Key West Captain experiences banner Black Marlin fishing on the Great Barrier Reef

This fall I was fortunate enough to fulfill a life long dream and fish the Great Barrier Reef of Australia during the Giant Black Marlin run.

Prior to booking the trip I did what homework I could, both on the web and by talking with various individuals who had experience in the area. Capt. Peter Wright of DUYFKIN fame was particularly gracious with his time, indulging me in several long phone conversations covering dos and don’t as well as providing candid profiles of the various Captains I might fish with.

As we all know; in fishing, timing is everything and so the question of when to go was a critical concern. The general parameters of the season are well known and were repeated to me endlessly, “the best fishing will occur between mid Sept. and mid Dec.” I heard about years with good fishing early and years with good fishing late. Lunar phase didn’t seem to matter. Peter was willing to stick his neck out just a little bit and advised not before Sept 20th and not after Nov 25th. Still, I felt a little like a gambler in front of the roulette wheel when I decided to book the first 5 days of Nov. with Capt. Hayden Bell aboard a 43′ Riviera called “DON’T ASK ME”

Australia is so far away from the Florida Keys that if you go any further you start to come back. I spent a total of 21.5 hours in the air, flying first to Los Angeles and then on to Brisbane located on Australia’s central East Coast. This leg involves crossing the International Date Line so you arrive in Australia two days after you leave LA. From Brisbane I flew another two hours north to Cairns; the town which is most closely associated with Black Marlin fishing on the reef. The best fishing is not always in reach of boats based in Cairns. This was the case when I arrived; so after a day spent recuperating from jet lag I took a puddle jumper another hour north to the outpost of Cooktown located at the mouth of the Endevour River. Cooktown sits at about 15 degrees S latitude.

The Town and the river take their names from the famous British Captain, James Cook and his ship HMS ENDEVOUR. Cooktown is a frontier town, the end of the line on the coastal route up the Cape York Peninsula. A bulkhead at the mouth of the river with a modest marina facility provides a spot for game boats to tie up and refuel and reprovison. From Cooktown, the fishing grounds of # 9 Ribbon Reef lie approximately 35 miles to the northeast, further north lies # 10 Ribbon Reef. Rather than run in each day the sportfishermen “camp out” on the reef for 4 or 5 days at a time, anchoring behind the reef at night or rafting off to a “mothership”.

It was 10:30 AM before we finally departed Cooktown that first morning. Reports from the previous few days were excellent, big Blacks were biting, and the weather was good, with a forcast of winds under 15 knots for the next several days. In order to control my impatience to get fishing I kept reminding myself it’s an afternoon bite. I was joined in the cockpit by first mate Dean Nichols who hails from New Zealand and second mate Steve from Wancheese N.C. Capt. Hayden ran us out to the north east for about an hour before slowing in the vicinity of some patch reefs to begin bait fishing our way to the reef. edge.

You know you’re in a serious fishery when the mates break out Tiagra 50’s as “bait rods”. We fished lipped swimming plugs short and small jets from the riggers. In short order we had several Scaley Mackeral from 6 to 8 pounds and several Bonita in the 10-pound range. The Scaley’s had a basic mackeral family shape but skin which was more like that of a Ladyfish. Capt. Hayden signaled his satisfaction with the Bonita by announcing, “that’s a grander” every time a Bonita came aboard. The sheer size of the baits takes some getting used to, there’s been many a day in my fishing career when I’d have been happy to hang on the rack what we had in our bait box! Between bites, the mates were rigging 4 types of bait. The smallest bait was the Scad, rigged on .040 wire with a 16/0 7690 hook and a big loop through his head. When deployed it stayed down and is best described as a swimming gaff. This was the only bait they rigged on wire. Everything else was fished on Suffix 650lb hard mono. They admitted that occasionally they chaffed a fish off on the mono but overall it was pretty dependable. The other swimming bait they rigged was the “Queenie” which I realized upon closer inspection was an over grown member of the Leatherjack family. These “Queenies” which were about 3 pounds were rigged by tying a short Dacron loop to a 4 oz. Bank sinker. The sinker goes in his mouth, and the Dacron loop is pulled out the top of his head with a rigging needle. The mouth is sewed shut and the hook then rides in the loop. The Queenie stays down and swims when rigged this way, the skin is so tough that the crew bragged that even cuda’s and Wahoos can’t chop it, and it never washes out. The very largest baits, “Scaley’s” and Bonitas were head rigged as skipping or splash baits. To minimize the chances of the hook fouling in the bait on these rigs, the mates placed a short piece of chaff tubing on the rigging Dacron in the space between the hook and the bait to act as a stiffener.

