregon Inlet. He knew that the southern inlets would be pounded by the hurricane swell and would most likely be closed. This would result in fewer boats fishing in the area. The crew needed six releases to tie the first place team and seven to win the whole deal.
Spruill trolled his boat up to 65 miles offshore in depths ranging from 28 to 32 fathoms. The crew pulled a couple of natural dead-bait dredges and soon found a productive area. They had it all to themselves.
“The [sailfish] were floppin’ and flippin’ on the surface when we got there,” says Spruill. The first one bit after lunch, and then the billfishing floodgate opened. By the end of the day, the team onboard Hunter released eight of the billed ones, enough to take the top spot. The crew’s reward for its hurricane-force effort was a healthy $150,000. (The tournament’s total prize money exceeded $275,000.)
While the 2009 tournament was legendary, what really seems to draw teams back to the VBBT year after year is the way the event is run by tournament director Paula Owen and marketing director Deirdre Bell, both of whom work on it year-round.
“We feel we’ve taken the best [elements] of many tournaments and combined them into one,” says Owen, adding, “I think for the most part, on top of raising money for the local charities and the community, we wanted to put Virginia Beach back on the map as a fishing destination.”
This tourney is not an arduous dawn ‘til dusk competition, either. Lines are in the water at a gentlemanly 8:30 a.m. with lines out at 3:00 p.m. The VBBT also employs a modified-release format allowing a captain, mate, or registered angler to set the hook on a fish and pass the rod off to another registered angler, which helps create a level playing field.
The tournament spans four Rudee Inlet marinas. Owen’s home base is the Fisherman’s Wharf Marina, the venue where she helped organize the Virginia Beach Invitational years back.
Dockage is at a premium during the tournament; unless you’re participating you’re not likely to find any. Shuttle buses run anglers between the participating marinas and the party sites.
As a completely not-for-profit event, the prize payout is 100 percent. The VBBT focuses on delivering an experience that is festive, relaxed, and first-class. Sponsors and auctions help offset the tournament’s cost and allow it to donate to local charities such as the Boys & Girls Club, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), Children’s Workshop, and more. To date, this event has raised more than $400,000 for its partner charities.
Greg Span owns and runs Canyon Express, a 57-foot Bayliss, and while his successful crew fishes hard, to him the VBBT is much more than a competition. He says it’s the “most-organized tournament” he competes in, noting that the entertainment and parties are quite good, too. “The way they do the dinners, the food (from crab legs to shrimp and thick-cut prime rib) it’s amazing,” Span adds. “Fish it once you’re back forever.”
“These guys are our friends and family. We want them to have fun, make lasting memories, and um, eat well,” Bell tells me. Sounds like the VBBT has hit the mark on all three points. But there is a fourth one: Just a few miles offshore from tournament central is an ocean teaming with billfish. That big chance to win could be just one release away.
The Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament (VBBT) will be held at Rudee Inlet August 18-21, 2010. Visit www.vbbt.com for registration information.
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.