LOS SUENOS, Costa Rica — Under normal conditions, catching one marlin per day wouldn’t be news in this part of the Pacific Ocean renowned for its billfishing. But that proved to be a winning formula for Davis Clapp after fishing suddenly got tough under a December full moon during the World Billfish Series Grand Championships.
“They were little rats, 150 pounds maybe, nothing big,” Clapp said about the three blue marlin he caught during the three-day tournament. “I got lucky I didn’t find a 400-pounder.”
It’s points – 400 for each marlin, 100 for each sailfish – not pounds, that produce the winner in WBS events, and timing can mean everything. After two days the 28-angler field was cut to the top five point-scorers for the Dec. 10 final. Clapp and Brooks Smith each scored 400 points with a marlin, but Clapp’s blue marlin release came at 12:30 p.m. – 67 minutes before Smith’s striped marlin release – earning him the title in a tiebreaker.
Clapp has learned the importance of consistency during his 18 years of saltwater tournament fishing.
“There’s a saying in marlin fishing: don’t be surprised,” said Clapp. “It’s a simple saying, but it really means a lot. It means don’t get surprised when the fish shows up.
“I’ve had a lot practice. Up until a couple of years ago, I was fishing 14 or 15 tournaments a year. Consistency and having a high percentage, that’s how you win tournaments.”
As for Clapp calling himself “lucky” for not hooking a 400-pounder, again, it’s about points, not pounds. Obviously, it doesn’t help your chances if you spend hours battling a big fish during one of these catch-and-release events.
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“I hooked one a couple of years ago in the Boy Scout tournament (in St. Thomas) that weighed between 700 and 800 pounds,” Clapp said. “That’s a really bad fish to catch. I fought it for two-and-a-half hours. That’s not what you want in a tournament.”
Clapp, 49, a Seattle native now living in West Palm Beach, Fla., won aboard Tijereta captained by Bubba Carter. In order to make the victory official, Clapp and Carpenter needed an assist from runner-up Smith and the crew of Uno Mas Bayliss.
“Bubba’s boat broke down,” Smith said. “We were probably about 12 miles ahead of them when they called us on the radio. We turned around and got their scorecard.”
Tijereta wasn’t going to make it back to the Los Suenos Marina in time to meet the deadline for turning in scorecards, so Smith and Uno Mas Bayliss did it for them, a gesture of sportsmanship not uncommon in these events.
“We caught what we saw, that was the good news,” Smith said about his performance in Saturday’s final. “We got one bite and caught a striped marlin.”
The bite was definitely off all week. Smith noted that 17 boats caught 80 billfish in one day of a tournament last week. The total for the WBS championship was 51 billfish over three days – 10 marlin and 41 sailfish.
“The conditions worsened that much in just a week,” said Smith, 55, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “For the last week we’ve had a really hard southeast current, and it just pumps in the green water. The fishing has just been hit or miss since then.”
That made for some low scores but also created some tight competition.
“All five guys had a chance to win until lines were out (at 3 p.m.),” said WBS president Jim Simons after Saturday’s final. “Up until the last minute, one fish could have changed everything.”
No one pushed the 3 p.m. daily deadline more than Chris Domel of Spicewood, Texas, on Friday. He qualified for the final when he hooked a marlin with three minutes left on the clock. In doing so, he bumped defending champion Gerard Aliseo out of Saturday’s final.
“We had a two-out, two-strike ninth-inning home run,” said Simons of Domel’s last-minute heroics. “In the last hour, 24 of the 28 anglers had an opportunity to be in the top five. That’s how close it was. You can’t ask for better than that.”
Domel admitted he thought his day was going to end in disappointment. He and Aliseo were tied with 400 points at the time, but Aliseo would have won the tiebreaker based on the time of his catch.
“I was done,” Domel said. “I thought it was pretty much over. I knew I needed another fish. I had a sailfish on earlier and it broke off 20 feet from the boat.”
Domel’s outlook changed when he saw the dorsal fin of a blue marlin break the surface behind a teaser line. Executing a “bait and switch,” Domel pitched a ballyhoo behind the teaser and enticed a strike.
“It was about 300 or 400 pounds,” Domel said. “It was a good fish. He screamed off about 150 yards. We got him really close, then he took off again.”
Points from the first two days didn’t carry over to the final, when Domel would finish fifth with two sailfish, worth 200 points. Matt Traber of Cape May, N.J., and Dwight Wolf of Newport News, Va., were the other two finalists. Each caught three sailfish, and Wolf won the tiebreaker.
Domel finished third in last year’s WBS championship, when both he and his father, Gary, qualified for the finals. To add some perspective on how tough fishing was in this year’s event, Domel had 1,600 points to lead that field after two days last year, and Aliseo scored 1,100 points in the final to win it.
“We try to have it where the fish are,” said Simons, in noting this was the sixth straight year for the WBS championship at Los Suenos Resort and Marina. The year-ending event was the culmination of 50 qualifying tournaments held around the world with more than 10,000 anglers participating, according to Simons.
And it should be noted that tough fishing here would qualify as extraordinary in most places. Wolf, aboard Dragin Fly, vaulted into Saturday’s final with 900 points Friday after zeroing Thursday. He recorded a billfish grand slam that day with a striped marlin, a blue marlin and a sailfish.
“It’s the slowest fishing has ever been here in this tournament,” Wolf said. “But it’s still world class fishing at a world class resort with world class fishermen.”