We all have dreams. They may start small, but as we grow, so do our aspirations. Recently I was fortunate to pursue one of my own dreams – chasing giant marlin in the clear blue waters off Cairns in north Queensland.
As a young boy, fishing on the rocks in the southern Sydney suburb of Oatley with my dad, I was never satisfied with the size of the catch. I always talked about catching ‘the big one’; giant black marlin that then-TV stars Bob and Dolly Dyer were famous for catching on their series of Tennessee boats.
Cairns has long been held as the black marlin capital of the world. It is a Mecca for those who dream of landing big fish, some of which can tip the scales at in excess of 1000lbs. In game fishing terminology, they are referred to as “granders” and hold a special place in the hallowed halls of game fishing across the planet. A fortunate few get to see the big fish fly and have their dreams fulfilled, and I was hoping to be among their exclusive number last November.
After a number of years of trying, good friend Phil Webster, from the Sydney Game Fishing Club, finally convinced me to take the time and join him in Cairns on Little Audrey in the pursuit of our common dream. I accepted and the die was cast.
Little Audrey, a Warren 76, is one of Australia’s largest luxury charter game boats. She operates from Sydney Harbour for much of the year and makes the annual pilgrimage to Cairns for the northern big fish season. Complete with four staterooms, she is powered by twin 1350hp MTUs that push her smartly along at 28 knots (52km/h) in absolute comfort. You can see her for yourself at: www.littleaudrey.com.au.
As we set sail from Trinity Wharf, Cairns, on a Sunday morning, I had a feeling it was going to be a great trip. We were ably led by Captain Daniel Carlson and his crew of Jeff Hudson and Brady Lybarger, not forgetting 14-year-old apprentice deckie Luke Rogerson, who had come up from the Gold Coast to learn the trade.
Right from the very beginning, as we trolled out around Spur Reef, the signs were good. Bait was plentiful, with scaly mackerel, queenfish, mac tuna, scad and rainbow runners in abundance. At times we saw bait boils; at others we watched the Raymarine sounder screen fill with solid patches of red as thick bait masses passed below.
Joining me on our marlin quest were fellow angler Scott Leach, who had only ever caught one fish, prior to coming on the trip an undersized bream in Sydney Harbour, and my son David, who was also aiming to come to grips with a Cairns black marlin.
The bait tanks were soon full and we watched as Jeff carefully bridled up the scaly mackerel skip baits and rainbow runner swim baits. His stitching would do a surgeon proud. And it wasn’t long before his skills were rewarded. Just 40 minutes from dropping the first bait in, the scaly on the port rigger went off and David was engaged in a tussle with his first Cairns black marlin. It came to the boat in rapid time and after a couple of eye-opening aerobatic displays, the 150lb fish was released unscathed to fight another day.
As happens on all fishing trips, it was a day full of adrenaline rushes, followed by disappointment – that’s why they call it ‘fishing’, not ‘catching’.
Next we headed to a productive stretch of water known as the Bus Stop. All the signs were good: the bait was balled up; the sounder was glowing red and the lines were tight – at least to begin with. Unfortunately, the Wahoo Razor Gang was having its evil way with us. Fish after fish would steal our hard-earned baits, cunningly avoiding the hooks in the process. The toll was high, both in terms of bait and team morale as the wahoo continued their relentless humiliation of their boat-bound protagonists.
Day two saw us change tactics, heading for The Bank, another spot that has a reputation for raising big fish. As is the norm, the morning was all about filling the bait tanks, and after the previous day with the wahoo wreckers, bait was desperately needed.
We soon had all the bait we needed and Scott was the first to feel the anger of a hooked fish. Not for long, though, as he dropped his first-ever marlin after a brief fight. But not long after, he hit the jackpot, countering his newly-earned ‘Drop Scott’ nickname by hooking a 500lb black. It was game on for his third-ever fish and with careful coaching from Phil and Jeff, and a lot of sweating from Scott, the fish was brought in and released. Not surprisingly, he had a smile as wide as the horizon and it was high-fives all around as we prepared for our next encounter.
Dreams were now coming true as we eagerly scanned the sounder for more signs of life.
