Fishing Destination: Broome

I was sitting in the kitchen watching Dee Cox dexterously flick the eyes out of about 30 garfish with a bait needle. She then meticulously sewed sinkers into their gill cases and tied bridles through their eye sockets. The freezer held about 200 gar, carefully cryovac sealed in packs of 10. Bait rigging is quite a complicated business. The aim is to produce a swimming bait that snakes its way under the surface of the water and which is attractive to sailfish. After the gar were finished, the more complex queenfish teaser baits were rigged. This involved a 10-step procedure that created a swimming bait to be positioned behind the plastic squids and skipping “bird” teasers. Queenies are as tough as old boots and last a long time as teaser baits as their silvery hide is very resistant to fish chewing on them. The other name of queenfish is “leatherskin”, which is an apt moniker. Queenies are quite difficult to sew up with a bait needle and waxed thread, but the finished products my mate Seb produced swam like they had a pulse and wiggled attractively. I’ve never liked rigging dead baits. Sewing up dead things to make them look like live things isn’t my strong suit. In my job as a doctor I like sewing up people but I’m not fussed on rigging up dead fish. At the end of the process there was a pile of lifeless staring eyeballs loosely scattered on the kitchen sink, and we had our baits ready for tomorrow’s assault on the local sailfish population.

I was in Broome, in northwestern WA, visiting my friends Seb and Dee who’d moved to the Kimberley town two years ago after towing their Haines Hunter about 7000km from the Gold Coast via Perth. Seb and Dee always do things to the maximum, and they never waste a day. There’s always a mission, a plan or a trip to go on, always another fish to catch. Seb, also a medico, had been on night duty with no sleep and was pretty tired. We had a few dramas getting the boat ready, but after the fire was put out, the electricals repaired, the fuses replaced and the rods rigged, we were ready for a start.

Fishing Broome isn’t for the faint hearted. Launching and retrieving a 6.8m boat here isn’t a simple process. Due to the massive tidal variance, strong prevailing winds and inadequate boat ramps, getting on the water is an exciting project in itself. Over the years plenty of vehicles have been stuck and submerged at Broome. Launching requires careful planning. Retrieving a boat is even tougher. On this trip we fished four days with the neap three-tide day being our first day’s fishing.

Despite the boat access problems, Broome has a great reputation as a sailfish destination. The continental shelf is a long way offshore and the relatively shallow and warm grounds are full of schools of baitfish, which attract droves of sails. I’m pretty sure the blue clean water that results from the lack of big muddy river mouths in the vicinity helps make the area easy to fish for sails on the neap tides. All of northern Australia from Karratha right through to the Gulf of Carpentaria holds enormous numbers of sailfish as all of this area has prolific bait in water 20 to 40m deep. Few people fish for sails outside of the reach of most townships, and the population of untapped sailfish has no commercial interest due to the species’ very poor eating qualities. Sailfish are a quirky fish. They are long, fast and quite delicate creatures. They hit their prey with their long narrow bills and then turn and eat the injured bait. This makes them very hard to hook on lures, meaning they require quite refined methods to perfect their capture. One of the best things about sails is their schooling nature. With practice, double, triple and quadruple hook-ups are common.

Seb is an extremely focused and intelligent angler, as well as being a great learner. He got the Broome fishery wired in a relatively short time after moving up from the Gold Coast. Both Seb and Dee go hard all day every day. This means they use every opportunity to get out on the water catching everything from mud crabs to barras to sailfish. If they aren’t hooking fish, they’re spearing crays, blue bone, coral trout and black jew.

In Broome, the sailfish respond to trolled teasers. When a fish is raised, a rigged gar is pitched back. When it’s quiet, a pair of swimming gars is presented from the outriggers adjacent to the teasers, but this method gets a lot of chop offs from the prolific mackerel in these waters.

The first morning started off on a flat sea. After travelling 34 nautical miles north of Roebuck Bay we hit a line where birds circled over bait, whales broached and tuna and trevally crashed the surface. The ocean was full of activity and hunting predators. It was a prolific fish soup. With the teasers deployed and two gar swimming off the ’riggers, I was full of anticipation for the day ahead. Within a few minutes the ’rigger pulled and the reel gave a zip, but it was just a mackerel snip that cut the bait in half. Twenty minutes later a long purple and brown shape materialised behind the starboard teaser, holding deep just under the wriggling queenfish. Watching a teaser can be a mesmerising business, and seeing the subtle shape of a fish down deep takes practice. The smallest colour change in the hue of the water can slowly materialise into an enormous fish, but in the excitement of anticipation you need to distinguish between what is reality and what you want to see. An excited angler can make a jellyfish look like a sailfish. If you make such a call you look like a goose. In this case the fish rose, I pulled the rod out of the holder and ripped the line from the outrigger, dropping the gar back to position it next to the wildly vibrating queenie. The hit was a subtle bill tap, and as I free spooled the bait back I felt the line accelerate from the reel. Using circle hooks takes a bit of practice. I slowly pushed the lever forward and was rewarded with my first Broome sailfish cartwheeling across the surface. The fish was small, only  about 10 kilos, but it was a tremendously rewarding fish to catch. Sails are an incredibly beautiful and unique looking billfish. They swim spectacularly fast and get airborne at the drop of a hat yet have a grace and poise that marlin seem to lack. In my mind, sailfish are the ballerinas of billfish.

