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Billfish on a budget
  |  First Published: December 2004



You don’t need to spend big bills to catch marlin – the buck stops here!

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Mention the words ‘marlin fishing’ to most folks and images immediately spring to mind of huge game boats costing hundreds of thousands of dollars many miles out to sea and decked out with glistening gold reels and super-heavy-duty game rods.

While this is perhaps a fair call for many parts of the world, it’s not a true indication of what’s needed to tangle with a billfish or two off the NSW coast in Summer and Autumn. Inshore billfish can be easily handled from your average trailer boat, as long as you get the fundamentals of fighting big fish sorted out and use a little commonsense.

Over the years there have been some monumental captures from small trailer boats, with some marlin going over the magical 1000lb mark, but these incredible captures are the very outer edge of what’s possible and safe. The anglers who strive for these monster fish are extremely well set up in both tackle and safety gear and usually have caught hundreds of marlin from small boats in the past.

For the sake of this article we’ll be basically looking at small to medium sized fish within a few kilometres from shore.

While most of the billfish caught close to shore are usually around 50kg to 90kg, that doesn’t mean Mr Big is not possible. Former NSWFM Editor Peter Horrobin about recalls a day at the mouth of Port Stephens slow-trolling live slimies for a few small black marlins. Pete said he was on his own putting along in his 4.5 metre Haines Hunter centre console when his livie disappeared under a sizeable boil. The fish hit the afterburners, peeling off hundreds of metres of line before finally jumping in the distance.

At the time a large game boat was fishing nearby and quickly radioed Peter as the fish jumped. The skipper made some comments about the fish perhaps too much of a handful from the small boat one-up, but Pete said, “It looks around 300 lb, I should be all right.” The reply from the game boat was: “More like 300 kilos!”

Now a little concerned, he slugged it out on the 24kg stand-up gear. The fight dragged on for hours, taking him so far south from Port Stephens that he didn’t have enough fuel to get home. After hours of toiling the big fish decided it’d had enough and simply spooled the Penn 50 International in a final humiliating run, leaving Pete to limp into Newcastle Harbour, where his dear wife picked him up late in the afternoon.

While I haven’t tangled with any marlin that big from my 4.5-metre tinnie (thank God!) I can sympathise with the hopelessness of the situation Peter was in. Even 130kg fish are an absolute handful in a small boat one-up, especially if they don’t jump and want to go deep. Thankfully, most marlin are less than 90kg and represent a sporting challenge for anyone keen to chase them.

TACKLE

Chasing billfish can cost as little or as much as you want but, sticking with the budget theme, you really need only one decent game outfit, a bait-catching rod with a few spare bait jigs, a gimbal belt, some $2 bait needles, a box of No 10 rubber bands and a few pre-made rigs.

With just this simple amount of gear you can reasonably expect to tangle with marlin virtually daily when they’re running.

THE BASICS

Around September to November each year, good numbers of big black marlin congregate on the outer Great Barrier Reef in Far North Queensland to spawn. This heralds the start of the northern big game season, and for anglers down south, the beginning of good things to come in months to come.

What we catch here in NSW are mostly the offspring of the big northern breeders as they wander south on the East Coast Current. Most of the fish we catch here in December to March are just over a year old and from the previous Spring spawning run. Occasionally a real tiddler, around 10kg, will turn up, perhaps from the spawning only a few moths earlier.

We know many billfish spawn up off Cairns in late Spring, but I assume by some of the size classes of fish we get in NSW that some spawn a lot further south.

The first run of billfish around South West Rocks usually takes place around Christmas, depending on the northern currents. If the water is blue and rippling with bait, the odds are there will be a billfish or two close by. Quite often the fish will disappear for a month or so, usually to reappear en masse in February and March.

Naturally, planning a trip to coincide with a seasonal run of fish that is totally dependent on a swirling current is a little tricky, but if you keep your eyes and ears open you shouldn’t miss out on too much action.

