A black marlin on the line in Cairns, Steve Cooper

Many international game anglers regard Cairns as the game fish capital of the world, with plenty of big black marlin – the Holy Grail of gamefishing. Granders or Julies, call them what you will, these huge female marlin are the biggest and the best on offer. From September to December, anglers arrive from all over the world to battle with blacks in excess of 500 kg.

This is a big deal, and can cost big bucks. At the peak of the black marlin season, anglers arrive willing to spend $2500 or more a day to catch the world’s biggest fish. The high rollers not only charter game boats, they also stay at sea on live- aboard mother ships, which can double the cost of the trip. Add airfares and incidentals and you are talking bills that look like telephone numbers – especially when you consider that some anglers will stay around for a month.

However, other anglers fish Cairns on a budget by sharing charters and staying in budget accommodation. In this way, the cost shared by five or six anglers fishing for marlin for a week is about the same as staying at a lodge in the NT and fishing for barramundi.

It still isn’t cheap, but it is an adventure to remember.

The marlin boom in Cairns began on 25 September 1966. Crewman Richard Obach was fishing with Captain George Bransford on his gamefishing vessel Sea Baby when he caught a world-record 1064-pound (483 kg) marlin off Euston Reef on 37 kg tackle.

Nowhere else in the world can anglers lay claim to the number  of 1000-pound (game fishers still talk imperial measurements) blacks caught off Cairns. Little wonder the black marlin fishing developed into a multi-million- dollar-a-year business.

The experience is great. I once did a stint there as an observer in a major gamefishing tournament. The event was serious, with big dollar prizes and dedicated competitors. Strict rules applied and observers were put on game boats to ensure no one misinterpreted them. For example, at one tournament, an angler caught a ripper marlin but under the tournament rules, the leader used to catch the marlin had to be handed in to verify it was legal. A deckhand’s decision to toss the leader over the side on the way back to port cost the angler $32,000 in prize money. I wouldn’t have liked to be the deckie.

However, Cairns has more than big marlin. There are plenty of exciting sport fish options for anglers who want to chase serious fish on light tackle, including saltwater fly. Most of the action takes place 30–45 km offshore, inside the Great Barrier Reef and near the reef openings. The most sought-after fish are juvenile black marlin and sailfish to about 50 kg, Spanish mackerel and tuna.

On a three-day live-aboard expedition I fished with Cairns- based tackle guru Jack Erskine off Cairns. His ‘job’ was to field test  new reels from the Penn stable.

On this day, the south-easterly wind was blowing 10–15 knots and the sea had a moderate chop. ‘Helluva job, but someone’s gotta do it,’ Jack smiled.

Skipper Ross Finlayson reduced speed on the Sea Baby IV to about 8 knots and signalled for deckhand Glen Campbell to feed out teasers and baits.

The spread consisted of two skipping garfish, spring-rigged with skirts over their heads and 10/0 hooks; a swimming mullet and a Boone daisy chain teaser consisting of five plastic squid and a small Watsons tuna rigged to skip behind.

We were several kilometres west of Pixie Reef, about 20 nautical miles north-east of Cairns. These waters inside the Great Barrier Reef are famous for marlin, sailfish, mackerel and tuna.

In the game chair rod-holder was a 12 kg threadline outfit and from the end of the rod, a leader ran down to a plastic container where a small baitfish, rigged and ready, swum. Everyone watched the lures, waiting and wishing for a sailfish or marlin to rise. Within an hour a small black marlin moved in on one garfish. Laurie spotted it and Ross gave urgent instructions to haul in the baits.

‘You ready Jack?’ he called. By now we could all see the slim, streamlined shape of the marlin eyeing off the lures and baits, moving left and right across the stern. The beaky was undecided. Jack took up the rod, dropped the live baitfish into the wake and free- spooled line, relying on Ross’s keen eyes to tell him when the bait was in front of the marlin. Live bait is the trigger that pulls a marlin out of its indecision.

‘He’s got it!’ yelled Ross. ‘Let him take some line Jack… more line, more… now give it to him!’

At that, Jack flipped the bail arm over, waited for the line to tighten and set the hook. He did this to perfection. Admittedly, Jack’s had plenty of practice, having caught more than 400 marlin and sailfish on light tackle.

Not a heave-and-reef angler, Jack kept the rod low and maintained control. It might have been a smallish specimen, about 25 kg, but the runs and jumps were magic. Line sizzled through the guides and the drag system purred under each shortening run. Small marlin are a sweet option on light tackle. After 10 mins the fish was alongside and Glen took hold of the bill and lifted the marlin inboard where the hook was removed, the fish held up for photos and released. Lift to release took less than a minute. This was sight fishing at its best.

We raised three more marlin that day; the biggest about 50 kg. We didn’t catch it, though it managed to eat two baits.

The method is called switch baiting. If a marlin rises, hopefully it will take the bait and become hooked, but if the fish is looking at the baits and not taking them, live bait is fed out while the other baits and lures are brought in.

Despite the consistent availability of this sort of action, both Ross and Laurie are frustrated. ‘It seems almost impossible to get the message across,’ Ross said. ‘People come for the big blacks in October and November, but Cairns has a lot more to offer than big marlin, and  if it’s just the horses you want, you can still catch them in September and December.’

Ross said the heavy tackle black marlin season runs from September to December along the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns to Lizard Island. The best results often come in the afternoon, from about 2pm onwards. Depending on the location and the degree of difficulty getting back into the anchorage, most boats fish through to as late as 6.30pm.

Laurie said when he was skippering Sea Baby he offered clients cheaper rates to fish earlier in the season, but they didn’t want it. ‘They don’t know what they are missing out on,’ Ross said.

He was right; the action over the three days we spent offshore ‘out of season’ was constant. On our first day we did a fair bit of trolling. About an hour before the tide change, Ross manoeuvred Sea Baby onto a seamount and we started laying a cube trail. Soon we were hooking up on scaly and Spanish mackerel, and the occasional bottom fish like red bass. That wasn’t quite as exciting as the two sailfish that were hooked earlier that day while trolling an area known as Onyx Reef.

The mackerel action seemed to continue for as long as baits were fed out. Mackerel take off like express trains and line fairly sings as it cuts through the water. Fortunately these fish are tasty, which is just as well because there is no way of removing a hook from the razor-lined jaws of a frisky mackerel. In between there were longtail and mackerel tuna, a never-ending procession of high-speed, light-tackle sport fish that many punters who come to Cairns seem to overlook.

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