By Steve Dougherty
Encompassing two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic is the Caribbean’s greatest escape and currently the best place in the world to catch a blue marlin. Renowned worldwide for premium cigars and major league talent, the D.R. attracts adventurous owners and captains searching for outstanding fishing amid magical settings accommodating both tournament teams and families that fish together.
Dreaming of post-lockdown travel? Perfectly positioned on a major passageway connecting the expansive Atlantic Ocean and fertile Caribbean Sea, currents converge within the Mona Passage, trade winds blow and game fish swarm around one of the most expansive coastlines in all of the Caribbean. However, for many years traveling sportfish operations from the states passed by en route to Puerto Rico or St. Thomas. The North Drop was the epicenter of Atlantic blue marlin fishing for boats traveling on their own bottom from the Eastern Seaboard for quite some time. Because the North Drop is actually in the British Virgin Islands, game boats based out of St. Thomas have since migrated elsewhere given the current lack of access to the famed waters. The same deep trench stretches all the way to Puerto Rico where anglers tuck into the harbor at Club Náutico de San Juan, the island’s top destination for serious sportfishing crews. However, there are traveling sportsmen who visit the D.R. and never leave and those who leave wanting more. One visit and you’ll be magically lost in a moment of discovery.
While some of the favored destinations on our itineraries often feature less than stunning infrastructure and quite possibly little to no shoreside services or amenities, the Dominican Republic has two of the most spectacular marinas in the entire Caribbean. On the easternmost tip of the island is Punta Cana and the stunning Coconut Coast. It is here where you will find the main resort district and the plush Cap Cana compound carved out of the limestone cliffs. A mere 12 minutes from the Punta Cana International Airport, Cap Cana is an ambitious real estate and tourist destination with the goal of becoming the most exotic and extravagant development in the entire Caribbean.
With seven hotels, 28 exclusive residential communities, golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, outstanding restaurants, spa facilities, equestrian center and a full-service marina with more than 150 slips, Cap Cana truly has it all. And, it’s not that far from home—only about 900 miles from south Florida. You can fly to the DR in 2 ½ hours from Miami, so it’s only a half day spent traveling. If you really fall in love with the community and want to call Cap Cana home, there are medical and health services, as well as bilingual elementary and undergraduate education programs.
Fish aggregating devices (FADs) have been a hot topic in recent years and subject to some negative press, but the flourishing fishery began with native fishermen out of Boca Chica that maintained outposts in Cabeza de Toro just north of Punta Cana, where the majority of the blue marlin fishing occurs today. “The old school Puerto Rican contingent have also been fishing those waters for decades. Guys like Agie Vicente out of Club Náutico de San Juan and Papo Alemañy of Mayagüez. The Dominicans and Puerto Ricans congregate every year at Cabeza de Toro for their annual marlin tournaments that have been taking place for more than 40 years. Then there were guys like Ken Ross, Cujo Brinkmeyer, Flash Clark and Norm Isaacs that started fishing Punta Cana back in the late 80s early 90s. This was during the onset of the televised Billfishing Xtreme Release League tournaments based out of the Punta Cana Resort, long before Cap Cana broke ground,” says Andy New, previous Marina Manager at Cap Cana.
Stories from old salts echoed sentiments of bigger blue marlin back in the day, and now the bite is centered around smaller blues fooled with light tackle outfits. “When I arrived at Cap Cana in 2008, my goal was to develop the marina as a premier billfish destination. We brought in guys like Jose Wejebe, John Brownlee, Bill Boyce, Charlie Levine, Dave Ferrell, Enrico Capozzi, and Rick Alvarez who moved his Shootout tournament from La Guairá, Venezuela to Cap Cana. We were doing 10 or more tournaments a season. The economy had just tanked in the U.S. and two years later there was a waiting list for a slip,” says New.
Nearly 10 years ago I visited the Dominican Republic on one of my first international assignments as an editor and the experience enlightened me to the legendary fishery. As we arrived at Marina Cap Cana, angler Enrico Capozzi and Capt. Bubba Carter, Stacey Parkerson and the world record hunting crew of Spirit of Pilar had just caught a white marlin on 6 lb. tippet. Since, there have been many significant catches recorded. Perhaps the most enlightening catch luring sportfish crews from far and wide occurred in 2016. It was mid-December when Capt. Miguel Tirado aboard Puerto Rico-based Blue Bird set a new mark for the most Atlantic blue marlin releases in a day with 23 flags flying high. While some boats fishing out of Cap Cana have come close—Marlin Darlin had an 18 fish day in 2020—that record still holds strong. Today, guys like Tim Richardson, Mark Pagano, James Barnes, Neil Orange, Josie Gonzalvo, Paco Vela and others keep the D.R. on the map, and the marina does an excellent job at procuring accurate fishing reports every day that boats leave the protected harbor. Even with the Covid lockdown shuttering the marina during April, May and June, Cap Cana reported 1,837 blue marlin releases over the course of 264 fishing days in 2020.
