Lizard Island Game Tournament
I'VE NEVER come across any form of fishing that has shaked it like that of the annual Lizard Island Game Fishing Tournament, held over October 19-25, 2003. It was mind blowing!
For eight days, six anglers (Rosco, Chooka, Shawry, Coxy, Jack and myself) from Port Douglas lived on the edge in more ways than one. We fished for the biggest of black marlin on the continental shelf edge off Ribbon Reef No. 10, snorkelled each morning and ate breakfast on the edge of the reef, fished tournament rules which left us completely on edge and partied hard till we nearly dropped over the edge! All this was accomplished in a weather superb week which never exceeded 10kt – sensational!
We had a nightmare trip aboard a supposed 4WD bus via the coastal road from Port Douglas to Cooktown. The scenery was fantastic but the nutter of a bus driver nearly saw us drop over a couple of the those magnificent ledges which saw the rainforest meet the reef – hairy stuff when you're on two wheels taking a sharp curve on dirt road. On the steep hill just past Cape Tribulation the driver had to reverse down twice, and eventually dropped half of us at the bottom of the range while he slowly took six passengers at a time over the long steep section. After seven hours and dozens of other bizarre scenarios we eventually made it to Cooktown in one piece.
After we arrived we boarded our vessel Power Play. Skipper Bill Van Doorn and Donald the deckie had everything in place, and two-and-a-half hours later – after taking in some breathtaking coastline, escarpments and dotted islands – we strolled into Watson's Bay, Lizard Island.
We were in for an amazing sight – luxury craft from ocean liners, private vessels, yachts and game boats all moored within touching distance of each other. It was 30 million dollars all rolled into one remote bay. You'd have to see it to believe it!
We touched base at the island and came alongside the barge ship Newcastle Bay which provided fuel, food, water and any other item you could imagine. We pulled up next to Mahabuy, a 52ft gameboat which had travelled from Southport, Gold Coast at an estimated $10,000 in fuel just to get there. She was the mother of all gameboats with all the silver trimmings and was probably worth around $3,000,000. We felt quite humble in our 45ft Precision boat (which was nothing to sniff at), but we were glad just to be there.
That night we joined the briefing presentation at the legendary Marlin Bar on the island. There they were – all the legends of the sport including Kim Anderson and Billy Bilson. Bob Lowe, the president of the Lizard Island Game Club said his piece and then they auctioned off the boats – 32 in all, a smashing record for the tournament to date and testimony to the great fishing in this remote part of the world.
Reel Chase turned out to be the punters’ favourite in the auction and the money splashed around by some of the world's richest men was an eye-opener. The Port Douglas boats, which included Power Play, Kamari, Weejock and Madame Rouge, all faired well in the auction but we knew we were up against some stiff opposition against Mauna Kea, Billfish, New Moon and Rebel, just to name a few.
The tournament sessions were scheduled to run from 11am to 5.30pm each day. At 9.15am we had the sail past in Watson's Bay in front of the resort, and every craft in the bay was lined with people on their decks to see it. 30-odd craft ran ‘Indian file’ in the bay and was a spectacular sight in the picture-perfect conditions. Then they all lined up in a starting grid across an imaginary line. On call, thousands of horsepower let rip into full throttle in a race around the corner of the island some kilometres away. Boats roared to their ultimate potential as each skipper's testosterone took over. Watson's Bay was left looking like a massive washing machine.
We raced around the corner in approximately 10th position, and from there we watched the boats disperse in all directions as they headed for the continental shelf. We went straight for the famous no. 10 Ribbon Reef where we pretty much played up and down this ocean backyard for the rest of the week.
Within the hour, virgin marlin angler Ryan ‘Chooka’ Fielder connected brilliantly to a 250lb black marlin on a big sharky mackerel bait. He did extremely well with our decky's guidance to land it within 15 minutes. We were pumping and it was the second fish of the tournament.
According to tournament rules, while the deckie can set the lines, once a marlin hits it's all up to the angler without any physical assistance from anyone. We had to set the hooks, wrestle it into the chair and go for broke. As it transpired we had no clean bites and had to learn the art of freespooling big baits back into most of our marlin bites. ‘Donnie’ was the most professional and in quick time had us semi-trained in the art of hooking big marlin on swimming baits, changing over game chair settings for each angler and basically keeping the shop in order when all hell broke loose. He was a tough taskmaster, but we learned a great deal over such a short period and really appreciated his help.
