Billson on Billfish
The rules of engagement
Diamonds scattered out to sea; the Sun keeps laughing down at me. The lyicks of Aussie muso Richard Clapton's song Capricorn dancer were having real meaning on this perfect March day, as we headed for the Continental Shelf on the last day of our NSW season
Dean Butler and client Matty Cust, had obviously decided to crank up the tunes, as we headed for our destination, the canyons on the 500-fathom line wide off Port Stephen's. The speakers on the bridge were my only company as Viking was trying to catch that great ball of fire.
Time alone on the bridge on such a perfect morning, great music in the background, heading out to fish for Blue Marlin, with the realization that I had just turned 45, got the gray matter reflecting on my life. It had been a great season for us in our southern destination, with 2 World Record claims and some other great fishing, a belief that I might have reached a pinnacle in my career. It's amazing how well you remember your youth, especially before you got introduced to bundy rum. I started thinking about the first day I experienced marlin fishing, doesn't seem that long ago I was about 11 years old. I was sitting on the hardtop of a 26ft Caporn clinker plywood cruiser, with mates Robert and Peter Green, their dad Bill owned Starfish, my dad was crew along with John Tyler and Bill Lannie. We were 4 miles off Whale Beach headland (just North of Sydney) trolling 2 swimming de-boned Mullet, off timber outriggers, holding the 12lb and 20lb line at the set distance. I remember being totally amazed at how life like the mullet looked. Bill Green was a legend in his time, consistently winning all the major trophies in his club, The Broken Bay Game Fishing Club. His two boys Robert and Peter, also had outstanding captures to their name, both having 10 to 1 and Robert having 15 to 1 certificates, not bad for boys 11 and 9. I was impressed to say the least. Dad and I were the newcomers being taught the ropes.
The water was that blue that it was more like purple. The crew below were very busy, rigging more mullet, testing them to see if they looked natural and then putting them on ice. Every hour the mullet were changed, so the baits remained fresh. Bill Green had a exercise book with drawings of the landscape, he was regularly moving to the back of the boat, looking towards land, comparing the drawings in the book. I had no idea at the time what he was doing. I remember that the day was starting to bore me. No marlin, the interest of watching the mullet baits had long passed, so as all 11 year old boys do, when being mesmerized by the ocean, I fell asleep. Of course that’s when it happened, I awoke to see the 12lb game rod with a big bend in it, the Ocean City reel with ratchet still on making a incredible amount of noise, and the adults moving quickly clearing away equipment. We were hooked up to a marlin. I was told by my dad to keep out of the way, so I found a spot in the corner on the opposite side to Bill Green. Bill was now spinning the steering wheel from side to side, and with the throttle controlling the big Chevy V8, had Starfish in hot pursuit in the direction the line was running. John Tyler, the angler, told Bill he was losing a lot of line, Bill responded by pushing the throttle even further down. The big V8 let out an amazing sound, the boat was vibrating, water coming over the back, this was the most exciting situation at that age, I had ever experienced. I started wondering, "was Sex going to be as good as this". The marlin had jumped but I missed it. I so much wanted to see my first marlin. Hours passed by like minutes, than it happened, within 30 feet of the boat it came leaping out, what a site, I am sure I went to shock to sea something so big it was awesome. Another hour passed and we had the leader, the gaffs found their mark, but the fish with still plenty of energy gave the adults a hard time. Finally we had our marlin in the boat; to say I was blown away would be an understatement. Bill Green said it looked like it would be better than a 10 to 1. He was right.
You know the saying, those were the days, but they were nothing special, the top boats fishing club point scores, would catch only 4 or 5 marlin in a season. The big difference being these marlin were caught on tackle no heavier then 15kg, and more often then not 10kg and 6kg. Of cause trolling the shelf was unheard of. Today unfortunately, using this lighter tackle is left to a small group of anglers and crews looking for something more out of their marlin fishing. Traditionally game fishing ethics gave the most credit to the difficulty of the capture, the relationship between the size of the fish, its fighting ability and the line class used to catch it. It was always a team effort, good boat driving, skilled angling, and the leadering and gaffwork was invaluable. How things have changed, the tackle of choice these days is 50lb (24kg) 80lb (37kg) and the big guns 130lb (60kg) especially in NSW were the largest population of private game fishing boats work. Boat driving skills are hardly used, and in a lot of cases people are reluctant to use lighter tackle, because of the chances of loosing that special fish are increased. These days, trolling the shelf, canyons, and the 1000-fathom structure, were there is a chance of a sea monster jumping on, may make the use of this tackle imperative.