By 12:30 PM on Nov 1 we were finally fishing, having set out at the bottom end of Ribbon Reef # 9. The “spread” was simplicity itself, three Penn International 130’s deployed as two riggers and a “shotgun” rod. The shotgun was held in position by a tagline with a clothespin at the end attached to the tuna tower. We used no teasers of any kind. Fishing a shotgun rod I learned was something of a recent innovation as most of the boats continued to pull only two baits at a time. Drags were set at 40 pounds at strike with about 65 pounds just over the button. Trolling speed was fairly slow, 6.5 to 7.0 knots as a guess. Most Captains with substantial experience stick with a pattern that works, and Capt. Hayden was no different, the largest skip bait available, either Scaley or Bonita always fished on the left rigger, the right rigger always took a swimming bait, he was favoring the Queenie while I was there. The shotgun rod took a smaller Scaley or Bonita. You couldn’t help noticing the outriggers that were nothing more than short aluminum poles, entirely without spreaders, which when set out were quite low to the water. Capt. Hayden was quick to defend his riggers when I made a disparaging comment, they were low maintenance and they were stiff enough to support the huge baits they routinely trolled. Oversized clothespins were still used as release clips for the heaviest baits. Both outrigger baits were also deployed with the “aussie” drop back. From the rod tip a belly of line went out behind the boat then back to a clip at the corner of the transom and from there up to the outrigger pin.

Less than half an hour after we set out we raised our first fish, she showed deep on the swimming bait then fell back on the shotgun. Even in that long position you could see her thickness at the shoulders, she was huge, but she didn’t bite. 20 minutes later we raised another who showed quickly and then was gone. Where upon Capt. Hayden decided to make a move, running north for about 15 minutes to the lower end of # 10 ribbon reef. I couldn’t help think, what are we doing, leaving fish to find fish? Capt. Hayden was looking for better water. There is a tremendous flow of water from the bay in and out of the openings between reefs with the result that the water can be off color in the immediate vicinity of these openings. At 1:30 I had a crash bite on the shotgun and after negotiating a few loose loops on the spool during the dropback caught a 300 pounder in quick order. At 4:30 I had a bite on the right rigger Queenie, she jumped several times right away, Hayden called her 700 pounds, then it was down and dirty. I was up over the button getting familiar with serious drag, legs locked, jacked up above the chair with my left hand on top of the reel and my right reaching back to hold the chair arm as she made repeated blistering runs. Anglers not familiar with heavy tackle would find these drag settings very intimidating, indeed there were several times during the ensuing days when I felt at least momentarily like I was going to get snatched over. We had the leader in 35 minutes, the fish was wrapped. First mate Dean got seriously pulled on before she was cut free. We quit fishing at 6:30 and ran in behind the reef at the top of # 10 ribbon as a glorious sunset proceeded around us. Not a bad first day, we were two for two with two other lookers.

To get a feeling for the immensity and the grandeur of the Great Barrier Reef imagine that Hawks Channel in the FL Keys is 30 miles wide with depths of up to 120′ and that is lies along a virtually undeveloped coastline. The fore reef resembles the Sambo’s area off Key West and runs for hundreds of miles. The drop-off seaward of the reef is much steeper than in the Keys. Fishing in 200 fathoms, the sea breaking across the fore reef was closely in the background. Even more amazing we had the area virtually to ourselves. During the day we had seen 4 or 5 other sportfisherman at a distance and there were 3 other boats anchored up inside the reef overnight, but that was all.

In the morning, casualties from the previous day’s action were apparent. I was nursing an open blister the size of a nickel at the base of my thumb on my winding hand while more ominously, first mate Dean could barely stand up and winced in pain with any movement. The wrapped fish from the previous afternoon had done more damage than anyone realized. It was clear how badly hurt he was when he didn’t complain after Capt. Hayden made the decision to run him in to Lizard Island where a plane could fly him out to a hospital. Lizard Is. Lay 20 miles inshore of us and we were soon trolling in that direction, no opportunity to replenish the bait supply was ever missed. Lizard and several other smaller associated islands reminded me of the Virgin Islands, mountainous and arid. A very exclusive resort where room rates start at $1,000 a night occupies a cove on the northwest side of the island. Several motor yacht “motherships”, large dive boats and assorted sportfisherman occupied mooring buoys in the cove. Dean was ferried to the beach by a small launch while Hayden made inquires about borrowing a mate from another boat. None were available, though Hayden was particularly incensed that one boat carrying 3 mates would not loan him one. With attrition rates so high I could well understand why stockpiling mates was a good idea! We were definitely undermanned as second mate Steve had only two weeks experience on the reef, though in his defense, his last two stops had been the Azores and Ascension Is. He was no stranger to big fish. As for myself I figured I could make myself helpful enough to at least partially mitigate the loss of our first mate. Hayden’s concern reflected the substantial Aussie jingoism he exhibited in all things. “I’ve got two Yankees on the deck” he muttered into the VHF Mic as we headed back to the reef.