The momentum that was started at Punta Cana has drifted southwest to the exclusive and special destination of Marina Casa de Campo in La Romana. It’s only about a 50-minute drive from either the Santo Domingo or Punta Cana airports, but Casa de Campo has its own charter services and private runway, located just five minutes from the marina. This sportfish sanctuary provides one of the most tranquil settings in the Caribbean and is home to the most prestigious and luxurious marina waterfronts in the region. Ensconced with a massive breakwater and yacht club with architecture inspired by seaside villages of the Mediterranean, Casa de Campo’s marina community has the absolute finest selection of shoreside attractions including a quaint collection of cafes, restaurants and shops. The marina itself exudes elegance and provides sportfish and superyacht crews with over 350 slips, single and three-phase power supply, two fuel stations and a shipyard with a travel lift for vessels up to 120 tons.
Accommodations cover the full range of luxury; from rental villas equipped with private butler and pool, to the newly renovated and beautifully appointed hotel rooms and suites. While we like to think blue marlin are the main draw, the Dominican Republic is the number one golf destination in the Caribbean and Casa de Campo has three world-class courses designed by Pete Dye. Teeth of the Dog, which is recognized annually as the best course in the Caribbean and one of the top 50 golf courses in the world, has some of the most well-manicured and picturesque oceanfront holes that exist. With signature Dye peninsula greens and tees, and seemingly never-ending trade winds, this is a tricky course and part of its worldly draw. If you aren’t fond of chasing a white ball, there’s also a 245-acre shooting center for travel, skeet and sporting clays that accommodates both novice and advanced shooters. Then there’s the equestrian center, tennis and polo facilities. Truthfully, I do not know of anywhere else in the world where you could partake in so many different activities and at such a high standard. As fishermen we rarely stray beyond the marina, but that really is just a tiny aspect of all that’s to offer at the Caribbean’s best all-inclusive.
At both Cap Cana and Marina Casa de Campo, captains have seen a dramatic shift in the fishery over the years. It started largely as a white marlin destination and can now be argued that no place on earth provides a more consistent blue marlin bite. Traditionally, boats would visit Marina Casa de Campo from February through April, then head north to Cap Cana to fish until the fall while keeping a close eye on developing weather patterns in the tropics. Traveling boats usually pack up after the last moon phase in October, however this year the bite off Punta Cana was uninterrupted, further proving to the island’s year-round angling opportunities. On the second day of 2021, Da Bait with Capt. Neil Orange at the helm went 7 for 8 on blue marlin. On January 10, Rainmaker was 14 for 16. In recent news, Bandolera had a grand slam at Marina Casa De Campo on February 4, releasing 6 blue marlin, a spearfish and sailfish. Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason and despite a lack of moon, current or bait, you can still experience great fishing.
Surprisingly, the bite at the two marina resorts can be dramatically different, although with newfound attention from the best-of-the-best sportfishing crews it’s coming to be known that the fishing seasons are actually longer and more productive than originally thought. From either marina, the run is not far to the FADs, generally 15 to 30 miles. Here, man-made assemblies of plastic jugs and styrofoam insulation are banded together with scrap seine netting and palm fronds, then strategically tethered to the seafloor in efforts to increase catch rates and exploit the natural behavior of pelagic game fish and their close association to floating structures.
In recent years the numbers of FADs have increased substantially with no control of their proliferation, as the local demand for seafood is high, as is consumption per capita. Despite the clear advantages provided by FADs in the context of recreational sportfishing, there is also the argument that they can have negative effects on billfish conservation and stock analysis because they attract fish and result in catch rates that are not true representatives of the entire fishery. However, FADs bring forth several important benefits to destinations that rely on tourism and activities like recreational sportfishing to fuel local economies. Tensions were once high between artisanal fishermen and traveling anglers aboard glistening yachts, but most of the fishermen are friendly and respectable, but that’s because they are shown respect, with U.S. captains knowing the FADs undoubtedly contribute to banner blue marlin fishing.
For enthusiastic anglers with a taste for travel, there are a number of exotic destinations worth exploring. World-class fisheries complement these breathtaking locales, where mere words and photos alone cannot paint an accurate picture. The Dominican Republic’s east coast is one such sportfishing paradise that leaves visiting fishermen thirsty for more. The days of daydreaming are over and as for mustering up motivation, the 2020 fishing season was the best on record. The bite is clearly on and as of press date with the mandated testing requirement in effect for U.S.-bound international arrivals, both Marina Casa de Campo and Cap Cana are offering guests private antigen and PCR testing on-site. Catch you on the dock!
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