What follows is Captain Tom Francis’ best day black marlin fishing.
Francis runs the Ultimate Lady—a wonderfully appointed 92’ exploration catamaran. With Francis at the helm since 2001, the Ultimate Lady has traversed many ports in the South Pacific—fishing and cruising her way through such wonderful places as Australia, Vanuatu, Fiji, New Zealand and French Polynesia.
Francis and company are currently located in French Polynesia offering charters and private excursions throughout some of the most beautiful and remote waters on earth. Check out his latest venture at: www.seawolfexpeditions.com
Born in New Zealand and raised in Papua New Guinea, Francis is a skilled captain whose resume and fishing accolades are the stuff of legend. If the following doesn’t make you want to go fishing, FishTravelEat probably isn’t the website for you…
For most of the past 16 years, the Ultimate Lady has made an annual pilgrimage to Cairns, Australia to fish the famous giant black marlin season. Every year the Great Barrier Reef in this part of the world sees aggregations of Giant Black Marlin that appear there in the fall.
Some years, we have enjoyed great seasons. We have also experienced those that were average and some that were not so great. Our last visit to Cairns was in 2018.
Overall, this season certainly wasn’t one to write home about. We weren’t alone in this observation, other boats also reported stats that didn’t meet expectation. Although fishing for giant black marlin along the Great Barrier Reef can vary from year to year (it is fishing after all), even in a slow season, there is no better place on earth to catch a giant marlin.
While overall 2018 wasn’t the best, it did produce something remarkable: our best day ever on Black Marlin. This is the story of that trip.
By the time of our epic trip, the majority of the fleet had stopped fishing for the season. The days were hot, hazy and inky calm. Conditions were such that one boat even returned to port upon the request of guests who felt that it was simply too hot to fish.
It had been a long season for all the boats. Slow fishing and a long time away from home had most crew looking forward to getting back to loved ones and friends.
Onboard Ultimate Lady we were preparing for our last trip of the Cairns season. Not only was this to be our last trip of the year, it was one we always looked forward to.
The black marlin season in Cairns runs from September through November. The bulk of the season involves trolling baits along the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.
Towards the end of the November, the fishing along the edge can slow or even come to a standstill. That was the case in 2018– the fish were no longer congregating along the edge as they are known to do during the peak of the season.
This relates to a number of conditions. It could be due to the lack of wind and swell– that the marlin use to surf into the South current—a current that eventually sees the fish hard along the edge.
When It’s Slow on the Edge, Look Wide
When the fishing slows along the edge, boats begin to look wide five or 10 nautical miles offshore of the reef. With the fish no longer stacked along the edge of the Reef, captains search for what is known as The Aggregation. This event is no secret among the fleet.
The Aggregation is the term used for large gatherings of trigger fish that school up in the Coral Sea to spawn. Predators hone in on this activity.
When the conditions line up correctly, The Aggregation is known to produce some of the best sportfishing in the world. The sea can be black with bigeye tuna. Yellowfin tuna of 200 pounds are common.
Tuna schools in the presence of giant black marlin is a recipe for epic fishing. The conditions would come together for us on our last trip of the 2018 Cairns season.
A Trip to Remember
We fished the first afternoon of the trip trolling three baits (our traditional approach) on a very quiet Linden Bank. With only two other boats in attendance, we managed to get a single bite and let go a fish of around 700 pounds. It was a good start to the trip, but our real mission was out wide.
The next morning we departed the anchorage early, set a couple of lures and pointed our nose to a spot that usually holds fish this time of year. Trolling across open water, there is no obvious structure to target but the water is productive– usually good for a marlin bite or two. This is always a good starting point.
It wasn’t long before we had a bite on one of our lures. We turned loose our first marlin of the day—a blue of about 150 pounds.
When trolling lures out wide, we are both fishing and covering ground. As we travel across the ocean, we are looking for signs of life—bait aggregations or feeding fish, but we are also using our sonar to hunt what’s beneath the surface.
About an hour after that, I had our first mark on the sonar and gave the call to the boys below. This sonar mark is what we are looking for—and meant it was time to change tactics.
Tactical Marlin Fishing
About 12 years ago, we developed a technique that involves using our MAQ omni sonar to locate and track marlin in the water. Tracking the fish, we then position the boat and tactically deploy bait to the fish.
Traditionally, marlin fishing involved a blind search—trolling baits in productive areas and awaiting fish to rise and eat the bait. The bite was often the first time you could “see” the fish—what unfolded beneath the water’s surface was a mystery. The MAQ sonar changes this dynamic.
The MAQ sonar can locate marlin up to 2900 feet away from the boat—it scans in every direction simultaneously. While we troll along at 10 or 12 knots, we are scanning an area 5,200 feet wide—from port to starboard—around the boat.
Once we spot a marlin on the sonar, we begin to track the fish to learn its initial position, depth, direction and speed. It is only when we are close enough to place the bait above the marlin, will the boys deploy a single bait.
Sight fishing for giant marlin is as fun as it is effective and must be seen to be believed! It has been a very successful technique for us and one that is responsible for some of our best fishing trips.
Deploying the Bait
Having marked the fish and positioned the boat to get the bait into position, the boys deployed the bait. Not only does this technique save on bait, but also it enables everyone to get prepared and into position ahead of time.
Once we have marked a fish, all guests are in the cockpit and alert. Our angler is often in the chair with rod and harness secured.
