PUT YOURSELF HERE
I have no doubt many readers haven’t actually been on a game fishing boat, so here's just a hint of what part of your day might look like if you ever find yourself out there on the blue water...
The four 37kg rigs with the big gold reels and carbon fibre rods had the colourful marlin lures clipped on and set running behind the boat as soon as the skipper slowed down to trolling speed after the 45 minute run out from Coffs Harbour into the breaking dawn at the deep edge of the continental shelf.
The water out here in 500 fathoms is a deep cobalt blue and a surprising 27 degrees Celsius, and there are already a few gulls and muttonbirds showing some interest in a patch of oily water just a few hundred metres ahead of the boat. The crew is looking intently at the lure pattern running between 10 and 50 metres behind the boat, splashing around in, and just outside, the wake and looking for all the world like alarmed baitfish trying to run away on the surface.
There's not usually a lot of chat, but someone sees a couple of flying fish skimming away from the patch of water we're driving through and makes the offhanded comment about how "fishy" it's starting to look... when a few seconds later, a hand flashes out pointing to the wake, and the skipper up on the flybridge yells… “Marlin - on the left!!!".
All eyes snap to the long corner lure where a tall sickle-shaped fin has materialised and is sticking half a metre up from the surface, sweeping rapidly towards the lure with a 10-knot overtaking speed. Then, in an instant, there's a big bill out of the water making a fierce sideways slash at the lure. The hook catches, and the fish turns and disappears in a huge shower of spray, leaving a big white hole in the water.
All this takes less than 5 seconds from the first time the skipper saw the big predator rising up behind the lure, and the crew is frozen for a second or two until the fish hooks up. In the space of a few short seconds, the power goes up with a roar from the big diesels, the boat leaps forward, and the reel with the fish on it starts screaming like a banshee as the drag surrenders a few hundred metres of line to a fish that’s stopping for nobody as it runs hard towards the horizon, leaving a huge trail of white water and streaking away from the mess it’s natural attack instincts have got it into.
Meanwhile, the crew goes into automatic mode, quickly clearing the other rods away while the angler who was on strike eases the drag up, picks up the rod and, bracing him or herself against the harness or in the fighting chair takes the weight of the fish for the first time as the skipper slows the boat down.
The rods and teasers are all packed away now and the deck cleared, with the boat manoeuvring slowly backwards down the line to give the angler the best pressure and angle on the fish. Meanwhile, the big marlin is just settling down after realising that running hasn’t helped. It’s probably still thrashing the water to foam a few hundred metres away trying to shake the hook out … and it’s very, very annoyed. This is probably the first time everyone gets a good look at the fish. There are a few quiet comments about how the fish hit, what size it looked to be, and the fact that it seems to be solidly hooked. The skipper is telling the angler and crew what he's doing with the boat so that there are no surprises, and so the angler can keep plenty of pressure on the fish.
The crew is getting over the adrenaline rush, the skipper is trying to assess the fish’s next move, and the angler is starting to breath harder as the fish works the drag to its max while the hook is kept securely in place by the pressure that can’t be relaxed - even for a microsecond. The marlin is putting its shoulder into the current and trying to swim broadside to the boat, doubling the angler’s workload and occasionally diving deeper, all the while making it harder to bring up to the boat. The angler’s arms and back start to protest.
This can go on for hours with a big fish, but the average blue marlin we see off the Solitary Coast usually capitulates and tires in about an hour if it's well handled, sliding reluctantly up to the boat, maybe with a couple of petulant displays of tail walking or some airborne histrionics along the way. Any fish over about 250kg can be a wild card, and if it's strong and determined, forget about bringing getting a tag in it inside an hour unless you want a green, unpredictable fish to deal with boatside.
Interest and danger build as the fish comes close to the boat and the first glimpse of silver can be seen 20 or 30 metres behind the stern. Everybody wants a close up look at the marlin, which is still occasionally flashing angry blue neon colours along its side.
Curiosity and excitement notwithstanding, nobody should forget that they’re dealing with a couple of hundred kilos or more of muscle and a large and dangerous bill, immediately behind which is a primitive brain with a lot of attitude. There are also one or two large hooks flailing around every time the marlin shakes its head, and the internet has plenty of photos of these hooks through the legs, arms and feet of crew members who let their guard drop for a split second when a fish decided to have a tantrum beside the boat.
The crew get ready for the crucial part they now have to play in the process of keeping the fish under control. The wireman gingerly takes hold of the 500-pound trace and eases the big marlin up to the side of the boat. This may have to be repeated a couple of times if the fish takes umbrage and gets airborne, or runs hard away stripping the last 50 metres or so of line off before the angler gets it back under control. However, it finally comes reluctantly to the boat and the tagger gets the vital Department of Primary Industries billfish tag into it.
All the while, that big, beautiful electric blue eye is boring into you - you don’t fully know the meaning of being “eyeballed” until you’ve had a marlin stare you down from just a couple of metres away.
Now comes the hazardous process of getting the hook out without hurting the fish (or anyone else…), taking a few photos, and then swimming it beside the boat long enough for it to “catch its breath” and get some oxygen flowing. When the marlin shows all the signs of being ready for release, it’s allowed to slide smoothly away, tail beating, to go back to cruising the oceans and maybe once again providing a big game angler with a rush that’s very hard to beat as that big sickle tail and the explosion of white water under the lure signal that its game on again.
Only when the fish has been safely released can the angler relax for the first time. And with the sudden release of tension, the adrenalin letdown, and the exhaustion that usually hits at the moment of release of a big fish, it sometimes takes a few minutes for the angler to join the rest of the crew for a couple of high fives and congratulations all round before the lines go back in and the process starts all over again with the next crew member “on strike”.
They may never go game fishing again, but everyone who is part of this is unlikely to ever forget it.