Not long after the first hook-up I dropped an estimated 400lb black which was just connected by the beak. I probably contributed to losing the fish with a weak hook up, clumsy wrestle to the chair and lack of hard winding to keep a tight line at the start. It was a gut-wrenching experience.
As it happened it was a quiet day for most boats, and when the scores were posted we were in third place. New Moon was ahead with two marlin. The scores in this tournament are determined by how many fish each team boats, not the size. After each hookup you radio in and once the tag is set in the fish with serial numbers, you radio back and it’s recorded to the official vessel, which was the boat Rebel. They ask for estimated size which doesn't count in the scheme of things unless you’re prepared to gaff a 993lb marlin and weigh it back in at Lizard Island by the late afternoon.
We started the day snorkelling in ideal conditions just on the inside of the shelf. Even in Port Douglas we'd never seen such amazing beauty. The bommies, the fish life and the blue clarity amongst the white sands was breathtaking.
We all fished, rotated by the hour on our roster system, and saw a couple of strikes which didn't connect. Then the rod let rip and it turned out to be a cranking dog-tooth tuna which came in at 62kg by Graham Cox – much to the disgust of the deckie who had the tag pole ready to spike some marlin flesh. Little did we know it was a few kilo off an Australian record, and it made for great sashimi for the remainder of the trip and plenty to take home afterwards. The scariest part of the capture was that the skipper and deckie made a serious call that we should swim it as a livebait when we first landed it! As it happened the fish died fairly quickly on deck, but who knows what may have happened if we had done so.
At 3.15pm it was my turn on the rod and the big mackerel skip got slammed. The guys on the top deck roared as they saw something sideswipe the bait which meant business. Marlin attack from behind if they’re remotely interested but if they’re serious they come across from the side and attack the bait. In a few split seconds they attack the tail end and in the same motion they try to reverse the fish head down and gulp it. This is where the hookup becomes crucial.
This particular fish hit like a tonne of bricks at lightning speed but didn't connect. The boat slowed immediately and I had to engage the 130 Penn Reel to freespool with my fingers lightly pressing against the spool plate. We sat and waited a few moments. The marlin came back and swallowed the 4kg mackerel bait the right way. We sat still for a moment, the weight came and under the deckie's instructions we let her run under freespool, being careful not create an overrun with the line. Then we waited in anticipation for the weight to become consistently solid. Talk about a fine line! After a fleeting moment, the deckie yelled “strike” for me to engage up to the 20kg drag, and in the same moment he signalled the skipper to crank the engines in full gear forward to properly set the hook.
From then on the black diesel fumes smothered the back deck and I found myself with the rod in the holder with the deckie screaming to wind like hell. Once we saw a taught line with the line still reeling off the spool at a zillion miles per hour we knew we had connected truly. The boat slowed down, the air was full of sizzling smoke and then I was required to drop the drag down to the 10kg mark on the reel. Thank God we had it marked by Donnie otherwise I would have been in another pickle.
This time I methodically disengaged the rod from the rod holder, scrambled backwards sliding across the port duckboard, across the stern transom and slammed the butt of the rod into the holder of the chair. In the process, I had line cracking in my ear, the skipper and deckie barking orders and all my mates running to assist to make sure I was buckled into the chair. If you want adrenalin, there’s nothing more full-on except for maybe a V8 Supercar pulling in for a major pitstop on the last lap at Bathurst when you’re in the lead. The pit crew were going off with excitement!
I grunted and groaned for the next two hours. So many times we that close to getting a tag. Maybe a dozen times I had the big girl close enough to score points but she was spirited and kept bull-dogging away when we thought we had her beat.
During this time, I had regained some composure but she had regained her strength to the fullest. Black marlin fight like a caged bull, give it their best, settle down, gather the oxygen and then let rip time and time again. All the big ones head for the east out into the Pacific Ocean and you have no choice but follow, with the boat backing down on them in reverse. We went head to head and she won some fights but I gathered my determination and counterpunched. I was becoming exhausted and I knew she was too. Talk about an epic battle between man and beast!
After the 17.16pm mark, the deckie landed the tag and the crew and punters erupted with relief. Then Donnie with his expertise with a couple a wind-ons with the leader made her explode from the surface. She was big (800lb estimated but recorded as 750lb) and leapt out of the water right in front of us. I was still connected as the drag took over, but I pumped both arms in the air in sheer exuberance. The deckie made the fish jump a few more times before we cut the leader and then went inside Ribbon 10 to celebrate for the night. I slept on Cloud 9 that night!
Next month: more sizzling billfish action over the last days of the tournament!Reads: 787