For those of you who are unaware, the man who started this excessive use of fuel and tackle, out of N.S.W ports, was a lovely man by the name of Arch Livingstone. Arch was a regular at the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament (H.I.B.T), and he had a theory that if he used Hawaiian lures and techniques on the continental shelf off his home port of Lake Macquarie, he would catch blue marlin. Arch employed the skills of Perry James to be his captain, and with Arch's classic 37ft Striker Gloriana, started getting results that had never been experienced before in NSW waters. Arch was always armed with the big guns, knowing that one day that big blue might jump on. Perry and I were mates from time together as crewmen in Cairns, so I was getting first hand reports when he could get to a phone after a big day on the shelf. My 19ft half cabin Savage at the time was definitely not up to the task of a full day lure trolling out wide, so we had to be content with the inshore program. We got lucky one day and a 208kg blue jumped on in 40fathoms of water, my $30:00 second hand Everol did an outstanding job, and on the 15kg line, got the adrenaline running enough, to give me the blue marlin bug. Fate tapped me on the shoulder, and I was given a 35ft Bertram called Splashdown to run, Arch and Perry now had some company on the shelf, and the two boats ground the path for others to follow. We now had a great boat but no tackle, Three 15kg outfits and a full arsenal of 4 Hawaiian lures, we were definitely a low budget operation. But the lack of tackle never hindered our results.
Evolution is a funny thing; new people have taken up the sport and have followed how the current trend seems to be. A very common human practice. It has now reached a level that I believe has gone so far away from traditional game fishing ethics, that it nearly needs to be given a different name. As one small example, who can honestly call catching a 50kg black marlin on 37 kg line game fishing. The possibility of the line parting has virtually been taken out of the equation. If this program is combined with live baits and J hooks, you may as well cash up on all that expensive tackle, and break out the Alvey deck winches.
In 1996 during the N.S.W Interclub Tournament, one of the largest populations of small black marlin seen for many years invaded the inshore grounds off Port Stephen's. The tournament anglers were having a ball, and tagging 15 small blacks in a day was not uncommon. Even the odd fish was weighed, the tournament was deemed to be an outstanding success, and one that would go down in history for the total amount of billfish tagged and released. In most cases the tackle used was 24kg and 37kg and as the fish were holding in tight areas, live mackerel were working a treat. The following year I was in Port Stephen's and went into the estate agents to organize some accommodation, John the agent I was dealing with was a keen fisho, mainly enjoying beach and rock fishing. After our business was complete, the conversation swung around to fishing. Out came the albums, and we started flicking through them. John had certainly caught some nice fish off the beach and rocks, but when I spotted the shot of him and his mate walking up the beach, with small black marlin swung over their shoulders, the obvious questions had to be asked. Like all fishermen, John could not resist the temptation to try and throw me a porky pie. But the truth soon got presented, and apparently the black marlin had washed up on the beach, they were not the only two there and the N.S.W Fisheries tags were clearly visible in the shots.
It is a shame that the sport has turned around so much, that even boats fishing inshore grounds were the chances of a large blue would be very uncommon, still elect to use what I call heavy tackle. The mentality seems to be that you need the heavier tackle to catch the fish quickly, so you can tag and release it in good condition. Well from the above example we can see how well that works. I would like to see the skills of catching 10 to 1 and 15 to 1 marlin bought back into the sport, and credit given in competition to tag and release on line class. I mentioned earlier about new people following the current trend. The trend needs to be swung around and the old skills bought back into the sport. I am sure some of you out there would love to get more out of your marlin fishing.
The best way to achieve this is by switch baiting, there are so many positives to switch baiting, that not only benefit angler and crew, but also offer in many cases a better result for a small billfish being released. Think about what gives you your biggest buzz when marlin fishing. I am sure the common answer would be seeing the fish, whether behind the lures or baits, or jumping on the end of your line. Switch baiting allows you to experience the fish in its natural environment, close handed trying to feed, totally excited, light up like a Christmas tree, or as black as the ace of spades. You see the fish eat your bait 20ft away from the boat, and in many cases see the fish jump close to the boat. Being able to see your quarry so close and for so long, enables you to easily determine size as well as species and select the suitable tackle to maximise on your enjoyment, as well as with the use of circle hooks give Mr. marlin a reel chance of survival. As a charter boat Captain, I get huge enjoyment in teaching my clients old and new experienced and no experience, the skills in catching marlin on what I call the correct line class. This NSW season alone, I had new clients who tagged and released striped marlin over 90kg, on line classes between 8kg and 15kg. And blue marlin over 200kg on 15kg. These are quality captures and relate to what the sport is meant to be.
