Game fishing tournaments have come a long way since the days when boats returned to weigh stations with hundreds of kilos of dead fish aboard, decks smeared in blood and the carcasses of trophy fish proudly hung in the air for all to see. In these days of depleting fish stocks and heightened environmental consciousness, the above scenario is no longer a good look for the sport of game fishing. While fishing for food is certainly a legitimate pastime, the ‘bad old days’ saw many of the captured fish left to rot on beaches, their bodies slowly reduced to skeletons by local scavengers.
Nowadays, the sport overwhelmingly leans towards tag-and-release fishing, with most tournaments in Australia rewarding anglers handsomely for releasing the hooked fish to fight another day. And the tagging process plays a crucial role in helping science unravel the many mysteries of the deep as they apply to the targeted game fish, such as the various species of marlin, shark and tuna that make up the majority of the fish caught and tagged.
Recently, Club Marine acquired a trailerable Trophy 2502WA Walkaround, which we cleverly dubbed Cover Story in anticipation of a game fishing campaign over the 2008-9 tournament season. There are quite a few keen anglers spread around our various state offices and we decided that it would be a good exercise to get out to some of the bigger tournaments and hopefully speak to some Club Marine members in the process.
We began our campaign at Coffs Harbour on the northern NSW coast, with the Caterpillar Hot Currents tournament in early November, but a combination of lousy weather and some teething problems with the boat saw our efforts limited to one day out of four on the water, and one decent-sized dolphin fish (mahi mahi) on the barbie.
Next up was the 25th annual Golden Lure tournament at Port Macquarie, 160km south of Coffs Harbour, run in mid-January. But like our efforts at Coffs Harbour, we would not figure in the major placings, although we did manage to attract a couple of additional dolphin fish to the boat (one around 16kg and the other 13kg), both of which were tagged. In all over the four days of the tournament, our record read two fish over two days, one day without turning a reel and another spent in port with engine problems. While there were plenty of fish caught by other teams, it certainly seemed that Cover Story did not have the field covered as far as attracting decent fish went.
HITTING THE BIG TIME
The Riviera NSW Interclub is the biggest game fish tournament in the southern hemisphere and one of the biggest in the world. Run over consecutive weekends from February 21 to March 1, this year’s event attracted 180 boats and about 1000 anglers from every game fishing club in NSW, as well as a number of visiting boats.
So the Interclub is the biggest tournament around, has a ton of history and attracts a huge number of boats, anglers and – so the theory goes – fish.
Team Club Marine and Cover Story were primed and ready. Included in the crew for the first weekend were Club Marine CEO, Mark Bradley, NSW State Manager, Andrew O’Reilly, Business Development Manager (and skipper) Brett Edmonds, and guest deckie Matt Munro.
While the first day of the tournament yielded no fish (many blaming Andrew, who had thought it a good idea to add the anglers curse – a bunch of bananas – to the day’s food rations), and we experienced radio troubles, which saw us return to port prematurely. Day two certainly made up for it.
Despite disgracing himself the previous day with his ‘banana drama’, Andrew was the first to turn a reel. Around mid-morning, one of the lines began peeling off at a rapid rate and Andrew was immediately strapped into the stand-up fighting harness. The fish had a very strong first run and peeled off about 500m of line, but after some good work on Andrew’s part – and despite not having caught anything bigger than an estuary flathead before – he had his first-ever marlin to the side of the boat in about 25 minutes. But what was even more memorable about this fish, a striped marlin estimated at 80kg, was that it had clearly been through the whole tag and release process before. Sticking out of its shoulder was another tag, which we duly removed, before inserting our own (See Tag and retrieve on P134).
With lures back in the water, it wasn’t long before another reel was screaming. This time it was Mark’s turn. What we first took to be either a wahoo or dolphin fish due to its behaviour, turned out to be something of an entirely different species. After a while, Mark managed to get his fish close to the boat and we soon realised we were looking at a mako shark. At about the same time, the shark realised what it was looking at, which was a boat-full of very surprised anglers, and, not surprisingly, decided it needed to be elsewhere post-haste.
In an explosion of incredible strength and aggression, it headed straight down, but then turned and came back towards us. Though we’d heard stories of makos leaping from the water when hooked, it was still amazing to see the fish break the surface. Like a muscular missile, it burst from the water almost 4m into the air, before splashing back and resuming the fight.
It took another 25 minutes – and one more leap – before Mark finally had the mako close enough for the tag (which took numerous attempts to insert as makos have extremely tough skin). It was high-fives for all on board and we were certainly on a high after a great day’s fishing. Overall, it was a good performance, which placed the team in a fairly good position in terms of overall tournament points at that stage.
And so, the following weekend, Cover Story powered out of Port Stephens at a brisk pace; this time minus Mark and Andrew. The crew now consisted of just Brett, Matt and myself. We headed out to sea far too early in the morning with expectations high and the banana count low. All seemed set for a good day out on the briny. The seas were kind, the sun was smiling down on us and our lures were soon bobbing along merrily behind the twin 200 Mercury Verados. Even I felt optimistic, despite having earned a reputation in certain circles as a FDD (a Fish Deterring Device – the opposite of a FAD, or Fish Aggregating Device).
And so, as we dragged the lures around the ocean, somewhere above the Continental Shelf, for hour after hour, the tedium was at least broken up by numerous reports of plentiful captures elsewhere in the fleet. In fact, pretty much everywhere else but where we happened to be. By the close of fishing on the Saturday, our lures and baits remained largely unmolested. And just to rub it in, as we finally cruised back into the marina, we were surrounded by other boats proudly displaying their many species pennants.
