Marlin on the flats

Al McGlashan | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 1
Marlin in the shallows – a truly unique fishery on the shores of Queensland’s Fraser Island.
Queensland’s Fraser Island is the only place on earth where marlin can be chased in the shallows.

The sight before me was nothing short of surreal. There I was, barely 50m off the beach, trolling a spread of skirted marlin lures. The drop-off where the bluewater lapped against the shallow sandbank was still only 15m deep. Unbelievably, I was searching for marlin.

Over the years rumours had filtered through of marlin on the flats fishery around the northern tip of Fraser Island. The reports were sporadic and, to be honest, I thought it was more of an aberration than a reality.

It looked like anything but marlin water to me, but there was no denying the dark shape that cruised through the skinny water, its sickle-like tail slicing through the water’s surface. It was the unmistakable figure of a billfish and it wasn’t alone either – three fish silhouetted vividly against the sandy backdrop as they patrolled the shallows.

In all my years of marlin fishing I never imagined I would witness such a spectacle. I watched on in disbelief as the fish spotted our lures and raced over to launch an attack resulting in a triple hook-up. One fell off, the second headed out wide, while my fish went in the opposite direction, charging straight for the beach. It kept jumping skyward until it was in just a few metres of water and then cruised along the surf break.

Being small black marlin we knocked over the first fish quickly, then ran inshore in pursuit of mine. We found it casually tailing in just a couple of metres of water right on the beach, seemingly oblivious to the depth. Having worn itself out from jumping all over the place, we soon had it boat-side. I donned my dive gear, but when I peered over the edge I realised it was too shallow, so I waded over to the fish instead. Never in my life did I think I would film a marlin while wading.

Marlin fishing has always been about deep bluewater miles offshore. To see marlin inshore is rare and to see them on the beach and tailing across the flats is, literally, out of this world. It wasn’t a once-off experience, though, as we continued to tally fish all morning, finishing with four fish in as many hours. In a space of three days, while only fishing in the morning, we tallied 16 marlin and saw dozens more. Amazingly, nearly all were caught in water less than 10m in depth and several in water you could stand in. While fighting one fish we actually ran aground, it was that shallow.

That’s good marlin fishing in anyone’s books, but to do it on the beach, with the world’s biggest sand island as a backdrop, is about as unique as it gets.

POCKET ROCKETS

Fraser Island’s fishery is dominated by small black marlin ranging from 10kg through to 30kg and rarely larger than 40kg. At this size, black marlin are generally one- to two-year-old specimens taking part in the annual migration of immature fish pushing south while riding the East Australian Current (EAC). After spawning outside the Great Barrier Reef these mini marlin ride the current downhill, eating anything and everything they can. While no one knows exactly why they congregate on the inside of Fraser Island, I suspect that Breaksea Spit, which juts out to the north of the island, acts as a natural obstacle. Spearheading into the current the fish turn left or right depending on the prevailing current and winds. A north-westerly current at the tip of the Spit would theoretically mean that more blacks would spill inside the bay.

That is exactly what happened prior to our arrival and, sure enough, there were good reports as soon as we hit Hervey Bay. The day we started fishing, James Yerbury’s crew caught nine before we even arrived at the grounds.

Being small means there’s no need for heavy tackle. These pocket rockets jump all over the place so they can easily be knocked over on relatively light spin tackle, even as small as 4000-sized spin reels. Reels this size are more suited to bream than marlin, but that only helps to make the fishery all the more unique. Loaded with 20- to 30-pound braid, half-decent reels with solid drag systems – like Shimano Aernos or Saragosa – are perfect. Best of all, it’s great fun catching marlin on manageable tackle as opposed to the bulky overheads I’m so accustomed to using.

The only problem with using light tackle is getting the hooks to stick. Even at this size marlin have tough, bony mouths, which are incredibly hard to penetrate. Super-fine-gauge hooks are the best bet and with the help of a stiff graphite rod – like a Shimano Ballistic or Terez – you can really load up and get the hook in. I actually went one step further by cupping my hand around the spool on the strike to dramatically increase pressure and really force the hook to dig in. To make this work it can only be really brief, otherwise you can risk snapping the line. But get it right and every fish will be hooked up.

