Bucket list Broome sailfish

Charter boat Billistic at work with a salfish.

WHEN old age comes knocking and bones begin to creak, some folks set up a rocking chair on the porch. Old fishermen have better things to do – such as flying from their winter cold hole in Canberra to a pelagic hotspot with a bonus of warm weather.

Nudging 70 years of age reminds you that time is ticking and the bucket list cannot wait. Two mates and I decided we wanted a sailfish, so we booked a charter boat with a tournament winning skipper, Chris Nisbet of Billistic Charters, in Australia’s best sailfish spot, Broome. We all had a great time and learned how to skip bait for sailfish the Broome way.

It was a long walk to the water.

Broome has a beach lifestyle all of its own. Arriving seaside for the first day fishing, we saw scores of cars on the beach. The sand is so hard even front drive sedans do not bog down. Tidal movement up to 9 m and the shallow slope of the beach meant a walk of around 100 m from cars parked above the high tide line, to the water. Lean and bearded deckhand Steve “Ringo” Ring was waiting at ocean’s edge with a 4 m tinny to take us out to the charter boat.

Once we were aboard the boat and had commenced fishing, our trip highlight was a double hook-up on sailfish. Rods were bent and drags were wailing when the skipper, up on the tower, barked “back off the drags!” Climbing the 5 m tower on the 11.5 m aluminium game fishing boat Billistic showed why the skipper was concerned. We were encircled by at least eight sharks, the largest around 4 m long. 

Tight drags would have slowed both sailfish and made them easy prey. Running free they sped past the sharks and the only difficulty was getting them to the boat uneaten. Skipper Chris is experienced at dodging sharks and both fishermen, Frank Tallarida and Ray Gatt, followed the skipper’s directions threading a path through the sharks. Frank got the first sailfish to the boat for a quick release.  

The tower made it easier to spot sailfish and sharks.

By then Ray had let out all but a metre of his 400 m of 10 kg line and it took a light touch not to lose the fish at that stage. When the fish came to the boat it was exhausted after such a long fight. To avoid putting a tired, slow, sailfish back into the water as shark food, Ringo pulled Ray’s fish onto a wet towel, covered its eyes with another wet towel to stop it panicking and thrashing about, then put a deck wash hose pumping salt water into its mouth, so that the water ran through the gills and kept the fish oxygenated.

The boat sped off a safe distance and once the sailfish regained sufficient strength, it was released in an area with no sharks visible.

Having now seen from the tower sharks that could not be spotted from the deck of the boat, I understood why, when Ringo had lost a gaff into the water and dived in to retrieve it 15 minutes earlier, he wasted no time getting back into the boat.

Overall on the four-day charter our group caught six sailfish, a mackerel tuna and two Spanish mackerel. This was apparently a poor result, but the fishing gods can be patchy with their blessings. 

The number of sailfish off Broome and locations where the sailfish choose to gather is seasonally variable. On our trip the usual morning run was about 36 km to the most promising spot. The boat is a large centre console with 360 degrees of movement available to anglers, which helps during multiple hook-ups. Billistic was designed and built in 2003 by Broome local Rod Wellington. Its twin 240HP Yanmar diesels give a good blend of speed and economy, 37 knots flat out and comfortable cruising at 20 to 24 knots. Seasonal variability means speed can be needed. In a recent year the sailfish set up camp further north than usual and it was a 70 km run to reach them. Take your earplugs for long travel. Diesels make themselves heard.

Sailfish know how to dance.

A couple of weeks after our trip finished in late August, three anglers landed eight sailfish and two marlin in one day. In 2015 Billistic raised 578 sailfish in 58 days at sea and hooked 196, also landing 264 Spanish mackerel. All sailfish are catch and release but mackerel are good eating and worth keeping. The best day on Spanish mackerel in 2015 saw 100 fish brought to the boat! That was mostly catch and release fishing given the WA daily limit on recreational anglers of 3 pelagic fish per person.

The skipper and deckhand on our trip looked after their sailfish. The slime that covers sailfish protects them from marine parasites. Our deckhand Ringo released fish quickly with minimal handling (no lifting fish from the water for photographs). Research found that most mouth hooked sailfish rest on the bottom for an hour or two after release, then resume feeding.  This is sustainable fishing.

Although fish numbers were below usual on our trip, we ticked sailfish off our bucket list with two each. Four sailfish were estimated at 20 to 23 kg, which is typical for the Broome area, while a couple were babies of half that weight. The writer prefers not to mention which two sailfish he caught.

Chris and his partner Liz collected us each morning in their four wheel drive for the 5 km journey from the hotel to his boat. That avoided the need for us to count on taxis turning up at 6.30 am.

The author with his first ever Spanish mackerel.

A bonus when catching our Broome Spanish mackerel was that they do not have the ciguatera toxin that creates a poisoning risk in North Queensland and the Northern Territory.  We cooked some of our Spanish mackerel fillets in the kitchen of our high quality accommodation at Habitat Resort and the fillets tasted wonderful.

When we flew some frozen fillets back to Perth as a gift for Frank’s cousin Tony D’Agui, the airline would not accept an insulated box of fillets with ice. As requested we removed the ice and the frozen fillets were accepted and arrived in good condition.

Turning to skip baiting technique, as NSW south coast marlin fishermen, members of our party skip slimy mackerel along the surface with outrigger clips set light and overhead lever drag reels in free spool but with the ratchet engaged. Typically marlin grab the dead bait and run with it while the angler waits, giving the fish time to swallow the bait. Pressure is then applied and as the bait is drawn out of the marlin the circle hook attached 5 cm or so ahead of the nose of the bait hopefully hooks into the corner of the marlin’s mouth.

In Broome the deckhand Ringo was using baitfish, about 15 to 20 cm long, noticeably smaller than the usual size of NSW south coast slimy mackerel used as marlin skipbaits. Circle hooks on Billistic were 3/O or 4/O compared with a 10/O for NSW south coast striped marlin. The 4/O hooks looked puny in the eyes of fishermen used to marlin gear, but they did the job on the slender sailfish. Once we had hooked up, no sailfish lost the hook, despite their acrobatic efforts to free themselves.

Enough skipbaits for a lively day.

The small hooks were attached close to the nose of the Broome skipbaits, but the main difference in technique from our accustomed fishing for marlin, was in encouraging the fish to swallow the bait. On our Broome trip the preferred approach was to open the bail wire on the spinning reel and pull off some line just as the sailfish approached, so that the bait was floating and stationary in the water ready to be taken.

Most sailfish approaching a bait finished up eating it, except when someone was too slow to dump line off the spool and at this point the writer blushes. In any event, a few marlin can expect to see a skip bait floating motionless in front of them on the NSW south coast in summer.

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