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Things Are Heating Up!

A slow start to the marlin season saw DAVID GREEN spend endless hours trolling in an empty ocean. Then, suddenly, the fish turned up!

THE marlin season off the southern coast of Queensland over the summer of 2009/10 was one of the strangest in recent memory. After having a great season in 2008/9, the little black marlins’ anticipated run in early December fizzled into a vast blue horizon of fishless water. Most boats were ready to write the year off as a poor one for the normally productive grounds off Moreton Island through to the Tweed. Reports from more northern ports in late spring did nothing to encourage anglers, with little black marlin and sailfish being few and far between. In fact, on my boat the first five trips didn’t produce a single solitary strike, and in more than 300kms of trolling that’s definitely my boat’s biggest dud run ever. Not even a piddly little tuna ate our lures or baits. It was a big blue fishless void out there.

When it all looked like being a season of doom, the fish turned up suddenly in mid January, and the size range of these fish was quite variable, with some as small as 15 kilos and other monsters in the 150-kilo range. This has, at the time of writing (mid January), made tackle selection particularly tricky. As I prepared my gear in great anticipation for a session tomorrow, I heard of a boat fighting a fish on stand-up 24 kilo gear for three hours only to lose it, and that fish was hooked in quite close to shore where the little marlin normally play. Plenty of other boats had similar tales to tell, which should prove interesting for the light tackle tournaments this season where anglers are restricted to 8-kilo tackle. I witnessed the local boat Tsunami nail a fish every bit of a hundred kilos on 8 kilo line in less than an hour recently, which was very impressive angling.

One interesting feature has been the abundance of baitfish, and the variety thereof. While we have had the usual schools of pilchards and slimy mackerel, there have been huge shoals of small round pinkie-red fish with big eyes, which appear to be juvenile red bullseyes. These fish have dominated the stomach content of both tuna and dolphin fish. There have also been huge schools of oceanic dolphins in numbers I’ve rarely encountered, and the water temperature has quite commonly been over 28 degrees on the wider grounds off the Gold Coast.

 In the early part of the season, with bait, birds and dolphins in profusion, roughly 30 to 40 boats were putting in long days for maybe one or two marlin between the entire fleet. Out wider off the continental shelf most boats targeting blue marlin were getting a couple of bites per day, although there were excellent numbers of dolphin fish well offshore early in the season. Tuna were strangely absent. Then, like someone had turned a switch, the marlin arrived off the southern Queensland coast. The daily average on the inshore grounds was roughly three to 10 shots (strikes) per day and most of the better boats quickly forgot the doldrums of December and started to rack up reasonable tallies of black marlin on trolled lures, skipping gar and live baits. The fish in the weeks after their arrival seemed to show a marked preference for pink or purple lures, which may have been a reflection of the unusual aggregations of juvenile bullseye fish in the grounds east of South and North Stradbroke Islands.

The Gold Coast Gamefishing Club held its annual light tackle tournament in mid January, and this produced 84 tagged billfish in three days fishing for about 30 boats. These fish were generally of pretty good size, and some of them proved quite a handful on the 8-kilo tackle used. During this weekend we had a double hook up on medium blacks, which is quite interesting when you’re fishing two up from a small boat. While we chased my mate Mitchell’s fish, mine managed to remove roughly 700m of 15-kilo line, and that reel hadn’t seen the bottom of the spool in a decade. Due to my habit of top shotting reels, I was actually quite surprised to see four different colours of line disappear off the reel! But the knots held fast, and eventually the fish was landed. After a prolonged bite drought, it was a bloody good feeling to pin a couple of decent marlin after burning roughly a thousand litres of fuel for bugger all prior to the arrival of the late coming schools of black marlin.


The good thing about marlin fishing is that it always poses questions. You never stop learning. In the Gold Coast tournament, boats were required to radio in every billfish hook-up. This made very interesting listening, but what was fascinating was that about 70 per cent of all the bites came in less than 10 per cent of the fishing time. While most skippers realise that a lot of marlin bites relate to the changes of the tide, a lot of these bites seemed to happen well away from tide changes, and at multiple spots all at the same time. In one 10 minute period we listened to 10 hook-ups get called in, from grounds as far north as Jumpinpin and as far south as Kirra. I was speaking to Bob Jones, one of

the most respected marlin skippers in the country, and he said he’d noticed the same phenomenon at the Lizard Island tournament a few years ago when all the bites were radio called in to base, and it was like a dinner bell was rung over the 150 miles of Barrier Reef at the same time. These bite times would often happen after hours of inactivity, and these little flurries were fascinating to listen to. Any readers with similar experiences should write in to the mag, as I’m sure our marine biologist, Ben Diggles, would be fascinated with this. Marlin seem to have designated morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea breaks that they obviously know about and seem to all go on a feeding flurry at roughly the same time. But I’m yet to see one wearing a watch!