We were back fishing at the Top of # 10 Ribbon reef by 11:30. The day proceed much like the previous had, trolling these enormous natural baits, anticipating a bite at any minute, the reef break always in the background. At one point a huge Wahoo skyrocketed twice on the shotgun Scaley, hard to say how big but at least 100 pounds, a thrilling sight. In my new capacity as fill in second mate I came under increased scrutiny from our Captain, lording over us from the tower. Expressing his displeasure at the speed with which I wound in a bait that needed changing, he bellowed down, “ya wind like a girl!” Hayden was thoroughly enjoying turning the tables on me, how often had I subjected my own clients to similar abuse he wanted to know. At 1:30 after a crash bite on a Bonita in the shotgun position I caught a 500 pounder who put on a great series of aerials and was released in less than 10 minutes. Capt. Hayden spent the rest of the afternoon working a relatively small area, he “marked” a fish on several occasions but none raised. Interestingly the Australian Captains spend a lot of time watching the top 30 to 40 fathoms on their depth recorders with the hope of locating a fish in this manner. As the afternoon wore on I remained certain that we’d get another shot, even as 4 o’clock became 5 o’clock and then the 6 o’clock hour approached. We had worked our way in close to the reef edge by this time and there were a good many birds working small bait when Hayden reluctantly gave the word to wind em in. No sooner had those words left his mouth than the right rigger Queenie came down and tight. It was the ever popular winding them in bite! Nobody had seen the bite and nothing showed, whatever we had hooked was proceeding away at a slow take. “Maybe it’s a Dogtooth” I offered, having come to Australia hoping that in addition to Blacks I might get a shot at a Dogtooth Tuna. Less than 5 minutes later the mystery was solved, a Black Marlin of about 400 pounds. Just a little one! Where else would you call a 400 pounder a little one? The fish had fought sluggishly, probably owing to the fact we could see she was hooked deep.

Several of the fish I caught during the trip were deeply hooked and “leaking oil” an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of natural bait fishing. As in other areas, many of the Australian captains are making greater use of circle hooks to minimize the number of deeply hooked fish, Hayden in fact had given me the option of rigging with circle hooks.

No trip to the Great Barrier Reef is complete without getting in the water to closely observe and experience the reef. We snorkeled every morning and I found it simply incredible. The sheer size and number of fish was hard to believe. In one spot I counted at least 10 Potato Cod in the 100 pound class (think Grouper) milling around under the boat. Huge schools of Red Bass in the 6 to 10 pound range (think Mangrove Snapper) came right to the transom every where we anchored. In addition there were wrasses, some of them huge, lots of reef sharks, countless tropicals and even a permit. Back in the boat I had several amusing encounters with the Potato Cod by tying a washed out trolling bait to a dockline, pitching it overboard and then holding on!

On day three we were fishing by 10:50 am. Five minutes later Hayden was screaming from the tower, “on the big bait, she’s looking at the big bait” I had just enough time to get to the left rigger when the huge Scaley mackerel we had just put out disappeared in a cascade of white water. Hayden immediately stopped the boat and then began to slowly back, “mend your line” he hollered, I quickly put the reel in gear and wound up slack to avoid having the boat run it over then got back out of gear anticipating the fish would take off. Nothing happened, after a pause that seemed agonizingly long, given the excitement of the moment, Hayden said, “lock it up” and simultaneously put the boat back in gear. I was immediately tight to the fish, then crab walking the rod to the chair. The fish was out of the water right away, truly a big fish. The fight was short and savage, the fish stayed up jumping spectacularly and Hayden pursued aggressively with the boat, and I wound like a mad man. With the wind-on just coming on the rod tip the fish made a last broadside jump and I knew I was looking at one of a small hand full of the largest marlin I had ever seen. At the same moment, what was left of the Scaley along with the hook flew out of her mouth and she was gone. Start to finish in less than 10 minutes. “How big” I asked Hayden who had descended to the bridge to operate video equipment at some point during the fight, “call her 850 mate, a good fish” he said over his shoulder as he climbed back to the tower.

