REPORT: Bagwah’s black marlin quest

It was a fine, clear morning when Dave McPherson (aka Dave Bagwah), his brother, “the artist formerly known as Max”, and myself took a recent early flight from Canberra to Cairns. We were to spend the following three days on Viking II, fishing for black marlin on the outer Great Barrier Reef, and anticipation levels were very, very high.

On collecting our hire car at Cairns Airport, we travelled inland to Mareeba, and then headed north along the Peninsula Development Road for Cooktown. Cooktown is sited at the mouth of the Endeavour River, and to Cooktown’s east sit the lower end of the famous Ribbon Reefs. The road was of a surprisingly good standard, and the drive turned out to be a good way to keep the excitement in check.

We arrived late in the afternoon, and our first stop was the local wharf to check out which boats were in. There were a couple of boats alongside, but Viking II was still at sea. We filled in a bit of time watching some locals fishing off the public wharf with live herring and pike, where I’m told everything from barra to spanish macks are sometimes caught.

Viking II arrived later that evening, and the following morning we stepped on board as the crew finished the victualling. Skipper Bill Bilson reported slow marlin fishing over the past few days, but our enthusiasm – particularly that of Dave Bagwah, was irrepressible. Deckies Wazza and Hoggy stowed our bags, and we were away.

The run out to the Ribbons was about 1½ hrs. On arrival at the inside of the outer reef, we started the daily ritual of bait collection. While bait fishing probably sounds a little mundane, the exercise up there involves 30-50lb tackle, and trolling for scad, tuna, and mackerel that were often of a size that’d put a grin on the face of many southern anglers. At lunch time the bait gear was put away, and we sat at anchor behind the reef for a bite to eat and some coaching on using 130lb gear in the chair.

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Dave and a dolly named dinner.

Following lunch, we headed outside the reef, where a current running down from the north was pushing up against the sou’easter. Conditions were fairly ugly. The artist formerly known as Max, who hadn’t spent much time on boats, fell to sea sickness. The wahoo and barracuda were about in numbers, and Bad Boy Billy was regularly calling down chop-offs from the tower.

Wazza and Hoggy worked like mad men, running across the deck, handlining baits in to save the few moments of time lost in resetting the bait in the ‘rigger, and rigging more baits between times. The efficiency of what they did – with a place for everything and everything in its place – was really impressive.

Mid-afternoon we had our first “real” bite. The artist formerly known as Max was quickly in the chair, and after a few jumps from a black that looked like a 200-pounder, it all came unbuttoned when the wire leader broke.

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The “artist formerly known as” in the thick of some bait and Spanish mack catching.

Late in the afternoon, and just before lines in, a greedy dolly ate the swimming scad. Dave Bagwah cranked her in and she was despatched for dinner. We headed inside the reef and knocked over a little more bait fishing on the way back to the night’s anchorage. The artist formerly known as Max came good, and dinner – a large steak with a side of mahi mahi – was served at anchor behind the reef.

Our second day on the water dawned grey and cloudy, with some dark squalls on the horizon to the east of our anchorage. The wind hadn’t dropped under 20 knots since we’d arrived in Cairns, and it continued to blow that morning. Breakfast, then into the bait fishing.

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The McPherson boys were on fire with the bait fishing, regularly managing double hook-ups and bringing a steady stream of good baits to the boat. The artist formerly known as Max, who hadn’t really done a lot of fishing prior to the trip, had his technique down in no time, and quickly looked like an old hand. On the occasions that I touched the gear, it seemed that I usually caused some sort of drama – the handle on a Tiagra broke in my hand as I cranked a bait in; the single strand wire on a lure broke as a bait was being lifted aboard … my fishing karma wasn’t in a good place.

Bait fishing completed, we headed out through a passage and into the open sea. The conditions had settled a bit overnight, not because the wind had dropped, but because the northerly current had stopped running. Not good news. Trolling commenced and we hadn’t gone too far before a big Spanish mack chopped the tail off the scad, then repeatedly launched itself into the air, giving the scad the short back and sides as it was handlined back the boat.

Other than the big Spaniard, the chop offs were slow, and the only time we turned a reel was on a reef shark that nailed the skip bait, which was quickly winched in by Dave Bagwah for release.

Trolling for marlin – like many other types of fishing- often means putting in the hours. Marlin fishers often have the luxury of listening to music between bites, and the Viking II was no different, with the stereo firing up from the moment a lure or bait hit the water. Richard Clapton and Jimmy Buffet, which seem to be the music mainstays on every marlin boat when bites are hard to come by, failed to produce. I offered up some Alice in Chains, and Tool, but my taste in music produced neither a bite nor the approval of the rest of the crew, and I could sense the “first he breaks the reel, then the gear, and now this music – what’s next?” Tool was quickly replaced by the Little River Band, and neither Dave Bagwah, nor the artist formerly known as Max, gave me another shot at music selection …

Wazza coached Dave Bagwah through rigging a queenie as a swim bait, which turned out to be good enough to run off the ‘rigger.

We saw no marlin that day.

Our third and final day dawned to broken cloud. The wind was ever present, and continued to blow at somewhere between twenty and thirty knots the entire time. The consistency of the wind was matched by Dave Bagwah’s consumption of green cans, which was also generally in the order of twenty to thirty a day.

After the obligatory bait fishing, we headed outside, where the current still had no run. Bad Boy Billy headed wide of the reef looking for fish. A mack tuna skipped on the left ‘rigger, and Dave Bagwah’s rigged queenie swam off the right ‘rigger like a chromed Grant Hackett, kick after kick, mile after mile. It was another slow day.

Late in the afternoon we went back to fishing along the edge and worked a spot alongside Tradition. Bad Boy Billy spotted a fish along way back that showed no interest in our baits, while Tradition missed a bite off an 800-pounder. A ‘cuda destroyed the shiny Grant Hackett. It got late, and we turned into the sun and headed for Cooktown and home.

And that was our trip. Despite not seeing a “big” fish, the three of us had a fantastic time. Wazza and Hoggy were absolute professionals down on the deck, and great company to boot. Bad Boy Billy never stopped trying, and there was never a moment where it felt as though the fishing effort was just a matter of going through the motions. Fishing alongside the reef, watching a bait skipping along with curling waves breaking on to the reef as a back drop, and knowing the next bite could come from a fish that might – by anyone’s measure – be truly giant, is an awesome experience.

I’d love to go back sometime. The Bagwah couldn’t wait; we’d barely been back a few days and he’d booked a spot on Tradition for this month, fishing Cooktown down to Cairns. He deserves to get a nice one – stay tuned.

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