Great Barrier Reef fishing

The stories told of ‘The Reef’ by crewmen who had been there were mind blowing – tales of big boats, big baits, big fish and big seas gave it a certain enigma offered by no other destination.

The excitement was therefore hard to contain when, by some twist of fate, I found myself in the captain’s seat on a 25m (82ft) sport-fishing ‘battlewagon’ with Lizard Island on the horizon! The mission was simple: explore the fishing on the Barrier Reef, establish a catch history, and figure things out a little on the off-chance our vessel’s owner felt like flying in for a week. So, with the weather opening up, we made plans to get out of the Cairns Marina in a hurry and make the most of the 140nm trip up to Lizard, travelling through the night to be fishing by the next day. Our regular crew consisted of fellow Kiwi James Brown and Panamainian Javier Sanchez working the deck, my good Lady Tauni looking after us all in the galley, with myself as the monkey behind the wheel.

But with no guests on board we needed an angler. Fortunately, my good mate Cory Dykman was able to drop everything at a moment’s notice and make the trek from Auckland to Cairns to join us. We also grabbed Adam Bartley Smith – another Kiwi running a private gameboat parked a few slips down from us – conditional on him taking us out in his boat straight afterwards.

None of us had fished the reef before, so it was going to be a steep learning curve. Fortunately, the local charter-boat guys had been very helpful, and while they still left us with plenty to figure out, they certainly pointed us in the right direction.

The trip up to Lizard was relatively straightforward, although we picked up a juvenile black in the last few hours of daylight by trolling a micro lure on 10kg tackle. These baby blacks are commonly encountered in the 30-odd metres of water inside the reef. Fortunately, despite its diminutive size, it ticked the ‘my first black marlin ever box’ for Cory.

We continued steaming through the night, finally getting our first glimpse of Lizard at dawn. A little later, upon dropping anchor, we were quickly surrounded by the resident schools of GTS and sharks the place is known for.

A couple of hours were then spent enjoying a cooked breakfast, prepping equipment, swimming with the fish in the sparkling water and performing a few underwater maintenance tasks that we’d been reluctant to undertake in the dirty, croc-frequented water of the Cairns Marina.

By mid-morning we were heading to the famed black marlin grounds just outside Lizard – more specifically, Ribbon Reef No. 10, a 30km-long lump of coral bathed in blue water. At the same time, we ran a spread of small skirted and diving lures on light tackle to supplement our bait supply, which to that point included Pacific tarpon and a mackerel-type fish locally known as ‘madfish’, which we caught in the marina. Even so, we were relying on catching a decent supply of bait each day so we could fish the same way the locals do.

This fishery is bait dominated. Most crews fish a combination of two or three dead skipping and swimming dead baits. Live baits often attract unwanted attention from sharks, and while lures do work and are a viable alternative, the fish-raising effectiveness and favourable hook-up rate provided by dead baits mean it’s the number-one choice.

Day One was very much a figuring-things-out day, with the late start to the reef only producing one scaly mackerel and a scad as baits for us. A small amount of time outside the reef saw us gain valuable knowledge, such as how far back to run out baits and what kind of speeds we would need to troll at. We settled on keeping things simple, running just two baits.

We trolled at about five knots, using just one engine. A large skipping bait was set off one outrigger and a smaller swimming bait off the other, with the latter positioned short enough so I could see it from the tower – a fairly important detail, given wahoo chop-offs are often an issue.

The weather conditions seemed to be in line with what we were told was standard for the area – a steady 20 knots of south-easterly breeze over the top of a two-metre-high, long-period swell. The sea was running largely parallel with the reef, allowing us to zigzag up and down in the deep with the seas on our beam or quarter – far better than having the baits slow right down when pounding into it, then tumbling down the tops of waves when running the other way.

After a couple of hours we called it a day with plenty of daylight left and other boats still fishing around us – a cautious approach given we were new to the area and didn’t fancy finding a coral bommie in the dark.

We got going early the next morning, concentrating on producing a supply of good bait. The well-known Kiwi boat Ultimate Lady was nearby chasing baits too, and shortly after we picked up a longtail tuna of around six kilos or so – a good start and reassurance that we at least had the right idea.

Instead of heading directly for Ribbon Reef No.10 as we did the day before, we set about exploring some productive patches of inner reef, intent on securing a good supply of bait to give us a headstart for the next couple of days (we had been warned by the locals that it’s not uncommon to lose over a dozen baits per day to wahoo). By lunchtime our ice box was full of large scaly mackerel, scad, Spanish mackerel, and longtail tuna, all excellent baits.

Then, with the bow pointed at the reef pass, the boys had a production line going, with Javier and Cory gutting, gilling and packing baits to ensure longevity, while James and Adam were on rigging duties, doing their best with some unfamiliar ‘baitfish’ species.

A couple of these freshly-rigged baits hit the water as soon as we exited the reef pass; we’d had word from our Kiwi mate, Tony Carpenter, crewing on one of the local charter boats, that a few fish had been caught nearby. Soon after we were zigzagging our way down the reef, beam on to the seas, all the while keeping a close eye on what the locals were up to and how our baits were performing. Intent on not just being the bus driver for this trip, I swapped out duties with Jimmy and went to the cockpit to have a crack at some bait rigging.

