Champagne fishing

I’VE just returned to the freezing cold joy of England from yet another great trip to Australia – apart the bloody cricket – which saw me experience some truly ‘champagne fishing’ in your great country.

This latest fishing adventure actually began on an escapade on the other side of the world in July. I had just concluded the session I was doing at the World Recreational Fishing Conference in Vancouver and was thinking about the next few days during which Ben Diggles and I would be pursuing the giant white sturgeon of Canadas mighty Fraser River, when Allan Hansard asked if I would consider being the overseas guest speaker for the Australian Recreational Fishing Foundation’s Annual Conference in Darwin. A quick look at the diary saw me reach the unsurprising conclusion that my employers at the Angling Trust could do without me for a bit and that I could forgo the delights of an English winter for the chance to tackle some Aussie fish in the sunshine.

All quiet at the Top End

Now Australia is too far away and Ive too many good mates and fond memories for it to be anything but very rude to restrict my visit to just a few days. Luckily my wife was able to come out at the same time and so plans were made for me to spend a week at the Top End fishing for a few days in the Northern Territory, once conference duties were done and dusted, before joining Natalie in Sydney where she was staying with friends. Hopefully I could reaquaint myself with the brutality and beauty of the New South Wales kingfish.

Martin‘s second biggest barra ever and a reward for braving a searing sun and three successive leg stings from box jellyfish – luckily both urine and vinegar are effective antidotes and there was plenty of both aboard the ‘Barraddiction’.

The three days’ fishing out of Darwin were good fun but uncharacteristically quiet. Half a day’s trolling in pursuit of sailfish saw no takes save for a bit of frenetic spinning action when we came across fast moving schools of northern bluefin tuna. We drifted a while and jigged up a few species, including a couple of nice trevally, and I even managed to land my first shark on a soft plastic lure, hooked firmly in the corner of its mouth…but it was not what we were hoping for. However, we were guests of Josh Ker, the owner of the Big Fish shirt company and not only did he take us out on his fabulous, newly acquired game boat but he generously provided us with some brightly coloured tropical fishing shirts, the most garish of which soon found its way onto my person.

Perhaps the barramundi, our target for the next couple of days aboard Pete Zeroni’s boat Barraddiction, were shy of our bright new clothing for we found them in a decidedly dour mood. I was lucky enough to land one good specimen of 83 cm, which was the only decent fish to take a fancy to our lures.

My fishing buddies, Jim Harnwell, former Fisho editor, and Phil Bolton from New South Wales Fisheries, may not have had so much luck with the barramundi but at least they avoided getting nasty stings from the highly poisonous box jellyfish that greeted myself and fellow sufferer Cam Westerway as we disembarked from the boat and nervously paddled ashore, looking around for crocodiles and other local wildlife with a taste for human flesh.

And so to Sydney, my happy home for 18 months after I retired from British politics and enjoyed a fish filled sabbatical in the Australian sun between writing my Keep Australia Fishing report on how you guys can get yourselves better organised. I had fixed up three boat trips with Aussie mates but still had time for some land-based action in various spots around the harbour that I had come to know over the years.

A favourite north Sydney ferry wharf got me in the mood when I spotted a school of huge kingfish drifting by just a couple of feet below the surface. Without big game tackle I’ve found out the hard way that these creatures are virtually impossible to land anyway near the array of pontoons, anchor chains and pilings that littered the water in this location. Luckily for me they ignored the two casts I was able to get in with a soft plastic lure on my wholly inadequate 30lb outfit before drifting back into the depths. However, just as I was about to pack up, the water erupted over by some moored boats as a ravenous school of altogether more modest kingies tore into a pack of unfortunate baitfish. My first cast into the maelstrom saw the lure chased but not taken, the second gave me a brief hook up before coming adrift, and the third had the rod bent and the reel screaming after an explosive take. Although the ‘rat kingie’ was barely four pounds it fought with the power of a fish three times its size and was a great way to get off the mark.

