Marlin fishing in Port Stephens

By: Joe Fish

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The catch of a lifetime is all about being in the right place at the right time. And for marlin the place is Port Stephens and the time is now!

Marlin fishing in Port Stephens
GAMEFISHING — Stars and Stripeys

My boss is serious about his fishing. He’s reasonably successful to, with good catches on most of his excursions. Yet for all the time, effort and money invested he is yet to fulfil his dream of fighting a marlin. As a former professional sportsfisherman I am well aware of how this obsession can burn a hole in the inflicted victim’s wallet.

The question is how to maximise your chances of success, while minimising the damage to your bank balance? The answer is surprising simple. Do your research, fish with the best and above all else, make sure you are in the right place and the right time.

The age of Facebook has made a journalist’s life a lot easier. As a tool to maintain contact with the extensive industry network it is unparalleled. A post from a former colleague Murray Finlayson caught my eye. Now Muzza’s not famous for being prone to exaggeration, so when says he had a good weekend’s fishing it pays to make a few enquires. Turns out the team he crews with on a Viking 48 called Gunrunner had caught 13 marlin in two days to win the Luhrs Billfish Classic. Crikey, I thought, that’s not too bad!
"I guess they are on the chew?" I asked on the message board.
His reply was uncharacteristically verbose, "Yeah mate, they’re biting heads off. Get your arse here now." Nuff said. I was on the first plane.

Nelson Bay Marina, the hub of the sportsfishing community in Port Stephens, is about 30 minutes drive from Newcastle airport. If you choose to take a taxi be prepared for a fairly hefty fare. It cost me $140. Apparently it is cheaper to order a taxi directly from Nelson Bay rather than opt for one waiting at the airport. By the time Trade-a-Boat photography guru Barry Ashenhurst arrived I had washed away the sour taste of the cab fare with a crisp glass of Crown’s finest.

As luck would have it, we arrived in the middle of the Nautilus Boat Insurance NSWGFA 50th Anniversary Interclub Tournament. In order to make the most of the photographic opportunities Barry and I decided to get rides on separate boats. As I was already organised to fish with Muzza on Gunrunner, we only needed to find a boat for Barry. The Newcastle & Port Stephens Game Fish Club representatives could not have been more helpful organising a Caribbean 40 called Seaka that had been running hot skippered by Geoff Thompson.

With Bazz sorted it was time to catch-up with the Gunrunner team. Now, as I said, Muzza’s a man of few words, and he's seen a fish or two, so to see him as worked-up as he was the fishing must have been pretty good. He showed me pictures of a blue marlin likely to be in excess of 280kg, which they broke off at the boat earlier in day. It was certainly an Australian record candidate in 15kg and he was lamenting the failure of the ultra-light leader. After a couple of quiet ones it was time to hit the hay in preparation for the six o'clock start. Needless to say, I slept lightly dreaming of screaming reels and white-water.

As gamefishing boats go the Viking 48 is a seriously mean machine. Built in New Jersey and capable of handling the long runs and rough conditions that characterise that coast, Viking Yachts are reputed to be some of the best sea-handling high-performance vessels on the planet. Gunrunner, with its twin 1000hp C18 CATs proved to be a prime example of that Yankee legend. Conditions weren’t rough per se, but they were uncomfortable enough to keep a majority of the 50-foot boats we test under 20kts. Not so Gunrunner, it was 30kts all the way to the shelf. I was impressed.

The first order of the day is to catch bait. The grounds off Port Stephens are renowned for the large quantities of slimy mackerel that can be found near the shelf in around 200m of water. Good bait is often the difference between the heroes and the zeros in tournaments so catching it can be a tense and serious business. The slimeys are caught on sabiki flies dropped into the schools marked on a sounder, often as much as 150m below the boat, but sometimes even on the surface.

Size is important. The little guys just don't seem to be as effective as the big, fat juicy ones. The mackerel are used in two ways: either live, trawled at various levels throughout the water column; or dead, skipped on the surface. As we prepare to start fishing it becomes clear that teamwork onboard Gunrunner is to a very high standard. Like I said, "Fish with the best."

