Bruce Martin Legendary Gamefisherman

Bruce Martin Legendary Gamefisherman

Bruce Martin, one of the country’s most successful game fishing skippers, has operated his charterboat Predator in the Far North. Sam Mossman outlines his career. 

Bruce Martin is best known as one of the pioneering skippers of the modern era, developing and fine-tuning techniques and tackle for marlin fishing with lures, light and ultra-light line, and saltwater fly.

He was born at Ardmore, south of Auckland, just after the end of the Second World War. His dad was a dairy farmer, and as a young bloke Bruce spent a lot of time milking cows.

In 1971 he and his new bride Ann bought a farm near Kaikohe and moved to Northland. By this stage Bruce was heartily sick of milking, so the couple developed the block to fatten steers and then bulls for beef. Bruce and Ann are hard workers as well as perfectionists, which resulted in Bruce becoming a finalist in the ‘Young Farmer of the Year’ contest.

Bruce came from a non-fishing family and attributes the development of his interest in fishing to seeing the 1958 Academy Award-winning movie of Hemingway’s book The Old Man and the Sea when he was a young bloke.

In the Far North fishing is a way of life. Bruce said that upon joining the Kaikohe Lions Club after his move north, he found a great many members were very keen fishermen and that a lot of the talk at club meetings was of fishing. So in 1983 Bruce and Ann bought their first boat, a now-classic 14’6” Sea Nymph that was used to take their young family snapper fishing in the nearby Bay of Islands.

This boat was followed by a partnership with his friend JB (John Bell) in a 9.75m Vindex. Their early game fishing was done in the traditional manner with kahawai skip-baits and was quite successful, leading to the capture of decent numbers of striped marlin and a 180kg black.

Indirectly, this led Bruce and Ann down an entirely different path. In 1988, teams from the Bay of Islands Swordfish Club were invited to Sydney to fish in a commemorative tournament during Australia’s Bicentenary. The junior team was made up from young anglers who had caught at least two marlin for the season. Having caught three billfish, Bruce and Ann’s son Andrew was more than qualified, and Bruce went along to Australia as one of the chaperones. Held by the Sydney Game Fishing Club out of Watsons Bay, the tournament was an eye-opener for Bruce.

“Big, high-tech, high-speed game boats were travelling well offshore and fishing with lures. We fished from a 53-foot Precision, powered by two 540hp Rolls Royce engines. It was my first exposure to lure fishing, and it started the dream of running a topquality charter boat and fishing like that in New Zealand.”

Back home, he started looking for a good hull, and consulted top skipper Bruce Smith, who was running the venerable Lady Doreen at the time. Smithy reckoned Bay of Islands charter boat Crow’s Nest was a good traveller. Bruce Martin tracked down the moulds for this Pelin 40, and in due course the fibreglass hull was delivered to a shed on Bruce and Ann’s farm. Here the fit-out and finishing took place, in part using kahikatea milled from the farm.

“Two years later and twice over budget” Predator was launched in December 1990. The farm was sold, with Bruce retaining some of the land and the family house, and Predator was put into survey. Bruce’s new career as a charter skipper began.

True to his inspiration off Sydney, Bruce started by fishing lures, initially buying a set of Joe Yee lures from Hawaiian retailer Yama’s Specialty. Then, while on holiday in Hawaii, he met the famed lure maker himself. In those days, game fishing with lures was still under development in New Zealand, but in his first season aboard Predator, Bruce caught his clients 10 marlin in 30 days fishing (including a 253kg blue) and won the Park Kingfish Tournament with a fish over 40kg.

The next season, as he became established, his billfish catch numbers increased dramatically, and in his third and fourth seasons Predator was the top billfish boat for the country.

Bruce has an enquiring and inventive mind, and applied it to fishing, trialling and improving lure rigs and fishing techniques until he was achieving a long-term strike-to-capture ratio of over 65% – twice what most lure fishers considered to be a good result.

It was about then, 1993, when I first met Bruce as part of a group embarking on an exploratory broadbill trip. He impressed me as a skipper and a man, being genial, calm, friendly and open to new ideas on fishing from anyone, as well as having plenty of his own, and more than happy to try them out.

In 1995 a bunch of us decided to have a crack at the giant black marlin off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and Bruce Martin was part of our charter group, keen to learn the Aussie techniques for taking on these big fish.

We didn’t catch a big black that trip, although I did fight one for about an hour, and we managed a number of smaller billfish. Our skipper, Jim Dalling and his wife Anne, were also experienced in light tackle, with skinny-string records for small black marlin to their credit. During cockpit yarns, the ambition to try light-tackle bill-fishing for ourselves on New Zealand’s striped marlin was born.

To explain: IGFA world record marlin captures are greatly prized, and after many years have been pushed up to levels that are very hard to beat. In fact, there were (and still are) a number of very wealthy anglers, often with mothership operations and highly trained professional skippers and crews, travelling the world on a more or less full-time basis, trying to crack various billfish records. The light-line record classes are technically difficult, but at least in NZ there are reasonable numbers of striped marlin around that can do the job – all you have to do is catch them on line that would be considered light for snapper. Could a bunch of amateur fishermen with modest incomes and only the occasional few days to fish, hope to compete with the big boys?

