Saumarez Reefs

A dogtooth tuna caught off the Saumarez Reefs, Steve Cooper

Gladstone is home to a fleet of long-range charter boats. Several specialise in fishing and diving expeditions to remote areas of the Coral Sea.

I travelled out of Gladstone on a fishing and diving trip on the Kanimbla, which is about 30 m long and weighs 60 tonnes. It has a cruising speed of 10 knots. There is above-and below-deck accommodation, a cook and, some would say best of all, beer on tap.

Four lines were trailing lures from the stern of the Kanimbla. We were steaming along at 9 knots, 350 km north-east of Gladstone.

The fishing was hot, the boat was rolling and its stereo system was blaring Black Sabbath.

On board were 14 Americans, mainly from Alaska or those having close ties with Alaskan tour leader Russell Knight, an Anchorage-based taxidermist. Our destination was a 48 km strip of coral and rock called Saumarez Reefs.

We’d left port at about noon the previous day and arrived at about 9am, but nobody was in a hurry to drop the anchor. The 15 and 24 kg outfits were trolling lures, mainly big-skirted jigs, and Halco Tremblers. The action had been non-stop for over an hour with yellowfin tuna to about 17 kg, wahoo, barracuda and jobfish.

With the reef in sight, the Kanimbla’s skipper Bruce Stobo started circling a seamount inside the reef. The starboard outer rod doubled over and line was melting off the reel as Idaho diamond dealer, Dan Clark, stepped in for his turn. This fish was bigger than anything hooked so far that morning – including the 15 kg remains of a wahoo attacked by an oceanic whaler shark. Dan worked hard and the sweat poured off him as the big dogtooth tuna made long, deep supercharged dives.

The battle raged for 10 mins on the 15 kg game gear before the tuna finally breached the surface, belly up. A fish of about 40 kg, it rolled slightly and the treble hooks fell out. That’s fishing.

Other than trolling when on the move, fishing was via twin-hulled 4.2 m dories stored on the top deck. All of the small boats were equipped with full safety equipment plus radios to stay in contact with the mother ship. Each day the dories would head out to fish, inside or outside the reef depending on the weather. There was lure trolling for tuna and mackerel, saltwater fly-fishing for tuna and trevally, and bottom bouncing for the likes of red emperor, coral trout and sweetlip. Restrictions were simple: be back at the boat at the designated times for lunch and tea.

There was no shortage of fish, and the fishing wasn’t restricted to daylight. At night, after the evening meal, there were sharks to be caught, attracted to the boat by the fish-cleaning. The biggest sharks were never landed. Carolyn Ray fought a monster for about an hour only to have the hook pull. Or so we thought. When she wound her line in, there was a whaler shark of about 20 kg on the end, its body savaged by teeth marks. We surmised that the small shark had taken her bait, was subsequently swallowed by a bigger shark, and somewhere along the way she had pulled the smaller shark out of the bigger one.

The Kanimbla made regular shifts along the reef to offer a diversity of options. On every leg, the lures were out. The water was warm, cobalt blue and covered with shearwaters chasing schools of pelagic fish like tuna. Sailfish and marlin followed the lures and either failed to hook-up or simply turned away. Whaler sharks were less discerning, attacking lures regardless of whether they had a fish on the end.

Long-range charter fishing is a lot of fun. You get to fish remote waters that don’t have the same fishing pressures of inshore waters. If you get the opportunity to go, take it.

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