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Baby Blacks on the Barrier Reef

Australia's juvenile marlin provide amazing fly-fishing action -- inside the reef!!

October 3, 2001
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The Great Barrier Reef represents one of the only known spawning grounds for black marlin and blue marlin in the South Pacific. After they hatch in the fall, the baby blacks move inside the reef while juvenile blues move off into deeper water. Seeking protection inside and around the reefs, the year-old blacks feed on the large schools of bait found in the interior lagoons until they are big and fast enough to deal with the sharks that frequent deeper water. The result: impressive numbers of 30- to 100-pound young black marlin inside the reef from Lizard Island to Townsville. With up to 15 shots a day at the speedy little blacks, captains and anglers off Cairns get plenty of opportunity to stretch the limits of fly-fishing tackle.

The Big Tease
In 1996, promoter Peter Flower held the first-of-its-kind black marlin fly-fishing tournament out of Cairns. The event attracted such prominent fly fishermen from around the world as Jack Erskine, Billy Pate, Jean Paul Richard and Jeff McFaden, and paired them up with some of the best black marlin captains anywhere.

Fly fishing for blacks, as for all billfish, depends heavily on the use of teasers to get the fish close enough to the boat for the cast. The tremendous speed of these young marlin has pushed the development of unique teaser techniques and baits to get the fish within fly-casting range and keep them there. Fast, ferocious strikes mean each teaser bait must be fresh or heavily brined and sewn to keep it from being destroyed on the first take. Fortunately, the mates in Australia are second only to Dr. Frankenstein when it comes to bringing the dead to life.

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With a tremendous number of species from which to choose, each captain I spoke with seemed to have a favorite baitfish for a teaser and different reasons for choosing it. Some skippers, such as Capt. Peter B. Wright, use live-bait teasers to get marlin within fly-casting range. Regardless of which teaser the marlin comes to first, Andersen likes to get the fish to move to his favorite: a pink-skirted “mack-tuna” (kawakawa) belly flap. Andersen says belly flaps are much more durable than whole baits and can withstand the repeated punishment from marlin.

Capt. Barry Cross on the Azura prefers a slapping queenfish as his main surface teaser. Like most captains here, he runs a swimming, hookless mullet 20 to 40 feet deep on the downrigger, a single or daisy chain of ballyhoo on the flats and his first choice, the leather-skinned queenfish from the flybridge. Aboard Sea Baby IV, legendary captains Laurie Woodbridge and Ross Finlayson prefer a skipping scad for their surface teaser. (A plentiful baitfish with iridescent silvery skin, scad resemble an abalone shell in coloration.) Wright forgoes pulling baits altogether and uses soft-head lure teasers for their durability and effectiveness.

I asked Finlayson on the Sea Baby IV why he didn’t run the teasers from the outriggers like most captains do in other parts of the world. His response: “We like our outriggers too much.” Sailfish off the Barrier Reef usually stay fixed on a teaser, according to Finlayson. But these young blacks move quickly like beaked missiles from one hookless teaser to another, chomping down and pulling drag before you have time to react. And with a couple working a spread, things get pretty wild.

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Australia’s preferred teaser method utilizes rods without guides (so the line goes through the blank to the reel) equipped with small, fast-retrieve reels holding 50- to 80-pound test. The fast retrieves help keep the teasers out of the fish’s mouth and the fish coming to the boat.

Why use rods without guides? You guessed it: The Aussies like their rods too much. A teased marlin will inevitably grab a bait and try to take off with it. Once the fish lets go, the rod tip springs back with a sudden lurch that can allow a loop of line to catch around the rod tip or one of the rod guides, resulting in a break-off, broken rod, or worse, a lost outfit. Using guideless rods eliminates such scenarios.

One other aspect of teaser deployment unique to Australia is the use of downriggers, with large swimming mullet the bait of choice. Most of the captains I spoke to said that 50 percent of the fish they encounter hit their downrigger first. After that initial downrigger strike, little blacks usually follow the rising bait to the surface, bringing them up into the spread with the other teasers. With four teasers in the water, each crew member mans a teaser rod, getting every person on board involved in the action. With this in-your-face fishing, the whole crew works together on every fish.