No sooner had I got work and KAWHOOOOMFT – something left a hole in the ocean where our big bait used to be.

“Good one, good one!” Jimmy yelled.

With line steadily ticking off the reel, the fish obviously had the bait. As Cory slowly pushed the lever up, the line kept ticking off at steady pace, but under drag this time, the circle hook having done its job. Soon after, the fish showed its impressive head and shoulders behind the boat – what a fish!

Not wanting to pass up the opportunity at what might be my only shot wiring a Cairns giant black marlin, I pulled on my gloves; this was a dream come true!

A year ago, to the day, we had been stranded in a middle-eastern shipping port, half a world away. At the time, we could never have imagined we would be here, on the Barrier Reef, hooked to up a fish of a lifetime!

The fish put on a hell of a show, tearing the ocean apart and running hard into the building seas (so much for them running down-sea, something the locals told us they generally do here).

Words of encouragement came through over the radio from Kiwi skipper Bruce Smith, who was fishing beside us: “Looks like a good one boys, go get ‘em!”

None us really knew how big the fish was. Not wanting to let excitement get in the way of reality, there was a lot of conjecture on board about what we were dealing with. Various conservative estimates were followed by, “Did you see its shoulders first time round – and its bill?” and “I think it might be bigger than you said…?” We got a shot at the leader 40 minutes in. I took a couple of wraps, and with seemingly two tail kicks the fish traversed our 6.6m (22’) wide cockpit beam and went airborne, showering us in water and tearing through the ocean leaving a huge wake in its path – A clear display of size and power. No longer was there any conjecture as to its size.

“This is what we came here for boys – that’s a hell of a lot bigger than we thought!”

With the fish jumping away from the boat so hard and fast, hanging onto the leader would not have yielded a positive result, so soon after we were giving chase again, with the twin 2600hp MTU engines roaring and waves crashing into the cockpit.

This gained us another shot, briefly enabling me to grab the very end of the leader with the fish still thrashing hard away from the boat. Jimmy did his best to keep the boat after it, but an 85-tonne boat has certain manoeuvrability limitations we have to live with. This saw the fish eventually give us the ‘one-fin salute’, before showing us yet another powerful surface display, then going deep and pulling heaps of line.

By this time we were more than nine kilometres off the reef – hopefully far enough out to avoid losing our fish to the sharks reported to often be a problem here. But things change. With the fight getting past the three-hour mark and the sun starting to set, the tiring fish started steadily trucking back towards the reef, making us concerned. From here on, gaining line wasn’t easy. We tried every trick in the book, but big gains were followed by big loses. Every inch gained was an inch earned. We couldn’t have asked for a better performance from our angler Cory, who, while obviously fatigued, was pushing on.

Even so, the mood was now more sombre, especially as we could just see the lights of the other game boats already parked up behind the reef for the night.

Four hours in, and we were asking ourselves how this had all gone so wrong: in just 20m of water now, hard up against the reef in the pitch black, our angler exhausted, drag at sunset, and all the nylon top-shot still out there, through to the dacron.

The fish, as far we could tell, was up on top of the reef in less than five metres of water and still swimming strongly. losing the fish to the coral or sharks now seemed inevitable, and we were preparing ourselves for disappointment. Our primary concern now was to keep our orientation in the dark and stay a safe distance out from the breaking reef!

Our focus therefore shifted to our navigational aids, allowing us to establish a safe distance from the reef and run parallel with the fish along the reef edge. This wasn’t doing much as far as winning the fight went, but the line was tight and we weren’t ready to call it quits yet.

Half an hour later, Cory was on his last legs, and all of us in the cockpit were soaking wet, with the wind and lack of sun freezing us to the core.

Then, suddenly, the rod tip shuddered and the line went slack. That was it – what should have happened long ago had finally done so. The reel was three-quarters empty and the line completely slack, an apparent break-off. We started motoring slowly to deeper water reeling in the slack. No one muttered a word.

Half the spool was back when I noticed a belly in our dacron getting pulled towards us through the underwater lights.

“GO, JIMMY, GO! IT’S STILL THERE! STILL THERE! COMING AT US!”

Jimmy put the hammer down in response, the big MTU engines roaring and smoke billowing out from the sudden acceleration – the fish was charging us at full speed!

For what seemed like an eternity, the line was straight up and down less than metre from the transom, with Cory winding with everything he had left.

Suddenly, the leader popped up, with the fish still upright and swimming strongly in the lights – but at least, after taking wraps, I could shift it this time. This saw the beast brought boat side, and we all got a look at the magnificent fish glowing purple in the lights. Next, the leader was cut behind my gloves, and with the fish still strong, I let go, allowing it to kick off powerfully into the night.

We’d done it! A massive sense of elation, achievement and relief flooded over all of us – our Barrier Reef adventure couldn’t have started any better!

   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

August 2017 - Josh Worthington
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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