Carl Angus and I booked a charter with Bruce on Predator for the following season. Along with deckie Andy Lyon, and ring-ins Bruce Maher and Mark Kitteridge, we fished the prolific Three Kings Islands, which we figured would give us ‘lots of shots’. The learning curve was steep, but towards the end of the trip we nailed a striped marlin that took the 8kg line-class men’s world record after a six-and-three-quarter-hour fight. Light-tackle marlin fishing is very much a team sport, but on this occasion I was the fortunate angler.

Bruce Martin is a brilliant skipper to fish with. He runs a happy ship and this has a lot to do with the type of anglers he attracts. Beyond what is needed to make yourself heard over the engines during the initial action, there is no yelling and screaming on Predator – everyone is calm and relaxed and the experience is so much more enjoyable as a result. Giving anglers a good experience was Bruce’s guiding principle.

So after a season when he topped 100 billfish – including a nine-fish day – he decided that big numbers of fish hauled in flatstick on 37kg tackle did not necessarily provide the best enjoyment for his anglers (reinforced by a number of charter groups coming to him from other boats saying, “I caught a marlin last year in 15 minutes, but I never even got a chance to see it!”).

After this, the aim was to give the angler a decent fight, balanced with the need to get the fish to the boat in a reasonable time and released in good shape.

Bruce found the technical aspects of light-tackle game fishing challenging and interesting. With little fanfare he went down the light-tackle path, and over subsequent years built up an impressive list of light-tackle records and ‘firsts’.

Since 1996, Predator, with Bruce Martin at the helm, has held:

  • The woman’s six- and eight-kilo striped marlin world records
  • The men’s eight-kilo striped marlin world record (three times)
  • The men’s four-kilo striped marlin world record
  • The junior girl’s world record bronze whaler (twice) and a whole bunch of national records and ‘firsts’, including:
  • NZ’s first striped marlin on 3kg
  • NZ’s first striped marlin on 2kg
  • NZ’s first striped marlin on saltwater fly.

None of this came easy: “People who claim you can just back down and grab the leader have never tried light tackle,” says Bruce.

Other particularly pleasing catches include a triple of bigeye tuna from a four-way strike (114, 116 and 121kg) and a further three saltwater fly marlin captures.

In mid-2002, after several years of planning, Bruce and Ann put Predator on a freighter and sent her off to Brisbane. They spent several months cruising north to Cairns, a pleasure trip that involved various friends and family flying out for different legs.

Bruce and Ann invited Carl Angus and me for some heavy-tackle black marlin fishing out of Cooktown, north of Cairns. The local skippers were very helpful in showing their techniques, and in six days of fishing, eight blacks were brought to the boat and released, all on circle hooks. The best was called as “950lb-plus”, which is Barrier Reef skipper-speak for “we reckon it was a grander, but we didn’t weigh it”.

Bruce Martin has been on a constant path of refining knots, rigs, lines, techniques and tackle – he is always thinking, innovating and improving, and challenging his crews to do the same. Back in 1995 he was one of the first, if not the first, game skipper in the world to start using circle hooks for marlin, several years before any American skippers started making any noise about it. This method largely results in mouth hook-ups and greatly improves survival rates of fish after release.

In recent times, Bruce has become more interested in broadbill fishing, bringing 15 or so to the boat in the last few seasons. With angler Carl Angus, a 168kg swordfish was caught on 15kg line, narrowly missing the world record. The reaction, in typical Bruce fashion, was to drop to 8kg line!

The boat is an important part of the light-tackle equation. Over the years Predator has been modified to make her as nimble and manoeuvrable as possible, including altering the keel-line and fitting a simple, clever system that keeps the cockpit drained when backing after fish.

Of charter fishing, Bruce says: “There is no money in it, but it is a great lifestyle, and if you can pay the interest, you’re doing okay. But through fishing I’ve made some great friends and it is the best industry in the world for networking.

“Ann has played a huge part in the business, especially the provisioning and food preparation.”

Any of Predator’s customers will attest to Ann’s culinary expertise, and she is no mean angler herself; the woman’s six- and eight-kilo world records for striped marlin mentioned earlier were caught by her.

Over the last few years Bruce has not been actively chasing work, instead chartering for old customers when asked. He pulled the boat out of survey in December last year, citing the punitive liability aspects instituted by of the Maritime Safety Authority (MSA). This is a common theme in the industry, and Bruce Martin and Predator are a sad loss to an already decimated charter fleet.

But Bruce has always maintained his boat at better-than-survey standard, and this is still an ongoing process. When I recently visited Bruce and Ann while preparing this article, the boat was on a hardstand behind the house, gleaming with a fresh coat of white paint and Bruce was sanding back new teak decks. A pair of band-new Cummins 330 engines were in the shed waiting to be installed.

Bruce summed up his new direction: “My pleasure now is taking family and old friends out on the water.” 

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