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After the marlin shows itself, the crew tries to get the fish fixed on the preferred bait while clearing the others. Add a second or third marlin to the spread — not uncommon — and total bedlam ensues as fish crash every teaser.

The Right Stuff
Like a proverbial swami, Andersen predicted a day of hot fishing action, and his crystal ball was right on the money. We released the first black by 8:30 a.m. and raised 10 more that day, releasing five on live bait and jumping three off on fly. Just another day at the office for Andersen, who’s won both the 1996 and 1997 International Black Marlin Flyfishing Classic, the 1997 Broome Sailfish Championship, the 1997 Townsville Sheraton Casino Billfish Challenge at Cape Bowling Green, and the 1998 Toyota Townsville Light-Tackle Billfish Tournament (not to mention the National Barramundi Championship in Darwin). Andersen’s dedication and willingness to try new techniques have brought him to the top of the light-tackle game throughout Queensland.

Andersen places great importance on matching the hatch and being aware of how marlin feed in the wild. The hatch he most often wants to match is his favored belly strip with pink skirt. For that, he relies on a pink-and-white Kling-On sinking fly developed by leading Australian fly fisherman Peter Morse. “We have found that we get much better results with sinking flies cast to the side of or behind the marlin to imitate stunned, sinking baitfish,” he says. Andersen points out that once the teaser’s pulled away from a teased black, it will be looking around frantically to eat something, and “I want the marlin to take the fly from the side or heading away from the boat.”

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Andersen agrees with Wright’s live-bait teasing techniques, noting that he “always keeps a live bait bridled and ready to cast on an additional teaser rod. If a fish misses the fly, loses interest or even jumps off after the switch, we immediately toss out the livey and tease the fish back for another cast. We even use up to two live teaser baits, which usually gives us another shot at the same fish.” This technique held one marlin’s interest for 12 minutes — until it finally ate the fly.

Traditional top-water popper flies used for sailfish also take blacks effectively — as veteran fly fisherman Jeff McFaden proved the day after we arrived, going three-for-six with his favorite homemade pink popper fly aboard Sea Baby IV. Terminal connections used by Andersen include 8/0 to 10/0 Gamakatsu “Trey Combs” hooks, Stren tippet and Teeny Billfish or Cortland Saltwater QD fly line. The preferred backing is Bionic Braid, a high-visibility Australian superbraid.

Any of the quality fly reels available today with large arbors (which provide a faster retrieve) like the Penn 4, Fin-Nor 4.5, Billy Pate Marlin, Charlton 8600, Abel Super 12 or the new Tibor Gulfstream hold plenty of backing — about 325 yards — to get the job done. The New Moon II carries Penn reels on Sage, Penn and Loomis rods. Most find a 14-weight ideal — a little heavy for lighter tippet classes but with the ability to deliver a fly in windy conditions with a 650-grain fly line and the backbone to get a hook set. The main criteria for the rods include powerful butt sections to lift bull-dogging marlin and a length of 8 or 8 1/2 feet.

When to Go
The main season for the small blacks goes from June through September; the week leading up to the full moon and four days after usually provide the best “chew.” The fishing grounds are a mere 20-minute run from Yorkeys Knob Marina in Cairns. The proximity of the grounds increases fishing time and, compared to the big-game season, reduces charter costs to about $1,400 Australian (or about US$850). The boats work off the inside reef areas where they find the best water clarity and bait activity. Referred to as the “wide grounds,” Pixie and Oyster reefs are the main structures holding bait and marlin. Sudbury Reef to the south also offers good concentrations of fish. Although these reefs all lie in about 120 feet of water, the marlin can appear in depths as shallow as 50 feet.

Prior to the marlin season, fair concentrations of sailfish have been consistent in May and June. At the end of the baby black season in early November, the water temperature increases, sending small marlin south. This is a good time to go for larger marlin and sails outside the reef. Using the same bait-and-switch techniques, anglers can release up to 10 sails a day in the 70-pound range. Larger blacks (from 150 to 400 pounds), dorado and wahoo also accompany the sails, providing a nice mix.

They say you only go around once; I say no fisherman should complete that journey without making at least one visit to the Great Barrier Reef for its springtime baby black marlin.

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