One with the lot

Al McGlashan | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 2
Local welcoming committee …I remember reading stories as a kid … about this fairy tale location
Imagine a place so full of fish that a day’s action will totally exhaust you … that’s Elizabeth Reef, 300nm off the NSW coast.

There was nothing out there. Staring out past the bow all I could see was endless ocean … the same ocean I had stared at for the last 10 hours. However, the GPS, like a nagging wife, insisted I was wrong – it said there was an atoll dead ahead.

As we continued on with the autopilot diligently fighting the slight sea, I started to question the accuracy of the GPS. We were nearly 300nm off the New South Wales coast in an area that is scarcely charted … could it be wrong? My doubts were not echoed by Glenn Wright, who yelled out from the helm chair: “Okay put those smaller skirts on and throw out some Laser Pros!”

Even as I set the spread I couldn’t resist peeping around the side – the reef just had to be there somewhere. And then I noticed the slight line of breakers signifying its edge.

I remember reading stories as a kid about this fairy tale location and now I was finally here. It had taken some 30-odd years to get here and now I was excited; seriously excited. There wasn’t much time to reflect because, halfway through setting the fourth lure, the water behind the boat erupted as all four lures were smashed simultaneously.

Two 50 and two 80 Tiagras screamed in unison with the four-way hook-up. By now we were quite close to the breakers and as I struggled with the 80-pound chair rod I suddenly realised the bottom was clearly visible. In such shallow water I wondered what we had hooked, but then I spotted the golden hues and realised they were yellowfin tuna. Struggling with a few tangles, we managed to hoist 35kg of prime sashimi over the side, quickly followed by three more. Catching four yellowfin is impressive enough, but what made it so surreal was that we were in just eight fathoms depth – that’s just 15m of water. Never, in my whole life, have I caught big yellowfin in water so shallow I could touch the bottom!

And that was just the beginning. As soon as we set the gear again we were locked in battle with another double hook-up, this time with 15kg kingfish. One fish fell off at the boat, while the other posed for a few photos before being sent back into some of the clearest water I have ever seen. Once again, we diligently set the gear and quickly hooked up, this time a green jobfish.

This was complete madness and before we knew it, we had hooked up again. Three rods screamed, but this time things didn’t go to plan and before we had a chance to react we lost everything – that’s right, we got completely annihilated and lost all three lures. I’m not sure whether they were monster kingfish, jumbo yellowfin, or some other denizen of the depths – either way we ended up with nothing more than lines flapping in the breeze.

Fishing of this calibre is usually associated with far-off locales, miles away from home and usually near some remote tropical island. But what if I told you this all happened in New South Wales? I reckon you’d probably be laughing at this point and thinking I need to try different medication. There are no coral atolls that far south and certainly none so rich in sportfish, but I’m telling you there is such a place and it’s closer than you think.

SO CLOSE, YET SO REMOTE

Elizabeth Reef lies due east of Coffs Harbour on the NSW north coast and, being some 300nm offshore, is truly in the middle of nowhere. The only reason it is included in Australian waters is because Lord Howe Island artificially extends the Australian Fishing Zone (AFZ) further out into the Tasman Sea. The reef got its name after the wreck of the Elizabeth, which ran aground in 1831. Since that day the reef has claimed many vessels, including a Japanese longliner that is still clearly visible.

Protected by its remoteness, it’s a place I have always dreamed of fishing. Tales from the lucky few who have visited speak of untold fishing riches with massive kingies, endless tuna, tropical intruders and unstoppable beasts. However, Elizabeth Reef’s isolated location makes it difficult to reach – the closest access point is Lord Howe Island, which lies on the same longitude, but 100nm to the south. No charter operations can access the reef and so it is largely left to boats making the open ocean voyage to reach it.

With all this in mind, I had pretty much given up on any chance of visiting this gem when a chance conversation with Glenn and Karen Wright, from Sydney Game Fishing Club, changed everything. Glenn mentioned in passing: “We’re going to Elizabeth Reef – you should come, you’d get some great photos!” I just about fell off my chair.

AND … ACTION!

A week into the New Year, I found myself aboard the 38ft Tantrum trolling north in the middle of the Tasman Sea. First impressions were a bit of a letdown because there is nothing there apart from a few rusting shipwrecks. Below the surface however, it’s a completely different world, teeming with colour and life.

Along with its counterpart Middleton Reef, which lies 30nm further north, Elizabeth Reef is extremely isolated and, as result, these reefs act like massive fish magnets drawing in pelagic fish from miles around. The reefs lie almost on the 30-degree line, making them home to some of the most southern coral reefs in the world.

The mix of species which call the reefs home is truly spectacular, with a unique blend of tropical and temperate water species. More than 300 species of fish have been recorded there, from red bass to lunar trout, silver trevally to double-headed wrasse, and kingfish – thousands of kingfish!