FRESH ISN’T BEST

I had gone to great trouble to get the freshest garfish I could find, but quickly discovered these little blacks are super aggressive and will hit a lure so hard that they usually end up getting pinned … in fact, they were so good at hooking themselves I didn’t use the bait at all.

The easiest technique was to troll small skirted lures along the edge. This resulted in a steady stream of bites, including numerous double-hooks and triple-ups. At one stage we spotted a couple of fish tailing in the shallows and were about to cast to them when all the rods went off, instantly creating mayhem, while we still cast to the fish on the flats as well!

The lure spread was my stock-standard trolling pattern, although we did have to cut down from four to three rods for much of the time because the fish were so thick. Fishing the lures further back also seemed to see an increase in bites, especially the outriggers positioned in the clearer water. On the same note, I noticed there was little need to get ridiculously light with leaders and the fish seemed to bite everything we trolled on 50-through to 100-pound leaders. There was also no difference between fluorocarbon and normal monofilament leaders, but I suspect this would change when fishing pressure is increased.

As productive as the trolling was, it was simply too easy and, to be completely honest, it got a bit boring after a couple of days (I can’t believe I’m saying that about marlin fishing!). Our next step was to catch one casting stickbaits. Our initial efforts were a bit haphazard and we made the mistake of not upgrading from treble to single hooks. This resulted in lots of bites and zero hook-ups (as expected) so we finally woke up and swapped to single, fine-gauge hooks.

At first, we had trouble getting the lures to swim properly. The fish would rush in, then peel off at the last minute, seemingly unconvinced by our offerings. We chopped and changed before finally settling on Halco’s brand-new C-Gar stickbait and instantly things changed for the better.

We couldn’t get close enough to the first couple of fish we spotted, but then Deano, our illustrious cameraman, spotted a fish just inside us right up on the flats. Craig Rushby flicked the lure out. It fell short, but upon hearing the splash the fish raced in to investigate and smashed it without hesitation.

Feeling the sting of the hook the fish erupted out of the water and tore off. While the guys set about fighting the fish I grabbed the underwater camera and dove in to join the marlin. It never ceases to amaze me how beautiful these fish are and this one was no exception. Even at just 20kg this little black was the perfect example of a pelagic predator.

It was over all too quickly and before long the little tacker was swimming away, wondering what the hell it had just eaten. The whole event was captured on film and, as we later discovered, it was the first-ever caught on Halco’s new C-Gars!

While most of our 16 fish released well, there were a couple that appeared a bit worn out by the fight. You need to remember that these marlin are only young and tire very quickly, so they need extra care. You must swim them for a while and get the water running over their gills so they can recover. One particular fish had put in an amazing display. After giving it a bit of time, it was released a bit prematurely and dropped to the bottom, most likely disoriented and worn out. I wasted little time and dove straight in to save it, swimming it back to the boat. We then towed it for a good 15 minutes and saw it come back to life. Seeing it swim off in much better condition is something that always pleases me … these fish are just too valuable, in my books, and it is the responsibility of every angler to make the effort to swim them as long as needed to make sure they are healthy.

HARD-CORE CAMPERS

As amazing as this fishery is, it does have a downside: its remoteness. The top end of Fraser Island is some 65km from the ramp and there are no amenities – just sand, surf and dingoes. Also, there’s no accommodation so you need to be totally self-sufficient.

Basically, there are two options: you can either take a boat big enough to stay on for a live-aboard trip or camp on the island and anchor the boat each night. For me, part of the adventure is doing it all out of trailerboats and roughing it on the island. I love camping and would live in my swag if my wife Rach would allow it.

We camped up at Carree campsite, right at the very tip of the island near the lighthouse. We had planned to explore the offshore fishery there, however the anchorage is only fair as it sits just inside the Spit and boats can cop a flogging in a northerly breeze.

Alternatively, Wathumba Creek at Platypus Bay is a safer option, offering calm water anchorages inside the creek. It is tidal, which restricts access to the high part of the tide. And I hear the midges will eat you alive so it, too, has its downside.

Wherever you decide to camp on Fraser Island, you’ll need to be completely self-sufficient. We swagged it and basically lived on fish each night, so nothing fancy, but sleeping on the beach miles from anywhere under a million stars after catching dozens of black marlin is about as good as it gets, I reckon. That’s part of the adventure that helps make this fishery one of the most unique marlin fisheries on earth.


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