I’ve always heard that the bonefish population in the US Virgin Islands is meager at best. That’s why I was surprised to find the website for Arawak Expeditions, a guiding service in St. John. Arthur Jones agreed to do an interview with me to help me understand exactly what’s on offer on these Yankee bones. Here’s a tip… bring a tarpon rod if you are heading that way.
Arthur, the US Virgin Islands are often held up as an example of what happens when over-netting and over-development collide. You seem to be finding plenty of bonefish. So, what is the state of the fishery?
It may be true that there was netting in the 70’s, but not now. The US Virgin Islands are three distinct islands… there is St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. St. Thomas and St. John are pretty close to each other and St. Croix is about 40 miles south of St. John, which is where I live. My understanding is that back in the 50’s, St. Croix was a bonefishing destination. Ted Williams and some of those guys that used to bonefish a lot in the 50’s would come down to St. Croix and bonefish there. It is my understanding that a big oil refinery came in on St. Croix and put in a big refinery on the South side of the island. This is all my understanding. When that came in, they had to take out mangroves and dredged a lot and that destroyed a lot of the bonefish’s habitat. I’ve never heard anything about netting. I don’t know anyone who nets, I don’t know anyone that eats bonefish like they do sometimes in the Bahamas or other places where people actually eat bonefish.
As far as over-development, there certainly has been a lot of development here. The island that I live on, St. John, 2/3 of the island is National Park, so it has largely escaped most of the development. Since 2/3rds is National Park, that land isn’t developed and will never be developed. The other third will get developed and is very valuable.
What’s the state of the fishery?
There are not tons of bonefish in the US Virgin Islands and there aren’t tons of bonefish in the British Virgin Islands either. We are not a bonefishing destination and I don’t think we ever will be. Anagata, in BVI is a limestone island and it has miles and miles of reefs and flats. It is a bonefishing destination. These islands are volcanic in origin and we don’t have miles and miles of flats. We have little pocket flats and there are bonefish on those flats, but we are not a destination. We have a lot of bonefish, but not like what you’ll see in the Bahamas or Belize or places with extensive flats. We do have big bonefish here compared to some other places. I have fished in Belize and those fish are fairly small, but the fish here are, on average, quite a bit bigger.
The State of the fishery, here on St. John… it is a small island and we don’t have large numbers of bonefish. We have them and we catch them frequently, but it is small enough that you can feel the pressure just from my going out every day with clients. I know for a fact that if I hit the same areas day after day the fish get skittish. If I go to different spots and rotate around and don’t hit the same spots, the fish don’t get skittish.
How many spots do you have to rotate?
I have half a dozen spots on this island and spots on other islands and we also fish for tarpon, so, I have about 15 spots to fish. We also fish for bonefish in the morning and tarpon in the afternoon and that way we can rotate and not put too much pressure on any one flat.
Since you don’t have that bonefish reputation, do you see less pressure, or the fact that it is such a popular vacation destination mean you still see a lot of people on the flats?
You don’t see a lot of people, but you do notice the pressure. I notice pressure just from me being out there. There are only 2-3 spots that the average tourist goes to, if they are fishing on their own. Those spots have more pressure. There is one spot that everyone knows and that gets the most pressure. Everybody knows about the flat at XXXXXX and that is where everyone goes and those fish are kind of skittish.
Do you have a clear remembrance of your first bonefish?
No, I don’t. I wish I did. I do remember the feeling though when that fish first took off. I definitely remember that… that sensation of speed. Being like “Wow… what is this?” I had never experienced anything like that. I don’t remember exactly where it was or when it was, but I do remember that sensation and every time you hook one, you kind of experience that a little bit… that same feeling comes back.
St. John, you have a favorite place to eat, a favorite bar?
My favorite place to eat is probably La Tapa. Great place, Bistro type food. The chef there, Alex, is amazing and she’s also a good person. The food is amazing, the wine is amazing, it is just a great atmosphere. Another is Plum Lines, a little more casual and a great tropical atmosphere.
When you are out on the water, you see things other folks just don’t see. Is there something you’ve seen out there that might surprise folks?
There are always things that you see… this past summer we were fishing this flat and in the summer the sharks come onto the flat to mate and we came upon these sharks doing it. They were getting it on. These were 5-6 foot long sharks and they were flopping around. Stuff like that, you see all the time.
What rod and reel are you throwing?
My favorite rod is my Sage Xi2, but I have a Sage RPLx that I’ve had for almost 20 years and I love that rod and I still use it regularly. Those are two favorites. As far as reels go. I do have a Tibor that I like a lot, but I’m not that big of a gear-head. I have an old Fin Nor that I’ve had for 17-18 years and I still use it every day.
Since you have a different crew than the guys that show up at Andros for a week and might not have their bonefishing game as honed, what is something you see in clients that they need to work on to get more from their experience?
Most of my clients book before they get here and they tell me they are a trout fisherman from where ever and they have never saltwater fished but they don’t realize that trout fishing in their local stream and fishing in the salt with the winds and fishing from a boat and having to cast longer distances fairly accurately, they aren’t prepared. My thing, and I tell people this, is they need to practice, practice, practice before they get here. Once they get here, to spend time practicing here… they are paying me a lot of money and it doesn’t make sense. Take the time at home, practice your double-haul and then come down and you’ll have a much more enjoyable experience.
You mentioned you have tarpon around. What’s the tarpon fishery like? Do you have babies, migrating adults? What’s it like?
It is more the juveniles. There are some migrating adults, but we don have babies and juveniles year round. I’d say 30-50 pounds is average for what we get around here. That is a great sized fish. For people that have never caught a tarpon… it blows their socks off. I think we have a great tarpon fishery here. It is probably better than our bonefishery and it is, for lack of a better word, untouched. People don’t come here to go tarpon fishing, but we have tons of tarpon.
Thanks Arthur. If I make it to the USVI, I’ll be looking you up and I’ll be packing a rod for tarpon.
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