Teamwork is an essential part of a successful tournament-winning strategy. To the uninitiated it looks chaotic and potentially dangerous as a multitude of razor sharp objects are swung around with seemingly cavalier abandon. However, to the educated eye, it's a perfectly choreographed ballet. Like a modern day Indian tracker the skipper slips into predator mode, sensors fine-tuned for the smallest sign of the prey on the seemingly blank blue canvas. The crew in the cockpit below work swiftly and silently to set the spread. Skip-baits are rigged with surgical precision and tied to circle hooks on light high-tech fluorocarbon leader. Livebaits are prepared in a similar manner and dropped into tuna-tubes with speedy deployment. To augment the attractiveness of the spread, startlingly lifelike artificial teasers are added to the mix and we are ready for action.

While we are officially targeting striped marlin, large numbers of black marlin are also caught, along with a smattering of line-smoking blues. As a rule, the stripeys and blacks congregate around slimy mackerel schools near the pinnacles and areas of foul ground slightly inside the shelf in around 200m. The most popular area, known as the Car Park really does get congested in a big tournament. In theory, the blue marlin hang slightly farther out over the shelf, but there are no fences out here so vigilance is the name of the game.

Today, the team on Gunrunner has chosen to fish away from the pack in an experiment to sound out new grounds in preparation for the all-important final weekend of the Interclub tournament. At first it seems as though it may have been a bad call as we troll unmolested for an hour or so while the radio crackles with what sounds like hot action on the Car Park. The temptation to follow the pack often gets the better of experienced skippers, but the old hands know most of the noise on the radio is just nervous chatter among the rookies. The hot captains seldom say much and play their cards close to their chest. If you are confident you are in the right place stick to your guns.

Suddenly a fin cuts the water behind the bait and vanishes. Action stations! The entire crew is on high alert. An iridescent streamlined shape appears like fluorescent light deep beneath the short teaser. Is there one fish or two? They move so fast it's hard to tell. At the same time there an explosion on the long bait. Its two fish! Now there's real chaos in the cockpit as the team works frantically to hook them both. But even the best laid plans sometimes don't work out in both stripeys getting a free lunch.

Regardless it is clear we are in the right place so a decision is made to switch to livebaits as the technique usually has the best hook-up rate. Within minutes the deep bait is grabbed and the battle commences. Again, I am treated to a display of precise teamwork. The angler maintains a perfect balance pressure and angle on the fish, while with a mixture of aggression and finesse, the skipper manoeuvres the boat. Shoulder to shoulder the crew line-up to place the all-important tag in the blisteringly quick fish buried in the maelstrom of white-water and black smoke at the back of the boat. The short fight is a good one for both the team and the fish. Often the bite times are short and the best teams catch several fish in a rise, not just one.

As usual the bite ebbed and flowed throughout the day and by stop-fishing Team Gunrunner had tagged two striped marlin and one black from nine bites. A 33 per cent ratio well below these guys usual standards. Muzza was philosophical, it was a good workout for the team and they garnered valuable knowledge about the grounds away from the Car Park. But the conversion rate on the weekend would have been much better if they were to take away the coveted Interclub Trophy. My colleague on Seaka also had an exciting day tagging two striped marlin and two black marlin. New to the game, but a long-time fan of sports that combine high-speed action and horsepower, like ATV racing, I think he might be addicted.

Trade-a-Boat would like to extend special thanks and congratulations to Team Gunrunner — Jason Lee, Katie Lee, Scott Lee, Murray Finlayson, Kiara McMahon and Danielle Klein. Winners of the Luhrs Billfish Shootout 2012 and the Nautilus Boat Insurance NSWGFA 50th Anniversary Interclub Tournament. I thoroughly enjoyed my team and look forward to swapping battle stories soon.

Special thanks to Geoff Thompson and the crew of Seaka for keeping Bazz safely out of harm’s way. I think you may have made a fan for life!

To the excellent team at the Newcastle & Port Stephens Game Fish Club, a special thanks for your hospitality and for bending over backwards to get us out fishing with the best!



1). D'Albora Marinas Nelson Bay, with Port Stephens entrance in the background.

2). Decky Daniel Klien with a string of slimeys. None of these are big enough.

3). Fast reflexes and good balance are a must.

4). Viking II (centre) returns after a successful day. Capt Bill Billson is probably Australia's best-known gamefishing skipper, a reputation built on incredible consistency.

5). Geoff Thompsonon Seaka was kind enough to put up with Bazz for the day.

6). Beating all-comers — Team Gunrunner.

7). Port Stephens, NSW.

From Trade-a-Boat Issue 425, March-Apr, 2012. Photos by Barry Ashenhurst; Joe Fish; Supplied


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