Soon it was my turn on strike and I sat patiently in the game chair hoping that today would see my grander dreams fulfilled. Marlin were being marked at 90 metres so we knew there were fish about.
“Big fish, about 750!” screamed Dan. As if in agreement, the reel screamed its confirmation that we had a fish on. Even though I have caught my fair share of marlin – black, blue and striped off the NSW coast – this was a Cairns Black; a totally different kettle of fish, so to speak. I was pumped, but typical of my lacklustre luck, it ran for a mere five minutes before pulling the hook.
Continuing my ‘lucky streak’, as the countdown to my next turn on strike approached zero, Captain Dan spotted a 400lb marlin shadowing the baits. With growing excitement and anticipation, I was eventually deflated when, with mere seconds to go, the line on the starboard rigger tripped. With the reel screaming and line peeling off, Scott had beaten me to the punch by just 30 seconds. He was on his second marlin of the day and, with the help of expert driving from Dan, involving lots of water in the cockpit completely drowning angler and crew, a large marlin was at the boat in under five minutes. There was hardly enough time to raise a sweat.
There is nothing as picturesque as watching the sun rise over the clear horizon out on a reef, nor the allure of freshly-brewed coffee to wake the team. Which is how we started day three. As we headed to the bait grounds, I could not believe the number and size of the bait boils. Everywhere we went, mac tuna, scaly mackerel, scad and rainbows were mixing it up. It was on for young and old as we all contributed to the bait pool.
When the 15kg stand-up outfit with a purple Halco deep diver went off, apprentice deckie Luke grabbed the rod and, after much grunting and moaning a Spanish mackerel of about 10kg was on the deck. Immediately, Jeff started to bridle it up as a skip bait. In the coming days, this would prove to be an effective bait that would ultimately result in a personal best dream for boat owner, Phil Webster. Whilst Little Audrey has caught numerous granders for his clients, Phil’s best effort to date had been a black of 850lb.
Scott featured again with a black of around 500lb. This was much bigger than the marlin rookie’s previous two and it rewarded us with a magnificent aerial display.
Late in the day, during my turn on strike, we had what at first appeared to be a tiger shark slip quietly off with the bait, but seconds later all hell let loose as, about 60 metres off the back of the boat, a 500lb black marlin suddenly realised it was hooked. Greyhounding across the surface at a great rate of knots, this fish was determined not to meet me eye-to-eye, and it just ran and ran. Then it turned back towards the boat, with me winding on the reel for all I was worth to try and keep up. But about 10m from the back, off it went again, with more spectacular aerial displays. This was what it is all about. I was in fishing heaven.
In quick time, the fish was brought to the back of the boat and released. In a fitting final gesture, it engaged in an athletic display to celebrate its freedom. I, too, was free – free from my zero fish count up ‘till then. I was now tantalisingly closer to my dream of a hooking up to a proper big Cairns black marlin.
Day four began hot and steamy and after a magnificent egg and bacon breakfast, it was off to The Spur. With all guest anglers now having caught a marlin, it was decided that if we encountered a fish under 200lb, we would hand over to apprentice deckie Luke so he could find out for himself what it felt like to have an angry marlin on the other end of the line.
As all game fishermen understand, rarely does everything go according to plan, but in this case a black marlin of about 150lb obliged by inviting young Luke to contest the point. Under the skillful eye and coaching of Jeff Hudson (who, by the way, owner Phil describes as “the best deckie ever”), Luke was immediately on fire, pumping, winding, and just living the dream as Jeff and Phil guided the novice in the finer points of the game chair ballet.
Around 15 minutes later, Luke had his first marlin under his belt. Given the boat and location, it was an introduction to game fishing that few get to enjoy and was a day that, I’m sure, Luke will never forget.
We dined magnificently that night on succulent rib eye steaks – I didn’t know they made steaks that big and, what’s more, so tender and tasty – washed down by sublime red wine. Liveaboard fishing on Little Audrey truly is about enjoying your time on the water.
