PART II: The nitty gritty of catching Barrier Reef granders

(Published in the May 2018 issue of Ski-Boat magazine)

By Ryan Williamson

THE old saying “you learn more with your eyes and ears than you will ever learn with your mouth” is as true today as it was a couple of hundred years ago when first advocated.
In my article in the March 2018 issue of SKI-BOAT I intimated that one of the main aims of my trip to work the deck of Top Shot in the vicinity of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was to learn, and learn from one of the best skippers on The Reef — Captain Ross Finlayson. My eyes and ears worked overtime during my two month stint on Top Shot, and all I did was ask hundreds of questions. I very seldom opened my mouth to say “but in South Africa or Cape Verde we do this or that”, as all that did was waste time that could have been spent assimilating knowledge discussing a topic that had less than nothing to do with fishing for grander black marlin.
I’m sure South African marlin anglers also want more than a story and photos of The Reef’s big mamas. After all, in the modern world of digital technology such stories abound and are available at the touch of a button. What is not easily available is a South African marlin fisherman’s findings in the way of technique and tackle application and how those can be adapted for use in South African waters in order to improve one’s experience and — hopefully — hook-ups.
This article should serve to convey that information and answer some of the questions I’ve been asked since the last article.

I’ve had many questions about the photographs of the rigged baits, so let me expand on that a bit.
Yes, every bait fish is gutted before being rigged and the gills are totally removed. Thereafter the entire belly section is cross-stitched from the anal fin towards the head, using heavy waxed thread, to ensure the water ingress is limited and wash through is eliminated. This stitching ends after it closes the bait fish’s gills.
The final closing of the gills and the bait’s mouth is done with 80 lb Dacron which is then secured very firmly to the hook being used.
All baits are held in a large freezer that has a stock of frozen baits in case the fresh bait caught during the morning’s bait fishing is not the right size or type or sufficient for the day’s marlin fishing.
Good baits are crucial to the boat’s success. Ross is pedantic regarding the type and size of bait as well as the way they are rigged and stored. On an average day at least 20 baits were used.

As I stated in the previous article, only 18/0 and 20/0 Mustad circle hooks are used. Nothing else. The hook points are also continually tested for sharpness.
The selected hook is attached to the 400 lb galvanised wire single strand trace using the familiar Haywire Twist, but modified as follows. A reasonably large initial loop through the hook eye then 20 — yes, 20 — twist turns before being finished off with eight tight twists. These last twists ensure that the wire is close up against the previous twists. (See pic alongside.)
Each galvanised trace is 30ft long, and at the top end is a loop created by the same Haywire Twist of 20 + 8 turns detailed above.
This trace is attached to the double line by means of a ball bearing swivel with a “pigtail” clip.
The ball bearing swivel is attached to the double line with a Claw Knot, using three or four turns to create the claw.

No wind on leaders are used because 30ft of galvanised wire is used almost exclusively. To conform to IGFA rules a double line of under 10ft is used. We use a Bimini Twist to create the double line for the main 130 lb line.
Most reels used are loaded with 600 metres of 130 lb class Dacron and a top shot of 130 lb mono. This top shot is regularly changed after tussling with a very large marlin. Braid backing is not popular as skippers like the drag provided by having a lot of Dacron backing in the water during a fight.

Without doubt it was this aspect of how the Aussies target their big marlin that fascinated me most during my sojourn on The Reef.
All the boat captains, and Ross in particular, were absolutely fastidious about their game plan when targeting these fish.
To start with, bear in mind the weather conditions that have to be faced. At the time of year that the big mamas come close inshore to breed, it’s the height of Australia’s monsoon season and the wind blows almost perpetually between 15 and 25 knots. When you consider that’s over a 2- to 3 knot south to north current, you’ll understand that it provides some very rough conditions. Calm days are few and far between.
Add to this the close proximity to the reef edge — 40 to 50 metres — and you get some idea of the tricky conditions in which the captains troll.
Factors that affect the trolling pattern are:
• Baitfish working;
• Marlin showing up on one’s sounder;
• The captain’s knowledge and liking for a very specific area where he has caught fish over the years;
• The accepted fact that bait swim better in a down sea and that a more consistent SOW is achieved by quartering the prevailing sea and swells.
When a captain decides to stay in a particular area he needs to sacrifice some of the above niceties to work his way south against the wind and current.
If necessary during the move in position or in the event of a move to a different area, baits will be lifted so speed can be increased and no valuable effective trolling time is wasted in areas where baits are not working properly.
Another factor that could cause a captain to move is if too many other craft are fishing the chosen area. Fishing The Reef is not like fishing off Sodwana where the boats spread out far and wide; off The Reef the fishable area is very close to the coral reef and that affects both fishability and manoeuvrability.
The perennial problem of trolling for marlin is speed. Forget the so-called recommended spreads for lures and/or bait, that is just theoretical. What really counts is the speed at which the baits or lures are working the water.
On the reef I noted that all that counted was speed over water (SOW). Ross certainly didn’t set a course on autopilot, set the throttles at only say 1 800rpm and sit back and relax, he worked his direction and speed all day to ensure the baits behind Top Shot were being pulled exactly to his liking. Standing at the transom watching the baits swim, it was a revelation to me the way Ross managed to get the bait swimming so perfectly no matter how the wind and sea were affecting Top Shot.
Note: Bait requires a constant velocity which should average around six knots.