We had one day to go, and joining us for our final fling would be a tournament novice, Mick Johnston, from our NSW office. Mick is an accomplished sailor, but had yet to wet a line in anger, so the pressure to perform was certainly on. Unfortunately, as events panned out, we soon became more focused on survival rather than points totals.
We rose early and stowed the gear on board for the last time. There was a fresh 15-knot breeze whistling through the masts in the marina and we’d heard that we might have some ‘weather’ later in the day.
By 6:30am we were rounding the southern headland of Nelson Bay and heading south-east, the plan being to head out the 60 or so km to the Continental Shelf, where big fish had been reported the previous day. Initially, the seas were turbulent, but nothing to worry about. One- to two-metre waves had us down to around 10-15km/h, but the seas ahead looked all right – for the time being at least.
With other, mostly larger boats heading in the same direction, it looked like we’d have a full day of fishing to try and claw back our position in the overall placings. But as the waves slowly got bigger, our hopes that the winds would ease were starting to fade and soon all eyes were forward to see what lay ahead. Brett also monitored reports from some of the other boats and tournament organisers.
Then, suddenly, around 20km off shore, the first wave broke over the bow. By now the seas were churning to around 3m, with the occasional white cap as the winds increased to around 25 knots. Another bow-breaker hit soon after and we’d now slowed to crawling pace. Then a third larger wave washed over the deck, flowed over the hardtop and splashed into the cockpit.
“That’s it, we’re outta here!” yelled Brett to a crew now in total agreement. Our Trophy was a good boat in a good sea, but even a 7m craft can meet its match in the wrong circumstances, as we had just discovered.
Carefully turning the boat back towards land, Brett and Matt spent the next couple of hours delicately juggling steering and throttles, while keeping a large and angry following sea in view. It was not the most comfortable trip I’ve done in a trailerable craft (see From the Helm, P6) and we were all glad to be back in the sanctuary of Nelson Bay in time for lunch. We might not have added to our points tally, but we were all in agreement that skipper Brett had made the right call when that third wave splashed across the roof.
We have now completed three tournaments and, from a fish conservation point of view, it could be argued that we’ve done more than our bit for the cause. Certainly, we have not exactly set the world on fire. Like warfare, our tournament time has mostly been a mixture of long periods of monotonous lure towing, punctuated by short periods of extreme fish-fighting excitement.
Next on our list is the Club Marine Trailer Boat Tournament. If our fortunes are going to change, it would be timely for it to happen at the tournament that bears our name. It’s on at Port Stephens from April 3-5. If you’re a Club Marine member, come on down and pay us a visit on Cover Story.
When Cover Story team member and novice game fisher, Andrew O’Reilly took up the fight against his first-ever marlin (see main story), little did he suspect that the fish on the other end of his line was somewhat of a veteran pelagic pugilist. When deckie, Matt Munro finally came to grips with the fish and prepared to insert a tag in its flanks, he noticed that it bore signs of an earlier encounter – very fresh signs as it turned out.
The fish already sported another tag, which Matt managed to recover before the fresh tag was attached.
According to Phil Bolton, Recreational Fisheries Manager for the NSW Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI), which administers the Game Fish Tagging Program, catching a fish that has previously been tagged is an unusual occurrence, but is really the whole point of the program. Bolton checked the Department’s database for information on the recovered tag and it turned out that Andrew’s striped marlin had been tagged a mere two days earlier. It had covered a fair bit of ground in the meantime, too, moving from an area off Port Stephens called the ‘Carpark’ around 40km north to Seal Rocks Canyons.
The history of tagging fish for scientific research goes back at least 40 years and was initially adopted in the US when tags were developed that could survive the rigours of being attached to large pelagic fish, such as tuna and marlin, for extended periods of time. The process was refined and soon spread elsewhere, with Australian anglers and authorities tagging game fish beginning in the late ‘60s.
But it wasn’t until 1973 that authorities and angling organisations formally adopted a tagging program, with the launch of the NSW Fisheries Game Fish Tagging Program. The program has since grown from humble beginnings to the point where, for 2007 (the most recent year for which figures are currently available), almost 13,000 fish were tagged and released.
Ten species of fish account for around 70 per cent of all fish tagged, those being: black marlin, yellowfin tuna, yellowtail kingfish, sailfish, dolphin fish, mackerel tuna, striped tuna, striped marlin, albacore and bonito.
The amount of fish that are recaptured varies widely depending on the species. From a total of around 345,000 fish tagged to date, 6562 were subsequently recaptured and their tags returned to NSW DPI for recording. This represents a recapture rate of approximately two per cent of all fish tagged.
The tagging program is a valuable tool for marine scientists, who can deduce much information about a particular species and its migratory and other habits over time. For instance, while some species tend to remain in a particular area for much of their lives, others, such as black marlin, have been known to migrate thousands of kilometres. One fish in particular, according to the department’s figures, travelled from Queensland to Costa Rica, in the process covering a straight line distance of 14,426km before its tag was recovered three years and 10 months later. A mako shark holds the record for the time between when the tag was attached and when it was recovered. It was tagged off Port Macquarie and recaptured off Port Hacking almost 12 years later.
The NSW Fisheries Game Fish Tagging Program is a great example of collaboration between anglers and authorities to try and ensure the long-term sustainability of the recreational fishery by learning as much as we can about the fish and their behaviour.
The program continues to issue tags free of charge to participants and is funded by the NSW Recreational Fishing Trust. It operates throughout Australia and across many Pacific islands.
If you would like to participate in the program, contact the NSW Game Fish Tagging Program at NSW DPI, PO Box 21, Cronulla NSW 2230, tel (02) 9527 8411 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org