The fishing was ridiculous, with endless action on yellowfin and kings, as well as other delights like amberjack and jobfish. We had started trolling with four rods, but it was impossible, so we cut down to three and then to just two. That didn’t seem to make a difference so, after just a couple of hours fishing, we pulled the gear in and stopped fishing just so we could have breakfast.

In the afternoon we changed tactic and, after getting a double hook-up on kings, we pulled up and began burleying – within seconds the water was alive with fish. Kings of a few kilos rubbed shoulders with some heavyweight hoodlums in the 25kg range.

Despite being a virtual aquarium we quickly discovered that, even here, big kings don’t come easy. Getting a bite was easy, but the problem was getting past all the 10 to 15kg fish for a shot at a real hoodlum, which proved near impossible. I know it sounds silly, but there were simply too many fish!

Once we’d hooked up, the next issue was stopping the kingy from reaching the coral reefs and then, if you got past this barrier and had the fish back to the boat, you faced the next challenge: sharks. There were thousands of them and while they all swam around happily, the minute you hooked up things changed dramatically. If we succeeded in stopping the kings from reaching the bottom, they invariably got into trouble when the sharks started chasing them around. It was so frustrating because the sharks deliberately held back till the fish tired out and then got on their case which, understandably, gave the kingies their second wind.

In the space of a couple of days we caught countless kingfish over a metre in length, with the biggest stretching out to 1.4m, but there were so many bigger ones cruising around that we simply couldn’t stop or get a bait to. It may seem like a good problem to have, but it was still really frustrating.

‘DOWN’ TIME

Normally I fish from dawn to dusk to get the most out of a day on the water – however that would be physically impossible at Elizabeth Reef. By mid-afternoon we were destroyed. In all my life I have never re-rigged so much gear, so we decided to head inside the reef and anchor up early. We made the mistake of leaving out our only rod with a lure attached and, as we passed through the channel, we hooked up again. Hayden was on the rod, but we quickly realised this was an XOS kingy and in seconds it stripped the 24kg line almost down to the bar and busted him up in a matter of seconds!

Vowing never to put another lure in the water, we carefully anchored up on the gravel to avoid damaging any coral. The crystal-clear water, with the odd shark cruising around, was an underwater photographer’s dream so I decided it was time for a dive and hastily readied my gear. A few minutes later I wandered to the back of the boat and was shocked to see not just a couple of sharks, but dozens swarming around the boat. It wasn’t just Galapagos whalers, but silkies, bulls, bronzes and tigers … my enthusiasm for some underwater shots just washed away.

At this point Glenn decided to encourage them by tossing a tuna carcass over the side. The reaction was scary and the water literally erupted. Just shooting images through the marlin door saw the sharks smashing into the camera and chewing the boat. I had always thought that a shark’s association with boats was learned behaviour, but here we were at a spot that barely sees a couple of boats a year and they were more than just excited about our presence. Needless to say, I lost my enthusiasm for a swim.

LONG TREK HOME

After spending a few days out on the reef we saw a break in the weather and decided to head straight to the coast instead of back to Lord Howe Island. A trip of that distance is a serious mission where fuel calculations and weather checks are a vital daily occurrence. What surprised me, though, is that as soon as we left the reef we didn’t see a fish for a whole day. It’s a massive ocean out there, but much of it is a desert. This isn’t because the fish have been fished out – it’s because they naturally congregate around specific spots and structures. And sure enough, when we hit a seamount the next day, we suddenly saw birds and – bang – we caught a 150kg blue marlin.

There is an important lesson in this, especially with all the carry-on about marine parks. When anglers get locked out of just 30 per cent, it is always the 30 per cent that is rich in life, while much of the remainder is ‘desert’ and completely useless to fishermen. Elizabeth Reef allows recreational fishing under a permit system, which is great and, most importantly, you’re not allowed to fillet fish unless it’s for immediate use. This is a great management tool that allows fishos to enjoy the reef without destroying it.

Two days later, we finally reached the mainland and headed to Port Stephens, cutting through numerous no-fishing zones. It had me thinking that mainland marine park lockouts could learn a lot from Elizabeth Reef.

HOW TO GET THERE

Elizabeth Reef (coordinates: 29°57’25”S 159°4’32”E) is part of the Lord Howe Rise and has been a marine park since 1987. It is one of the few seamounts in the Tasman Sea that actually break the surface.

The best way to access the reef is to sail to Lord Howe Island. Fuel, supplies and permits can be arranged there, although I recommend booking your mooring in advance as only a few public moorings are available. This is not a trip for the faint-hearted and requires a seriously well set-up boat and crew … but that’s half the adventure when exploring remote and wild places like Elizabeth Reef.


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