Every game fishing charter boat should give their clients the opportunity to correctly game fish. You don't see golf pro's teaching his clients incorrect ethics or practicing breaking the rules of the sport. I have unfortunately witnessed some charter boats in N.S.W trolling live baits close to the islands off Port Stephen's using heavy tackle and a fighting chair, the crew hooking a 60kg striped marlin and passing the large rod to the angler waiting in the chair. Live baits, J hooks, and heavy tackle, give a very poor result for everyone concerned especially the fish. It is amazing that these people are the first to criticize quality captains and crews. If the captain of a game fishing charter boat does not have the ability or skills in boat handling to fish lighter tackle, then he should not be professional. If his boat does not maneuver or nearly sinks every time he goes in reverse, then the major tool of his trade is not suitable.
I can understand certain people of the non- fishing community frowning on our sport, especially when they see a fish hanging on the gantry. Again ignorance is at fault, these people normally have no problem with purchasing a piece of fish from the fish and chip shop, or ordering fish at their favorite restaurant. The fact of life is that for every fish that ends up on the market floor, many other fish have died in unwanted by catch. These fish that have died may be in a species that is becoming close to extinction, they may also be a beautiful fish in the eyes of the almighty, but not in our eyes. As we know certain fish grow to different size, but no matter how small or large the fish, it is still a fish. A living creature capable of reproducing other living creatures. We have to look at the big picture and in doing so would find that many of us are hypocrites. We all thought it was a great win to have legislation passed to prevent the taking of black marlin and blue marlin by commercial fishing. The fact is that the most sort after billfish species commercially, striped marlin and swordfish, swim in the same water as blue marlin and black marlin. They end up on the same hooks that were meant for the striped marlin or swordfish. There is of cause is a mortality rate. What do you think happens to the unwanted blues and blacks that get pulled up on the long line, that are meant for big eye, yellowfin, broadbill and striped marlin? The crew of the long liners spend a large amount of time trying to revive the species that they have been legislated against taking, they have plenty of time, and don't mind stopping the hauling to try and revive a exhausted close to death fish. Sorry about the sarcasm.
The truly professional Captains of the sport have tag and released, or just released thousands of marlin, they are aware not all have lived. Anyone, who believes that all the billfish they have tagged and released have lived, either hasn't tagged to many, or is having him or herself on. The comment just released may have some of you wondering. Many of the very experienced captains elect not to tag the fish but to just release it, there is a few reasons for this, but all leading back to the same mentality to give the fish a better chance of survival. Of cause in a tournament situation the fish must be tagged to count, also for a club point score. But in many cases the aggressive pulling on heavy leader to get the fish into tagging distance, or holding onto the leader while mutable attempts at jabbing the fish any were with the tag pole, only increase the chances of the fish not being released in good condition. I am a believer that if a angler elects to keep a marlin that is a outstanding capture, potential record, or will win a tournament under the rules of the tournament, that it would be totally hypocritical of any other fishermen to criticize that angler and crews efforts. Even the non-fishing public would not have a leg to stand on in most situations. Over the last few years there has been allot of negativity about certain captures of special fish in this country. I say to these people who express their displeasure, that if they have a problem with fish being killed, that they should stop fishing, or stop eating fish. Don't go out their hook fish and torture them. Only to release the fish knowing that it may or may not live, or it may be possibly be restricted from living a normal fish life from the damage you have done to it for your enjoyment. Basically look at the big picture. And while thinking about the big picture, have a look in your live bait tank and admire the bait you have caught. Think about the torture "that" you are about to put it through before it finally succumbs to exhaustion or gets eaten. Commercial interests kill 99.2 percent of all billfish, would it not be better if you use your writing and debating skills to target the real problem. Negative comments that I see on the net or in certain letters to the editor, are detrimental and a insult, not only to the national and international Clients who come to this country to fish, but also to the top captains and crews of Australia. For which I have the utmost respect.
PS For those of you who want more out of your marlin fishing. The first Billson and Butler sportfishing workshop was held in late April, all that attended agreed it was an outstanding success. The workshop will again be held at Port Stephen's in January and April 2003.