Report: Port Stephens Billfish Shootout

A BLEARY eyed 2am drive from Sydney last Saturday morning hadn’t dampened the enthusiasm as I lumbered in to Nelson Bay. I was fortunate enough to get a ride as a deck hand aboard Port Hacking based vessel Orca, skippered by Will Ellems.

Stumbling down the dock, the hive of activity had started with diesel engines grumbling, thousands of dollars of gear being loaded aboard, and skippers mumbling orders as they squeezed glorious boats out of the tight docks. It was good to be back in NSW Marlin Mecca; it’s no secret that Port Stephens’ inshore and offshore grounds have for some years delivered world class marlin fishing.

This year things had been shaping up well for the upcoming billfish comps. A steady run of midsize to large black marlin were consistently biting at the infamous “Carpark” and the bait was stacking nicely. Most bites were focused around the tide change; quite amazing when it occurs 20 miles offshore, but it certainly triggers some action. Reports of some solid blue marlin wider of the shelf was also promising news for the boats fishing capture category and chasing the $12500 up for grabs.

It was sure to be interesting with 101 boats and 482 anglers competing.

Our plan was to fish tag and release around the Carpark with varied techniques of skip and switch-baiting and “bombing” live baits on the deep baitballs. Most of all, we just wanted to have fun and hopefully catch some fish.

Wish I could say our Day 1 was a blinder, but it was a total fizzer. Some boats had done quite well, and we even saw a couple of fish caught. All we managed was to raise one fish which would not “switch”. That’s fishing I guess.

After the first day Sydney Based boat SmartBill held the lead with three tagged fish on 15kg and Casey was leading the capture category with a 174.2kg blue marlin on 37kg.

We licked our wounds over a few beers and pizza while scratching our heads about our Day 2 attack plan. With the Carpark bite quite slow and easily around 40 boats vying for the fish, both Will and I knew we had to find our fish elsewhere. It was quite obvious a lot of the big boats chasing blue marlin were encountering smaller blacks as well.

After a quick discussion we decided to go with what we’d been scoring fish all year back on our home turf of Sydney: trolling a spread of smaller size skirts on light leaders and light gauge hooks. It is a risky business trolling, as it has a low percentage hook up rate but we have found with light gauge hooks that the percentage is somewhat better.

Day 2

Everyone had sleepy eyes on the second day but the mood was positive, it was like we all could feel it was going to be a good day. We headed south toward the Norah Canyon and at the start of fishing time a spread of four lures were deployed on 15kg outfits and some teasers.

A few hours had passed when the short corner sprung to life and Tayla Deegan, who’d only landed her first marlin days prior, found herself attached to her second. We had the fish boatside after a few minutes and the small black gained a second wind. It put on an awesome aerial display metres from the tagpole before winning its freedom by throwing the lure. There was a little disappointment but you couldn’t wipe the smile from Tayla’s face. At least we’d had more action than the first day and we quickly got back on the troll.


Not 20 minutes had passed before the short ‘rigger cracked. This time Andrew Primey was having a turn on the rod as a little black did its thing. After 10 minutes a tag was in and we were swimming our first fish of the comp boatside, high fives all round.

A relaxed feel had over taken the boat and everyone was having fun and chatting away, while we worked around the area of the action.

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Nick Dobell was next up on strike and within two hours the short corner was smashed, the fish jumped 150m and dropped off. I screamed to crank it back up, the lure came back into position and I yelled to stop. The lure disappeared in a boil and the ratchet was screaming, got to love a text book marlin take!

Unfortunately the only thing that wasn’t text book was getting the tag in … metres from the boat the lure dropped out. That’s lure fishing; you’re guaranteed of losing a good percentage of fish as hook-ups are never that good with a fish trying to eat something moving at eight knots. Regardless, we persisted on our game plan as action is action and we were having fun.

As the latter part of the day neared and an earlier finish to the comp loomed we gave it all we had. Things slowed a little until I saw the familiar signs of a black marlin trailing the long corner. It toyed with the lure before changing tact and smashing the short ‘rigger. After 20 metres the lure fell off. Seconds seemed like minutes as we stared at the lures hoping the fish would come back. Just as we lost hope it appeared behind the same lure and crunched it.

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Tayla was on the rod again and we had our fingers crossed this one would stick. She fought it like a seasoned pro and after an awesome fight the tag was in and Tayla had her first black marlin and Orca had a double for the comp.

With time just about done we headed for home, despite being a fair way off the winning boat Smartbill with six tagged fish. It was still satisfying for us catching a few fish on a tough weekend and having fun doing it.

The largest blue marlin captured remained the fish taken by Casey on day one.

Good luck to all those participating in this year’s inaugural Interclub competition, hopefully the fish are aplenty.

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