This Aussie Salmon caught by Scott Thomas was very happy to chomp a Fiiish Minnow from France

Some of my fondest memories of Sydney have been catching hard fighting fish in sight of both the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. A trip out with Fisho editor Scott Thomas certainly came up with goods as we were lucky enough to find several packs of surface-busting predators attacking bait schools just a few yards from these two most iconic national landmarks. Although there were certainly a few kingfish sitting underneath the action, as evidenced by the occasional hooked fish that was followed to the boat, all of our hits came from tailor, bonito and salmon. Casting 30 to 40 g metals and retrieving them quickly through the schools was seeing us hook up almost every other cast. I even introduced Scotty to the delights of the Fiiish Minnow from France since it seemed to better imitate the pale whitebait that were being chomped in front of us with gay abandon. Sure enough it produced the goods as effectively as it does for bass and pollack back in Europe and very soon he was playing the biggest salmon of the morning. Unfortunately, a few casts later, it’s soft body proved no match for the sharp teeth of the tailor and very soon we were back on the more robust Halco metals.

By way of a change from chasing predators I arranged to meet up with Sydney Harbour blackfish specialist and fellow Fisho writer John Newbery. John and I became good friends and have a shared interest in politics, the environment and fishing – all of which got a good airing as we targeted the weed-munching luderick from a favourite jetty. The fishing was slow but the banter was good and a few fish came our way until the local kids decided to jump in front of us and put the shoal off their lunch. It mattered not as float fishing the clear waters of the harbour in full view of the entrance cliffs on a sunny day in good company is really no hardship.

If there’s one place in the world I will never tire of visiting it’s Sydney. For the city itself and the good friends I have made as well as the fabulous variety of fishing that can be experienced.

Does ‘champagne fishing’ get any better than this? And with the big Kingie tagged and carefully released hopefully it gets to breed some more and give great sport to other anglers.

A Day to Remember

And then there were was that final day to remember, fishing a spot down the coast a couple of hours from the city, when the conditions were perfect and everything went to plan.

Since my return to England I’ve spent some time explaining to those poor souls who have yet to experience the thrill of fishing for big kingies that a metre plus specimen is a fish of a lifetime. And whilst my fishing partners for the day, Phil Bolton and Ian Osterloh, had captured a few over the that magic size, our skipper Jim Harnwell had yet to score a ‘metrey’ in many years of fishing all over Australia. That’s how special these fish are and how lucky we were to bring no less than seven of these monsters, from 1.05 to 1.20 m, to the boat in a single session. All three Aussies agreed that this had been their best kingie day ever. What were the chances of me being there on a random trip, from the other side of the world, at the right time and in the right place?

The fish were holding a few miles offshore, over a patch of reef some 18 m down, and had been coming up earlier in the week for stick baits and surface lures but shying off from actually taking. However, on this day the East Australian Current had pushed a patch of warm water southwards and my friends were hopeful that these conditions might just fire up the big kings. We were soon punching out to sea with livebaits in the tank and the water looking perfect. We were the only boat out there – perhaps it was really was going to kick off for us today?

As we rigged up the livebaits and dropped them down 10 m on the downrigger Phil had a couple of speculative casts with a big stick bait. This suddenly turned the water yellow as a pack of smaller kingies rose up in the water to investigate. The first two drifts saw our livebaits smashed off the hooks by the ‘rats’ but very soon the bigger fish fired up and what followed was one of the most dramatic few hours’ fishing of my life.

It was obvious we were now on a substantial pack of big hungry fish so the second rod was put away as we sent a single livebaits down over the next seven drifts across the mark. Large red arrows on the sounder confirmed that those livies were unlikely to remain unmolested for long and so it proved to be the case. With the reef only a few metres away from where the fish were hitting the only chance of landing these brutes was to fish heavy and gun the boat away from the danger zone the moment the rod crashes over.

Now for someone like me who is more used to gently playing in my fish on three pound line it’s quite a shock to find myself holding onto to a bucking rod whilst 30lb of fish charges one way and the boat belts off at 30 knots in the other direction. The net result of this adrenaline-fuelled frenzy is that the reel spool becomes too hot to touch after 300 yards of 100 lb braid is dragged from a tightly set clutch, and the fish is hopefully planed up in the water and away from danger. There then follows a tough battle to recover enough line to get this most powerful of all predators to the boat. It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time and the memory of those big, beautiful kingies rolling on the leader before being hoisted aboard for a quick tagging and photo session will stay with me forever.

Enjoy the photos in the gallery above for they capture the moment better than my words ever can.

As Jim commented as he ran us back to the boat ramp: “It doesn’t get much better boys – real champagne fishing!”


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