The next lesson learnt came from the winning boat Amigo skippered by Tony Painter. This boat caught 14 black marlin over the tournament fishing live baits, but the lessons I learnt from their success, which have definitely helped me since, is to find the right sorts of bait schools on an echo sounder to specifically target. If you find the right type of bait schools at the right time, double and even triple hook-ups can turn out to be quite common. The secret seems to be finding a patch of “broken” bait. When baitfish school up en mass they form large, often dense schools, and on colour sounders dense bait schools show up as red. This is a defence mechanism by baitfish to reduce the chance of being scoffed by predators, and it works, especially for the bait in the middle. Once a school of predators breaks up a bait school it’s easier for the predators to feed, and if you find small isolated groups of bait in clumps or clusters, especially when you get a few characteristic marlin “lines” on the sounder screen, you will generally get more bites with less waiting than if you put your bait or lure in the middle of a massive bait school. This is because the broken up bait actually is a good indicator of actively feeding fish, rather than relaxed cruisers with full bellies who are chilling out until the next feed time. With large bait schools, the areas around the bait are often a lot more productive to fish than the middle of the bait schools. Side scanning units are a big advantage if you want to fish just off the edge of a bait school. The irony of using a conventional sounder is that the image on the screen may show no bait at all, yet these areas a little bit away from the bait school are often the most productive if you want

to find an actively feeding fish. Marlin are one of the easiest fish to pick on a sounder screen. Their segmented swim bladders are long, and these air filled pockets show up well on a good sounder. Often you will see a “hole” in a bait school with a distinct line in the middle of that hole. Baitfish give marlin a wide berth, and this accounts for the image on the screen, although when fish start to feed actively they generally break the bait school up, as do dolphins. These bite periods often coincide with a tide change. It’s hard to know how fish sense a tide change in 80m of water, but they quite clearly do feed more actively during these periods.

This season the marlin turned up late and fed in unusual ways. The bait they ate at the start of the season was quite weird, although the more conventional slimy mackerel and pilchards were abundant later in the season. On lures I have noticed the bites vary from day to day. Sometimes the fish hammer the closest lure to the boat and eat it in a flurry of spray, swallowing the lure and half a metre of leader, which tends to give a very good hook-up rate. This season, however, the fish often treated lures with a very casual indifference. It was common to have very tentative “doughy” bites, particularly in calm conditions, that gave a very poor hook-up rate. In these situations switch baiting or dead bait trolling is a much more productive method, as the fish will definitely bite better if they get a taste of some real food rather than the plastic variety. What I reckon we need is a scented trolling lure that billfish hang onto better. Perhaps those big Gulp squid have a role in this if rigged on a good trolling head.

My mate Mitch Calcutt, who makes the popular “Black Snacks” trolling lures, has done a lot of work designing trolling heads that can be rigged with baits to troll in patterns of more conventional trolling lures. These keeled heads troll well at up to nine knots. The model that is designed to fish with a medium sized garfish has worked really well with a good hook-up rate. Slimy mackerel can also be fitted perfectly to some of his prototypes, but the soft body of the slimy mean it has to be trolled more slowly. In an era of scented soft plastics and lures with taste, the mixing of plastic skirts with natural baits can provide significant advantages. Marlin don’t let go of baits that taste good.

The 30-year-old tradition of rigging mullet and gar for trolling is becoming a lost art to newer generations, but is still the preferred method for most professional Queensland skippers when it comes to light tackle billfishing. A pair of skipping gars on the outriggers and a couple of well rigged swimming mullet on the flat lines is a traditionalist approach that’s very hard to beat.

At the time of writing the wahoo have just turned up and the black marlin are still on the chew, with a few striped marlin also showing up and a bigger number of blue marlin turning up wide of the continental shelf. It’s amazing how a few weeks can change the fishing from an endless boat ride of fruitless trolling to an ocean of great expectation and promise, with the anticipation of success changing from depressing pessimism to positive optimism. The East Australian Current is very much a lucky dip, but it seems highly likely that the massive blue current sweeping from the north will push the migrating schools of billfish well down the NSW coast in late summer, and hopefully most ports will have had good seasons by the time this magazine is on the shelves.

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