A new angle on marlin fishing
The sport has had an environmental transformation.
Already the talk of lures, teasers, and bait is perplexing. The minute one boards the Moana III at the bustling Cairns Marina, it’s another world. Preparation, technical and precise, has already begun on deck.
As the two hands, Jason and Roger, make light work, I watch the tourists scurrying past on the wharf.
Back and forth they search for their particular adventure tucked within the labyrinth of jetties. Some are way off target and need to get to the Reef Terminal.
A local points them in the right direction.
Two increasingly distressed Japanese women go past for the third time.
Our skipper, Daniel McCarthy, heads down the gangway to their rescue, deciphering their booking ticket and showing them the right jetty.
It is early morning, they will get there in time.
All around are signs of life. Locals who live on the water in their odd assortment of vessels are up and leaving for work; or lazing on deck in pyjamas, sipping a cuppa; or preparing for a day’s fishing.
Visitors leave their imposing luxury yachts and make their way into town for some sightseeing – Cairns one day, the Bahamas the next.
Roger and Jason continue to rig the lures to catch bait. We are not talking whitebait, but metre-long mackerel.
They show me the latest addition to their colourful cache: a giant pink squid with bright ribbons of purple and pink – something one would expect hanging in an arty gift shop. It feels like it weighs a tonne.
No, we are not just dropping a hand line off the tinny, we are chasing black marlin. Those remarkable sea creatures whose strength and magnificence has drawn anglers for centuries.
The Moana III is a local charter boat licenced to take groups on a variety of fishing expeditions – black marlin, game fishing, reef and deep sea fishing.
The custom-built vessel can venture into waters up to 200 nautical miles from the coastline.
It’s a lovely design, comfy, with ‘they-think-of-everything’ storage ideas Ikea could only dream of.
It’s the sort of boat ideal for a great escape.
The three-man crew combined have decades of experience in marlin fishing. Each takes part in major tournaments along the Australian coastline, as well as operating the Cairns-based tours.
Game fishing is still big business in the region. During the marlin season, from September to December, anglers will pay thousands to enter competitions, or for a day on the water seeking the ultimate battle of might and will.
Two such customers arrive for their fishing experience. Brothers Ross and Bob Stevenson are up here on holiday, one from Sydney, the other the Gold Coast. Both keen and knowledgeable fishermen, neither has ever sought out marlin before.
The day is perfect, only a slight swell to the water as we head out to the deep sea trenches, past the outer reef, which marlin are known to frequent.
“This season is going to be great,” a booming, grinning Daniel says.
Marlin numbers are on the up. He knows this because he has been tracking these great fish for more than 20 years.
He began his life on the water at 15, as a deckie, and worked his way up to skipper. His passion for marlin fishing in particular, and Far Northern waters in general, is just as strong today.
I mention a photo of a huge black marlin that was weighed in Port Douglas only a week before and the stir it caused.
“Yeah, I was angry about that,” he says. “It gives people the wrong idea.”
The days of the giant fish being hung for public weighing are gone. The days of actors like Lee Marvin regularly posing with a catch as crowds came down to watch at the Cairns wharf are over.
Marlin fishing off Australian waters is a transformed sport, one which adheres to a catch-and-release program.
These days circle hooks, which can only catch on to the corner of a marlin’s mouth, instead of the grim, inner stomach jags of old, are used.
When the fish are reeled in, they are tagged, either with an ID tag or an electronic tag which allows scientists to monitor the fish’s journey on release.
“We know so much about marlin now. Where they go, their growth rates, their mysterious habits,” Daniel says.
“One black marlin caught here turned up eight years later – a little girl in Venezuela caught it.
“Last year at Lizard Island we tagged five fish, one with a satellite transmitter. We tracked the depths it swam, it was a 900-pounder (408kg). After 90 days it had travelled thousands of miles, and was near Hawaii.”
The Lizard Island Black Marlin Classic, which draws visitors from around the world, is one of the most conscientious tournaments.
All boats have tags, and must follow strict rules. Of the 3834 black marlin hooked in the 23-year history of the Classic to 2009, only 22 have been presented to the weigh station, which is less than half a per cent of the total number taken.
The information garnered from the tagging is growing as other places known for marlin fishing – Mexico, Hawaii and Papua New Guinea – follow Australia’s lead.
“We’ve promoted it around the world, to release fish. It’s rare to kill one these days, and fish stock is very healthy,” Daniel says.
“By nature most of us are very conservation-minded,” he adds.
On the lower deck, Roger and Jason are organising fresh bait. The fish are tied with nylon line in an intricate pattern of cross-stitch.
Putting aside any squeamishness, it is a fascinating insight into the careful and detailed preparation for marlin fishing.
I later witness these fish, when dragged through water, are so evenly balanced from stitching that they move perfectly, as though they are alive.
Jason starts checking the many lines rigged up off the back of the boat. He ducks and weaves between four huge rods, checking their tension.
Roger shows the Stevenson brothers how to sit in the chair and use the equipment that will catch them a marlin. It is unnerving to see them dip and rear back, release line and pull it in.
The reels themselves are magnificent. Huge, brass, timeless works of art.
We arrive at the “spot” where we slow and start circling, waiting for the moment when all hell breaks loose. Anticipation is high.
The skipper is monitoring the activity below the water on sonar.
“They’re here,” he murmurs.
But they’re down deep.
He grins. “They’re busy.”
While the marlin are getting jiggy with it, we move from point to point. About 12 other boats turn up through the afternoon, all in their own “spots”, each keeping an eye on the other to see if anyone’s having more luck.
Millions of dollars worth of boats, gear, and paying anglers all drifting in the middle of the ocean; it’s a touch surreal.
“Oh, yeah, some people call it the bus stop out here,” Roger says.
He tells me of a place near Sydney during a tournament when there were 300 boats clustered together and about 1000 anglers, such is the popularity of the sport.
The lull of the boat is peaceful, and I doze. But when Daniel realises they might have snagged a marlin, everyone instantly transforms.
The boat roars, the crew move swiftly checking the lines, I am on my feet.
Moments later, the adrenaline rush fades. We are still again. False alarm.
But it is easy to be patient. It is a glorious day, and the sea is gentle. We chat, and the brothers catch up over a beer.
A determined Daniel keeps a check on the time. “Do any of us mind staying out late?”
No. But we didn’t get our Old Man and The Sea moment. We did, however, get an amazing ride back to Cairns as the sun set and the seas darkened.
The brothers were philosophical. As regular fishers, they know the risk of disappointment. And besides, they said, it gave them some quality brother time.
As the inlet lights came into view I was content. I was sad not to have witnessed first-hand the thrill of big game fishing, which continues to maintain a huge following.
I was disappointed not to have seen in the flesh, the fish that flies out of the sea, its arced pose constantly photographed and admired.
And equally, I was relieved I had not had to confront my own feelings when watching a struggle of wills and the taming of such a fascinating and wild ocean creature.