Fifteen minutes later another bite, this time on the shotgun rod, not there on the first dropback, she bit again and I dropped again and came tight. Good jumps and plenty of aggressive boat handling. Steve had the leader in 7 minutes but quickly dumped it when she went crazy, momentarily threatening the salon window before settling down and being cut free, a fish of about 500 pounds. It was only 11:30 in the morning, we had only been fishing 45 minutes and already had 2 fish, If they kept biting we were in position to have a really big day. While he wasn’t sold on my abilities as a mate, Hayden allowed it was fun to have an angler who could really wind. I was feeling cocky but thought better of mentioning that with that fish I was now 6 for 6. At 1:00 another bite on the shotgun from a big fish, I dropped smoothly but even as I put the reel back in gear I knew she wasn’t there, I shortened up and she followed but would not bite, finally fading away. Oh well you can’t get them all I thought to myself. At 2:45 our fourth bite of the day, Hayden saw her deep on the right rigger swimming Queenie, another big fish. I was at the rod and out of gear by the time the bait came out of the pin, I didn’t give her much beyond the pre-measured drop back and when I put the reel back in gear I was on. It took me a little longer to get the rod out of the covering board this time, relax, slow down and back the drag off a little more I told myself as I tried to muscle the 130 from its position as line poured off the reel at a blistering rate. It didn’t help much that in the background I could hear Hayden repeatedly bellowing to Steve “clear up fast, big fish” In the chair and buckled in, far out I saw her jump and then again and then, gone.pulled off. Damnit, that was a fish I’d like to have back. The afternoon wore on, the lack of further fishing action belying my inner turmoil, such a good start to the day, how could I have missed two big fish in a row? less dropback, more dropback how could I have been so cocky? Will I get another chance? Finally at 5:50 PM another bite in the shallower waters tight to the reef edge much like the previous evening. This fish ate the right rigger Queenie and at 200 pounds was the only really small fish I would catch in the entire 5 days.

The run of good weather with light breezes continued on my fourth day of fishing. We continued to fish the top of ribbon reef #10. VHF reports began filtering up the reef that there was a pretty good bite going on about 20 miles south, off of ribbon #9 but Hayden elected to stay where we had the whole area to ourselves. At noon I had a bite on the shotgun rod but after a long zip and a single jump the fish came off, he looked big and Hayden thought he was the biggest we’d seen yet. At 1:15 a crash bite again on the shotgun rod, this fish I caught and we estimated 500lbs. At one point during the afternoon a monstrous shark tailed by, it was no surprise that where there were huge marlin there were also huge sharks, Hayden had admonished me to apply more drag anytime he though a fish was threatening to sound, the Blacks with their rigid pec fins can be very hard to budge if they get down and often fall prey to the sharks in that situation. Unlike the previous two days we had no late bites and I finished the day having caught one out of two. The report from down the reef was strong, the fleet had had a lot of bites and one boat reported 3 fish over 900lbs.

On my final day of fishing we were out relatively early, (9:45 am) with the plan to fish our way down towards where the best action had been the previous day. The weather was changing with an easterly breeze freshening towards 20 knots. Keeping the largest skip bait in the rigger pin became quite a chore as the seas increased. A series of false alarms caused when the bait came inadvertently out of the pin kept me on edge most of the morning. Several times we added #64 rubber bands around the close pin to increase the pin tension. At 11:45 a fish I didn’t see well ate the right rigger Queenie, I got the rod to the chair and buckled into the harness but the fish came off, “that was a good one, I saw a lot of color” was Hayden’s only comment. At 12:30 a fish of about 300 pounds free jumped in the middle of the spread but didn’t rise to a bait. By 1:00 we were on the northern fringe of a fleet of 10 to 12 boats which were working the top portion of # 9 ribbon reef. At 1:15 a beautiful lunging bite on the left rigger Scaley, the fish made several nice jumps and we had the leader in 7 or 8 minutes, Steve dumped the leader and the fish tried to sound, I pushed the drag up towards park and within 5 minutes we had cut her free, a fish of about 700 pounds. I caught myself thinking, Ho Hum another 700 pounder. Such was the power of this place that all normal proportion and expectation was distorted! We spent the rest of the afternoon fishing with the fleet. Several times I saw boats stopped fighting fish or hooked fish jumping in the distance, they were definitely biting. Twice we saw tailers though neither showed interest in our offerings. We raised one more fish during the 5 o’clock hour but she never bit. Inevitably the day and with it my time on the reef came to an end. I had experienced 5 wonderful days of fishing, catching at least one fish every day. Overall, I had caught 9 Blacks out of 13 bites and seen another half dozen fish during that time. The reef was glorious, the weather had been superb, the boat had operated without mechanical problems and Capt. Hayden and his crew had preformed with skill and good humor, I had much to be thankful for.

The following morning before we headed back to Cooktown, we idled through the anchorage while Hayden made the rounds trading good-natured quips with his fellow captains. I couldn’t help noticing the activity in all the cockpits, and feel a pang of jealousy. Populated mostly by fresh faced twenty something mates, although here and there was a veteran, they were sewing baits, scaling drags, crimping leaders, all with a joyous intensity which they could barely disguise. Who after all could find fault with their enthusiastic preparation for another day fishing the greatest big fish bite on the planet? I only wished I could join them.