Pacific bliss

Andrew ‘ET’ Ettingshausen | VOLUME 26, ISSUE 4
Port Vila harbour and the Iririki Island Resort.
As ET discovered, chasing marlin off the idyllic islands of Vanuatu is pretty hard to beat…

Recently I took the opportunity to compete in the Grand Hotel and Casino Vanuatu Marlin Classic in the waters off Port Vila, Vanuatu. As the name suggests, marlin was the target species, and with the warm Pacific ocean swirling over the region’s numerous volcanic sea mounts, the action here is often of a world-class standard.

The group of unique islands that makes up Vanuatu are all markedly different. The locals have a reputation for being the friendliest people on earth and you certainly feel safe when wandering the streets of Port Vila, the tiny nation’s capital.

Despite a modest population of around 30,000, Port Vila has a great buzz to it. The hustle and bustle of residents setting up their market stalls of fresh produce kick starts each morning. The sheer warmth of the place soaked into my body, while the chills of a Sydney winter were sucked up and soothed out.

With the day to myself, I teamed up with my crew and the boys from Larva Lures Australia to take in a few of the local activities. I was also extremely lucky to have my wife, Monique along with me, to share in part of the adventure.

A SLOWER PACE

A flight in a sea plane was offered and gladly accepted – there’s just something special about jumping in a plane that later parks up on a sandy beach. As we streaked skywards, the sheer beauty of Port Vila’s harbour was laid bare for all to see. Yachts of all sizes swung lazily on their moorings, while in the crystal-clear water I spotted reef fish feeding among the coral, as we shot along the picturesque coastline at low altitude.

Villages dot the shoreline, their thatched rooves blending in with the native vegetation. Smoke bellowed up between the trees in parts where locals get by on subsistence farming. No computers and mobile phones here – it sure gets you dreaming about a life free from the pressures of time. I looked down at a man paddling his canoe, his fishing net curled up on the timber floor, with no watch on his wrist to dictate his schedule. Maybe the tides call him to sea and he was rushing solely due to the pressure of returning to his family with dinner. I could only hope his life was as carefree as the one I imagined, as I gazed down at him from above.

That sense of serenity didn’t last long after landing, as we were soon whipped into the sky once more, this time for an adrenalin-charged session of parasailing. There are loads of activities in Vanuatu to keep all members of the family entertained.

A lunch at one of the local outdoor eateries was first rate, and then we soaked up the sun before visiting a nearby waterfall, where we took a cooling dip. The falls are fed by clear mountain streams; it was great fun bobbing around beneath a flood of whitewater cascading down from the cliff above. Relaxation was the name of the game, but all that was set to change when we took to the sea for the fishing comp.

Staying at the Grand Hotel and Casino was simply brilliant. We only had to wander 100m to the game boat, and the hotel location was smack-bang in the middle of town, which meant everything was on hand. The views from our room out over the harbour and out to sea were breathtaking, and watching the sun set was a sight to behold.

I’m not much of a betting man, but I couldn’t turn down an invite to play in a poker tournament in the casino. As it happened, my wife showed us all up, being the final lady on the last table. After getting knocked out early, I had a great time cheering Monique on against some more experienced locals.

A great bonus to staying at the Grand is that you can also utilise the facilities of its beautiful sister resort, just a two-minute boat ride away across the bay. Iririki Island Resort and Spa has it all – four restaurants, a pool, sandy beaches and a day spa. Monique could not have been happier – she had her next few days planned out while the boys fished the comp.

PRIMED AND READY

V Factor was the name of our vessel and my fishing partners – Andrew and Daniel from Larva Lures Australia and rally driving ace Michael Guest – were pumped at the prospect of landing plenty of blue marlin during the comp. Larva lures are the next big thing in lure design. The principle is that instead of changing your whole lure to get a better action, you just change the head to suit the conditions – and it can all be done in under 10 seconds. Each lure set comes with three different heads, so you can expect the lure to spend its life in the water catching fish, not stacked in your tackle box waiting for favourable conditions.

As it happened, day one of this three-day IGFA tournament kicked off with perfect conditions. With the ultimate prize of an invitation to the World Championships in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, we were keen and primed for the win. We raced out of the harbour setting our spread after a quick 20-minute run and, as with all game fishing tournaments, the excitement was at fever pitch.

Some 45 minutes had passed when boom – the right rigger shook as a blue marlin tore the line from the clip. I was on strike and rushed to the rod, frantically winding as the fish jumped several times before racing back towards the boat. The thought of so much slack line floating in the breeze saw me hit the afterburners, as I cranked the reel at breakneck speed.

Ensuring that the single hook was razorsharp certainly paid off, as this fish did everything possible to throw it off. At around 50kg, it was the smallest blue I’d ever seen, but as the tag hit the mark we celebrated like it was a 1000-pounder. It was the first marlin of the tournament and it would be a handy fish if we were to tie on numbers with any other team. In the event of a draw, the first fish puts you ahead on count-back.

But, we spent the rest of the day without really seeing another fish; with only a few boats out fishing, the radio skeds were telling us there was a serious bite further south. One boat had hooked five fish and another blue marlin had also been landed.

However, for day two our local skipper, John wanted to head back to where we’d landed that first fish, so north it was. We made a beeline for the Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) and while flying fish blasted skyward and birds dived on baitfish, we just couldn’t find a marlin. The radio skeds rolled in and tensions rose on the boat when we heard the hot bite down south had continued – we’d just wasted four hours fishing in the wrong direction!

Competition fishing is all about spending as much time as possible at a location where there are lots of feeding fish, and heading north may have blown our chances of winning the comp. All the boats to the south had seen multiple fish and two marlin had been tagged by one vessel, pushing us back to second. We decided to run past the second FAD while we were there, before heading south – a journey that would dispense with yet another hour.

With three hours left in the day, we finally arrived at the scene of the action, promptly setting up our lure pattern – a short and long corner, a short and long rigger and a shotgun. Our big teaser was causing a commotion and all five Larva lures were working overtime to raise a fish. Michael was on strike when an unusual hook-up got us moving frantically around the deck. We quickly pulled the lines in to allow Guesty to land the crucial second fish, but excitement soon turned to disappointment as a shortbill spearfish emerged from the water. It was a rare catch and we couldn’t help but admire it, but in this comp only marlin count.

Guesty passed strike on to Andrew and we sat back in hope with under an hour to go. The boat was quiet as we sat there, lamenting our earlier fatal tactical mistake. Then, with 15 minutes to go, the line of 15kg mono began screaming – as did we. The spread was cleared and we radioed in that we’d hooked up. The rules state you’re free to fight and land a fish after lines out at 4:00pm, provided you’re hooked up. 20 minutes later, a 70kg black marlin swam away with a lovely yellow tag hanging from its shoulder. Phew – we were back at the pointy end of proceedings and the return trip to the marina was a happy one, indeed.

Day three was slow, particularly in the morning. Then, around lunchtime, we began scrabbling around the deck as Daniel hooked up to a small billfish. The chatter stopped as a black sail leapt from the surface to dance across the waves. The tag slipped in easily, but again it didn’t count, and as time slipped away a late hook-up to a second sailfish sealed our fate. We didn’t win the comp, but we did land four different billfish, which wasn’t bad going by any measure.

In fact, Vanuatu was a blast in general. Port Vila is well worth the short flight from Australia, and the team at the Grand Hotel and Casino were just brilliant. For tangling with billfish or just a fantastic family Pacific island holiday, Vanuatu is right up there with the best – I know I’ll be heading back soon, with the entire family in tow.


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