That first morning was full of action, but we only managed to tag a couple of fish. At one stage we had a triple hook up but jumped fish off, and we had another fish of about 20 kilos demolished by a pack of very big bronze whalers. It was a hungry ocean and the predators rapidly became prey in a sea full of teeth. Dee had an interview for an important job back in town so we left the grounds at lunchtime. About halfway along Cable Beach Seb stopped the boat, Dee jumped out and swam to shore and was last seen running over the sand hills wringing wet to get to the interview. That’s typical of how these guys roll!
Seb had the use of a mate’s mooring as the popular charter boat Makeira was on the hard stand. We launched the 4.6m tinny that morning complete with a 200 litre fuel drum and refuelled the big boat before hopping back in the tinny and beach retrieving it from around the point. If you fish Broome, you soon learn to appreciate things like normal functioning boat ramps and refuelling at a bowser. The logistics and planning are tough.

The next morning saw a 30-knot easterly come through. The blue Indian Ocean was white, wild and frothy and full of brown stinging jellyfish that leave your legs burning. Our boat was getting bashed on the mooring, it was too rough to launch the tinny and the tide was dropping quickly as the wind blew. The safe option was to wait, but the longer we waited the lower the tide got and the harder it would be to launch our tender to get to the big boat. But Broome and the wind have a funny relationship. When it blows hard it’s a stinker, but when it stops it happens quite suddenly. Within an hour the wind totally dropped out, the sea flattened to a quiescent bright blue and we were fishing again. By the time we got to the sailfish grounds it was 3pm. We fished until dark, raised six sailfish, caught two and had more issues with sharks. We pulled one fish onboard and raced away to release it some distance from the whalers. It swam away strongly in safe waters away from the reef where the sharks hunted. By the time we had travelled home about 80km on choppy seas, refuelled, moved the boats around to a different mooring on the other side of the town out of the easterly and beach retrieved the tinny it was 10pm.

The next morning saw us moored safely out of the strong easterly wind. We were joined by Tom, a keen young med student from the Gold Coast who was doing his elective term at Broome hospital. We ran north close to shore as the strong offshore breeze left a corridor of calmness close to the beach, while further out to sea the angry ocean was full of white chop under a hot easterly breeze. Like a switch on a fan, when we reached the point where we had to head out wider to reach the sailfish grounds, the wind once again dropped almost instantly and the ocean flattened itself into a warm appealing blue blanket full of birds, fish, turtles, whales and dolphins. What a magical ocean we saw that day.  Everything went to plan. We saw dozens of sails, and frequently raised between six and 10 fish on the teasers at once. We also saw some tiny black marlin that would have been flat out weighing three kilos. We had a lot of double and triple hookups, and ended the day with 10 sailfish tagged, including quite a few bigger specimens around 25 kilos. Watching the birds seemed to be the main clue. When sailfish are feeding, the birds, mostly terns and boobies, tend to hover above the school, intermittently dipping down to pick up bait. It seems sails feed in a much more orderly fashion than tuna, trevally or mackerel that tend to slash and chop as they try to eat every baitfish in the ocean. Sails seem to work as a team, using their high dorsal fins to round up the bait which forms schools that are quite long and vertical as the baitfish swim in a spiral. On the echo sounder we constantly saw sailfish surrounding the bait, and when we found this the fish would often rise to the teasers and we would pitch a rigged gar back to the feeding fish. Our final day had slightly bigger tides which tend to put the fish off the bite a bit, but we started well and quickly had four nice fish tagged. We stumbled on a few fish asleep in schools just under the surface, totally motionless.

When I cast a gar to them they startled and swam off, appearing behind the teasers a few seconds later.

Overall, I’m impressed by Broome; we caught 18 sails in four days, saw some fantastic country and I learnt a lot. If the place had a decent all-tide boat ramp and marina it would see fishing tourism boom and make launching and retrieval a lot safer.

But there’s always reward in doing the hard yards and getting great results, as Seb and Dee often do.

David Green

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