THE BAIT

The most common method of catching inshore billfish is to slow-troll live baits. The No 1 baitfish is usually a slimy mackerel, the bigger the better. Plenty of other baits work also, with bonito another firm favourite, big yellowtail, small mahi mahi, striped tuna and frigate mackerel.

Slimies are one of the easiest baits to keep alive in a bait tank and make up the majority of baits used. If the fish are playing hardball I’ll often hunt up a bonito or frigate by trolling small flies just for a change of pace. It’s surprising on the slow days how a panicking tuna can turn the odds in your favour.

The basic idea to slow-trolling is to simply cruise around at one or two knots with a struggling livie in tow. Ideally, you want to stay close to any prominent bait schools but marlin do have tails and can be encountered anywhere, over sand or solid reef, so don’t be afraid to wander.

Many billfish are taken in seemingly no man’s land wide of the main fleet, so it doesn’t hurt to do some prospecting. You may just stumble on good baitfish school being hounded by hungry billfish.

THE BATTLE

Contrary to what many may tell you, most billfish takes are slow and very casual, with many a fish often just trailing the bait before lazily rolling on its side to take the slimy. Some hit harder than others but most are pretty casual affairs, slowly ticking line of the game reel and sinking into the depths.

The fireworks begin once the hook is set! This is a rapid switch from calm to chaos and heavy line melts from the spool with unnerving ease. This is when some astute boat driving with a level head will make the rest of the battle memorable for all the right reasons.

The worst thing you can do once the hook is set is panic.

I see boats all the time on our local billfish grounds charging around like madmen after a jumping fish. The fish is in a whole lot more trouble than the angler so let it have its head for a few hundred metres and slowly follow it up.

All those frantic jumps are not only spectacular, they’ll save you plenty of hard work a few minutes down the track. Each jump drains plenty of energy so the more the better. Racing up to a jumping fish can occasionally prompt it to dive and a deep fish that doesn’t jump is usually hard work for the poor old angler.

THE ENDGAME

Once the fish slows and you can bring it to the boat, caution becomes paramount. Even a seemingly buggered fish can flick and jump in a last-ditch effort to escape, so treat each one like a loaded gun when removing the hook or cutting it free.

It’s unethical to simply cut a tied fish free if it’s likely to sink like a rock. Tired fish need to be ‘swum’ back to good health.

Simply grab the bill (use a leather or rubber garden glove) and tow it with the bill underwater boatside until it begins to regain colour and starts to swim of its own accord. It’s pretty satisfying watching a tired fish come back to good health and something all budding marlin anglers should aspire to do

It really is good fun chasing inshore billfish from a trailer boat and a pursuit that needn’t cost the earth. Other than fishing the river, chasing marlin is one of the least expensive forms of fishing I do. Most sessions on the water set back me around $8 to $14, mainly for fuel, and that depends how long I spend out there.

And when you consider most trips in prime time usually produce two to six fish – and occasionally 10 or more – it’s money very well spent.

TACKLING UP FOR BILLS

Besides a safe trailer boat, having at least one decent game outfit is essential. There’s no point trying to catch these powerful fish on inadequate gear, you really have to use tackle with a reliable, smooth drag, so we’re talking reels like the Shimano TLD 25 or 50, Shimano 30 or 50 Tiagra, or a Penn International 30 or 50. You want the reel to hold around 700 to 800 metres of your chosen line class, with 15kg to 24kg being ideal for most inshore fish.

For rods you don’t have to spend a fortune. Most off-the-rack 15kg to 24 kg sticks will do the job. You can expect to pay around $150 to $250 for a half-decent stick. Full roller guides are good but just a roller tip is fine.

Terminal tackle can be as simple as a 2.5-metre length of 200lb Jinkai with a brass ring on one end and a 9/0 or 10/0 half circle hook (the Eagle Claw L2004 is a good pattern) on the other.

With a little care you can use a four-turn locked blood knot or uni knot for both hook and ring.

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