Article Reproduced from 2014 Vol. #8 'On The Edge' Magazine
Owner operators are the exception rather than the rule in today's world of charter sportfishing. Yet, this captain-of-your-own-ship spirit is alive and well in St. Thomas, where
Capt. Don Mertens has run the Bluefin and now the Bluefin II since 1982. Mertens, who is as fiercely independent as he is passionate about sportfishing, has chosen his own path and has
not only survived, but has succeeded.
Mertens first fished in the lakes of his home state of Wisconsin at the age of four. He later became a tool and die maker, a profession that took a turn south when he
and wife Carol visited her brother in the Florida Keys. It wasn't long before the couple's annual vacation turned into relocation where Mertens began work as a mate on his brother-in-law's
sportfisher. Two years later, with Captain's license in hand, Mertens purchased a 1948 Wheeler, fixed her up, and became his own boss. It was while running charters out of Marathon that one
of Mertens's mates suggested he take a run down to the U.S. Virgin Islands to check out the marlin fishing. That was 32 years ago.
"Back then there was Johnny Harms' Star Trek,
Butch Gonzales's Golden Rocket, Stormy Petrel and Carib Maid, Tommy Gifford's old charter boat at Harm's marina in Red Hook," Mertens recalls. He goes on to explain, "All the charters came through Harms, and because I was last to arrive, I was fourth in line. When the charters came in they'd be posted on a board at the marina. The charter guests would come down at night and look on the board to see who they were going out with the next morning. We got a lot of trips from Caneel. I remember they always sent their guests with boxed lunches of three pieces of the best fried chicken. They were almost all full day charters. Harms wouldn't book a half-day until the night before."
In the early 1980s, 130 pound test line was widely popular among the Virgin Islands charter fishing fleet; mackeral was the preferred bait; and a few lures were used.
Those who did opt for lures choose big ones like Knuckleheads with double hooks from Hawaii. Mertens himself has seen 3 to 4 grander marlin in VI waters. Sailfish were
more plentiful back then, and it was Mertens who won the last sailfish tournament in the VI. He was also one of the fishing captains equipped with a light-tackle
spinning rod on board, whether he was inshore or offshore fishing. Spinning rods were but just one facet of Mertens' Florida fishing career that he transplanted to the Caribbean.
By 1984, Mertens recognized that he needed a new boat. This he saw clearly every
time he went out and the five bilge pump lights on the leaky Wheeler would go on as the vessel rocked side to side in the swell. Since he didn't have the money to buy a brand new boat,
he decided to build one 'from scratch'. He didn't work from a set of plans, reasoning that by doing so he couldn't make any mistakes, but he did know what he liked. This included a wide boat
that he had so commonly seen back in Florida. Mertens liked the stability in rough seas of a 15-foot beam, as well as the room for three fighting chairs in the stern, and seating for six people
comfortably on the bridge. He built his 44-foot custom 'Mertens' Bluefin II in one and a half years on land across from the Eudora Kean High School in Red Hook. He taught an eager mate how
to fiberglass, and used the lathe of a charter client who owned a jewelry store in downtown Charlotte Amalie.
"We used a crane to put the Bluefin II in the water and I towed it with the old Bluefin around to the Independent Boat Yard," Mertens explains. "Once in the yard, I took the
engines, props, shafts and rudders from the old boat and put them into the new. I remember we were sitting at the Poor Man's Bar with turkey sandwiches and a bottle of Dom when we
finally launched her."
Mertens' enjoyed another milestone a few years later when he replaced his 350 Crusader gas engines with diesels. He traveled as far as Virginia to source his new engines.
The trade up to diesels, Mertens declares, was as momentous a life event as having children.
Children did come into Mertens' life. Daughter Jennifer was born in 1986, followed by son Ryan in 1989. Ryan started fishing with his dad at age four. He completed five or six deliveries
to the U.S. mainland while in high school and earned his captains license. Since then, he has mated for famous captains such as Ray Walters, Billy Borer and Mike Lemon,
and is now mating on a sport fisher out of Costa Rica.
Through the years Mertens has succeeded in all facets of the fishing industry. In addition to the sailfish tournament, he's won the Virgin Islands' Game Fishing Club's July Open
Tournament, and placed second in the USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament. He has fished commercially for grouper, queen snapper, and yellow eye snapper
to supply local restaurants. Most importantly, in a changing business that has seen costs rise and more people checking out potential charters
by SmartPhone than by walking the dock, Mertens has maintained a profitable charter operation. This hasn't been easy without having an angel such as a private investor or an
exclusive hotel concession. Yet, Mertens' independent nature and his hands on ability to do it all, from finding fish and rebuilding his own engines,
to repairing his own electronics and repainting the boat himself, has kept him in business.
Mertens admits he doesn't like taking orders from someone else. However, he does appreciate spending time fishing with his charter guests. He is enthusiastic
as he declares, "There's an excitement in watching someone else's enjoyment!"
Editor's Note: Capt. Don Mertens can be reached Tel. 340-775-6691