On Top Shot, after a fish has been raised, has taken the bait and has commenced swallowing it, the two other lines are cleared very quickly (this is easy when only three lines are in the water) and Ross stops the boat. He doesn’t want the hooked fish that has taken the bait to be distracted by either of the two other baits still darting about if the boat is still moving while they are being retrieved.
As explained in the previous article, once the fish is hooked the angler will drop the drag setting from 20kg to 10kg to be able to get into the fighting chair and clip in. On a small fish (200- to 300 lb) the drag is left at 10kg. On a bigger fish the angler increases drag to 20kg and the backing-up would commence. This continues until the crew had a shot at grabbing the leader.
If a big fish starts to sound the 20kg drag is retained until the fish is approximately 100 metres below the surface, then the drag is reduced to 10kg, and the fish is allowed to take another 50 metres of line before Ross stops the boat. With the subsequent loss of tension the fish feels encouraged to come to the surface to shake off the annoying attachment it feels in its mouth.
When the marlin is near the surface, drag is increased to 25kg and backing up at speed commences. The captain uses the belly drag of line to keep tension on the fish while allowing the angler to wind as the boat gets closer. The backing up sequence is repeated time and again until the fish is within 30 metres of the boat, then, at the end of the fight, the drag is upped to 30kg to help get a leader shot.
According to Ross, a fight with a very big fish requires a combination of mental attitude and experience. Remember that a 1 000 lb marlin cannot be dragged to the boat, she has to be coaxed to swim towards it. Therefore, most importantly don’t increase the drag, actually reduce it, because the more you increase the drag the deeper the marlin will go. When backing up, never follow the marlin’s tail when the fish is still deep. If you do that she wins, because you cannot pull from the marlin’s tail. You have to get the craft into a position that will enable you to pull the marlin from its head.

At this stage we two deckies would be up against the transom all gloved up and pumping with excitement as this was the time we really got into the thick of the action.
The two of us took turns in taking the leader when it came close enough to take a leader shot. With fish up to about 900 lb Ross often allowed us to play with the fish on the leader. It’s great fun, lots of excitement and certainly got us wiring proficiently for when we had to battle a really big fish.
After the first wrap is taken on the leader the angler drops the drag to 10kg. As no wind-on is used, the swivel has to be wound right up to the top of the rod and be held there by the angler either until the leader is dropped overboard if the crew cannot hold it and the fight has to continue, or until the leaderman has control of the line.
Once the leaderman has good control of the fish the other deckie will cut the wire near the swivel and keep on cutting lengths of wire as the leaderman takes wrap after wrap, getting the fish as close as possible to the boat to enable the wire leader to be cut off as close to the fish’s mouth as is feasible.
The reason they cut the wire trace like this is that it’s dangerous to have long retrieved lengths of wire trace lying around the deck and this has resulted in many accidents on The Reef, some fatal.
While leadering a wire trace of single strand galvanised wire the leaderman has to make three wraps rather than the two we use when leadering nylon traces. Getting the extra turn is not easy, but it prevents the wire from slipping and over tightening around one’s gloved hand.
Indeed, it’s a very exciting time on the boat, but there’s no room for mistakes. The flaying of arms and gloved hands as the trace is being taken is amazing to the onlooker but deadly serious to the deckie. I sure learnt a huge amount about leadering during my time on Top Shot.

At the outset I must stress that taking a fish over 1 000 lb is a lifelong dream of many marlin anglers and therefore the final decision to boat or not to boat a huge marlin is up to the angler/client. The boat captains that fish the area strongly recommend releasing all marlin, including those over 900 lb. Only those well over the grander mark are taken and more often than not even these big fish are released.
This being said, the very few occasions on which I witnessed big fish being landed and when I was involved in gaffing and leadering fish like that reaffirmed for me that the task requires more skill than one imagines.
When Captain Ross is convinced that a fish will make the mark and the client wants it weighed, four big flying gaffs (always loaded on the boat) are placed in specific positions on the fish deck and the gaff ropes are shackled to the base of the fighting chair.
After that the deck is completely cleared and the other two rods, leaders and baits are stowed. When one deckie takes the leader and has the fish in gaffing range the other deckie places the first gaff deep into the fish’s top shoulder and the gaff handle is released as soon as is practical. The restraining rope is then cleated to a transom cleat.
During this procedure the wireman never lets go of the leader and has to control the fish’s head until a second gaff is in place at the back of the shoulder. Only then does the wireman release the wire and deploy the third gaff — usually in the underside of the fish. By this time the skipper will come down from the fly bridge and, if necessary, make use of the fourth gaff. The ropes on the gaffs are then all cleated off.
Very few of these craft have marlin or boarding platforms off the transom, but they do have very big marlin doors. Once the fish is properly gaffed the hard grunt and grind commences to get the fish out of the water and onto the deck.
Big fish that are landed have to be taken to a mothership — if one is in the area — that has specialised scales to measure the weight of a hanging fish for a good 30 minutes. The computer calculates the mean weight which has proved to be 100% accurate. The alternative is to have it weighed in Cooktown, Cairns or Lizard Island, whichever is the closest.
In conclusion, I have the utmost respect and admiration for all the skippers and crews of the fleet that target the huge marlin off the Australian Great Barrier Reef, having now experienced the 2017 season on Top Shot. I rate their skills to be the pinnacle of the sport of big game angling.

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