As was becoming the norm, the next day – and just seconds before my turn in the chair – ‘Time Bandit’ Scotty launched into his fourth fish for the trip. With tongue firmly in cheek, and while wrestling yet another large marlin, Scotty informed us that he was now an old hand at the game. But I found myself thinking how truly lucky he was. Some people live their whole life dreaming of catching one marlin, yet here was Scotty with four under his belt in a matter of days.
Another outstanding dinner, this time comprising fresh coral trout kebabs marinated in lime and olive oil with a light sprinkling of curry powder, was followed by a viewing of all the video shot to date by adept lens and crew man, Brady. Some of his more memorable footage can be viewed on YouTube. Just look up Blue & White Marlins on Dredge Cam by Brady Lybarger.
Too soon our final day aboard Little Audrey dawned. And what a day it turned out to be!
The standing order on board was that boat owner, Phil Webster would be handed the rod if we encountered a fish large enough to eclipse his previous personal best of 850lb. As it turned out (and, of course, I was again on strike at the time), the anticipated giant finally turned up and as the water parted, our 10kg Spaniard bait disappeared down what appeared to be the cavernous throat of a 900lb-plus black marlin. It was game on for Phil, and the crew cleared the decks for what was to come.
After an initial jump, the fish dived, while Dan threw the boat into reverse in pursuit. The deck was awash as churning water rushed into the cockpit. Again and again the fish jumped in protest, before returning to the deep. True professionals, the crew did their best to make the fight as brief and drama-free as possible. After some 45 minutes, we had a 900lb-plus giant at the back of the boat. The line was cut and cheers went up all around. Whilst not achieving his dream of a grander, Phil was still more than happy to have upped the ante for his personal best.
With only hours to go, Lady Luck finally gave me a break – at the expense of my son, David. While on strike, David was forced to answer a call of nature – just as another reel screamed in answer to a fish strike. So, of course, I did the decent thing and grabbed the rod in his absence.
It never ceases to amaze me how marlin light up when aggressively feeding. The spectacular colours, individual aerial displays, and the way some fish just want to dive, while others head for the horizon, keep me coming back for more.
No two fish are the same and the experience is always different.
This particular fish headed straight for the boat like an Exocet missile, before diving, roaring back to the back of the boat and then, like an Apollo rocket right next to the transom, launching itself skyward. It continued to fight ‘close and dirty’, letting us know it was not happy about our interruption to its daily routine, until, with time running out, we increased the drag and finally got it to the boat. But amazingly, after cutting the line, it continued its antics, jumping repeatedly after our connection had been severed. A spectacular encounter, indeed.
By now it was late in the day and with talk of heading back to Cairns, we were thinking of hauling in the lines and relaxing at last. But David, who had caught the first fish of the trip, wasn’t quite ready to call it quits.
With mere minutes to go, as I wound in the port rigger line and brought the bait to the transom, up came a silvery torpedo, lit up like a neon sign. I quickly slipped the bait back into the churning wake and with a big gulp, it disappeared straight into a large and hungry mouth. The final battle had commenced.
David hit the chair with blinding speed, the deck was cleared and he began winding on the reel as Dan skillfully manoeuvred Little Audrey onto the fish. David continued pumping and winding, pumping and winding, but wasn’t making a lot of ground. With time running out, the drag was upped to 15kg to speed up the fight, but the fish was having none of it.
Finally, after a 20-minute battle, the reason for its reluctance was clear for all to see: it had been tail-wrapped in the initial struggle so that David was trying to haul it tail-first to the boat. No doubt the fish was equally unimpressed by the method of its capture.
Reflecting on our marlin adventures on the way back to port, every angler and most of the crew had hooked a fish. It had been an amazing time, seeing so many large fish. There had been some memorable ‘firsts’, dreams were fulfilled, some were shattered but, more importantly, every one of us had been inspired to return in our quest for that elusive grander that no doubt lurked somewhere out there among the reefs.
Special thanks to all aboard Little Audrey for their professionalism and determination. Ten fish in six days for our trip, while they managed 49 fish for a total of 36 days fishing, including five granders. Not a bad effort in anyone’s eyes.
Bob Baldwin is Federal Member for Paterson and Shadow Tourism Minister. In a former life, he was a Master V qualified mariner with over 20 years’ experience skippering game fishing and dive boats around Australia.