Guests who are not in the chair have their cameras are at the ready and focused on the lonely body surfing bonito. Sure as day, we pass over the sonar mark and the up and down gives a strong marlin boomerang.
I tell the boys in the cockpit and moments later, an implosion of white water behind the boat.
Our bait is gone.
The drop back whips tight and the rod bends giving us the tell-tale sign that we are connected. As the angler increases the drag, line slowly disappears from the reel.
It’s a nice fish, the crew and I know it. Soon enough, our fish is on the surface jumping and affirming our assumptions. It’s a big black marlin around 850-900 pounds. We fight the fish for the next 15 minutes and have a good release.
Calm seas and Big fish, it doesn’t get much better!
Its only 0900hrs. “Black marlin don’t bite in the mornings – whatever…” I mutter to myself.
Sweeping the Floor
Upon releasing the fish, I start my turn just to give the area we last hooked up a quick surveillance. After a quick glance behind the boat to ensure everything is as it should be, my focus returns to the MAQ sonar display– just in time to catch the next mark!
As I line up the mark and start tracking the fish, I let the boys know to prep the bait. Jerry, our mate, is not surprised by this. We often find multiple marlin in little gangs out wide and it always pays to “sweep the floor” with a few passes after a bite or release.
Like clockwork, we track the marlin– monitoring its depth and range on the sonar. This fish is moving a little quicker than the first and appears to know the boat is close. It is not particularly happy with us driving the boat above it.
The bait is out and we make a tight turn to swing our bait out over the fish. This time, however, either the fish isn’t biting or we just didn’t get the bait close enough to get its attention.
We have seen this before. Sometimes a targeted fish will slide by the boat and bait by as little as 160 feet without biting. Without the Omni Sonar, you wouldn’t know how many fish are missed by such a small margin.
We have missed the fish on the first pass, but are still tracking it on the MAQ sonar. We adjust the tilt and range to focus the beam on the fish and maintain contact. The MAQ can do this automatically, but I prefer manual operation via the joystick.
A Second Pass, A Second 900
The fish is at 160 feet (a typical depth for a black marlin) and the big bait will be easy pickings on the surface. The second pass is a replay of the first fish. This time we get a look at the fish as she swims up and eyeballs the bait before engulfing it.
Jerry glances up at me. We both think it’s another big one.
By now its 0930 hours and we have just released another fish nudging 900 pounds. During this fight, we marked another marlin on the sonar. This was a pretty good indication that we had to remain in the area.
Repeating the sequence, we begin our floor sweep of the area. We make two passes between the two bites, which occurred only half a mile apart.
I make a third and think this will be my last before widening the search and…. Boom, another mark squelches its presence on the MAQ sonar! This mark is a big fish and an easy echo for the MAQ. We zero in on another target.
Three’s a Party
Onboard we have friends from Tahiti and Japan. Yoshi, our Japanese guest, is relatively new to sportfishing. The boss has him in the chair for this fish.
We await anxiously as we skip our bait over the marlin below us. Then suddenly, a massive bite– as our third bait disappears into the mouth of a Giant Black Marlin.
The boss is coaching Yoshi through the experience and giving me the all-important hand signals. Its blistering hot and I hope for a quick release as I fear our angler will melt in the chair!
By now, its 1130hrs and we are looking like we will get a quick release. The boys soon have the leader in hand and get the tag in.
It’s a very big fish– probably a grand.
We can’t keep it on the starboard side, so they let go and regain the leader again on port side to shorten up and release her. The boss is determined for Yoshi to exit the chair and get a good look at his fish—which is by now no longer happy to cooperate any further.
The boys have to dump the leader again with the fish high tailing out of there. We chase the fish hard with Yoshi giving it all he has with the boss instructing more drag pressure. Before Yoshi knows it– or would probably prefer to be– he is at sunset! With all the load, the fish is down and Yoshi is sweating it out in a super tug of war.
We circled and used the strong south current to slowly gain on the fish. Two hours later we again have the leader and release a 1000-pounder for our very happy Japanese friend Yoshi.
We Could Do No Wrong
The fight had taken us south quite some distance. Battling the current we worked back to our little spot. We were all grinning from ear to ear– hooking three very big marlin before lunch—it was certainly our best day Giant Black Marlin fishing.
We fished the rest of the afternoon and missed another two fish in the 700-pound range. But that didn’t matter, we could do no wrong that day.
Want to Catch Black Marlin in Australia? A Diversity of Options
If you are in search of Black Marlin, there really isn’t much dilemma choosing where to go. Australia has fantastic Black marlin fishing along its east and west coasts.
Focusing on the EAST coast, from the Frazer Island Babies, where you can sight fish from the beach to fish as little as 15 pounds. The Gold Coast fish and further south to Port Stephans where they run a size larger and 10 bites a day, is not uncommon.
Then there are the Giants of the Great Barrier Reef—a place where encountering fish over the magical 1000 pounds is a relatively regular occurrence. When guests ask me what the chances of catching a giant marlin, I give them a basic law of averages. In 5 days of fishing, we will see a fish of 800 or better– we may not catch it, but we will see one.
Of course, this average can be broken both ways. There are times when you will not see the fish you are after, but there are times when you can catch a fish of 900lbs or better on every day of your charter, or even a couple of Granders in the same day. There is simply no place on Earth that produces more Giant Marlin than the Northern Ribbons reefs between Lizard Island and Cairns.