From tot, to teen to thirty-something, it’s sport fishing that has created an unbreakable bond through the years between Matthew Raffa and his father, Frank.
“I remember fishing with my father from the time I could walk,” says Matthew Raffa, of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. “We have a fun time fishing together and it’s allowed us to have a great relationship. It’s all about the camaraderie of fishing.”
Originally from South Florida, the two got their start fishing off piers and bridges up and down the east and west coast of the state from Jacksonville to Key West and back up to Pensacola. Bluefish, Spanish mackerel, snook and tarpon were just a few of the species they targeted.
“On Friday nights, we’d say ‘See you Sunday’ to my mom and my father, often my sister, and I would jump in the car and go off fishing. Even after we bought a boat, my sister would still come with us on those weekend trips, even though she got sea sick. She loved to fish too,” says Matthew.
The Raffa’s bought a small boat once Matthew was working and could ante up his share for the vessel.
“We’d fish off South Florida and catch dolphin, wahoo and barracuda,” he says. “We the got into live baiting and went for sailfish and swordfish.”
The tide turned towards blue marlin when Frank visited St. Thomas to work with his father in 1984. The senior Raffa ran a commercial construction business that built some of the first resorts on the island such as Marriott Frenchman’s Reef. Today, Frank and Matthew, who moved permanently to St. Thomas in 1999, continue operating the business, Raffa & Associates. One of their latest projects was construction of Yacht Haven Grande, the island’s first plush megayacht marina.
“My father went out with Capt. Jimmy Loveland when he was running John Cavanaugh’s Freebooter,” says Matthew. “He caught his first marlin with Jimmy. After that, we’d charter a boat and fish St. Thomas each summer. Marlin fishing has been an addiction ever since.”
Summer marlin fishing means trolling using bait and switch, says Matthew. “We’ll drag two baits behind the boat and run out four teasers. The bite is exciting to see. It’s just feet from your eyes. Talk about epic hype.”
Matthew’s best fish story happened one July a few years back when he and his father took a friend from New York, who had never fished before, out for his first blue marlin. “He was hooked up for 3 hours and 45 minutes,” Raffa says. “We estimated the fish was over 600 pounds when it jumped right next to the boat. It shot up on the leader, sky rocketed, mouth open and spitting water. It had a lot more fight left it when we released it than did our friend after the fight.”
The rest of the year, the Raffa’s live bait fish for tuna, dolphin and wahoo.
“Any day is a good day if we’re out fishing. But, its particularly good day is when we’re catching 7 to 9 yellowfin tuna all in the 80 and 90 pound range,” Matthew says, adding, “My father and I fish twice a week at minimum, usually the last 4 to 5 hours of the day after work. Many times we’ll fish three to four days a week. That’s year round.”
The Raffa’s also like to tournament fish.
“I mated in the Boy Scout Tournament (USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament) two years ago,” says Matthew. “Last year, my father and I fished the tournament together for the first time on our own boat, a 40-foot center console, the Silver Fox.”
Silver Fox was the first center console boat to fish the ABMT in the tournament’s history.
The Raffa’s were one of the few anglers to release fish on the tournament’s first day, going one release for two hook-ups. Then, they released one for two on the last day.
“That last day we teased up a 450 to 500 pound blue marlin and fought it for 3 ½ hours,” Matthew says. “It was great.”
Big fish and long fights are a real sport on the Silver Fox.
“It’s all stand-up fishing,” Matthew says. “What’s cool is that we drive forward rather than backing down on a fish. That means standing up on the bow for the fight.”
The Silver Fox is a 40-foot SeaVee twin diesel that took 21 months to custom build in Miami, Florida. It’s a high performance boat built for fishing.
“What’s cool is that its fitted with Volvo Penta IPS system twin 600 HP engines,” he says. “It’ll go 30 mph and burn only 25 gallons an hour.”
The boat also handles well, Matthew says. “Its got a joy stick and you drive it like a video game. What I like is that you can spin it on a dime and chase billfish.”
The Raffa’s also compete in smaller tournaments throughout the year in St. Thomas, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and St. Barths.
Almost as much as fishing themselves, the Raffa’s like taking friends and clients out on the seas in search of game and billfish. “We love to watch their enjoyment, having a great time and grinning from ear to ear. Especially when you get a lot of action. It’s something that many people have only seen in the pages of National Geographic.”