BENT RODS AND SCREAMING REELS: MARLIN ON FLY

MArlin Fly Banner The winter of 1984 will be a hard one to forget. Amongst highlights in the balmy North Queensland tropics for this escapee from the southern winter was the black marlin that rose to a teaser behind a boat off Cape Bowling Green. The initial interest was lukewarm, but when Townsville Tackle dealer Dale Welldon let it taste the hookless mullet the marlin lit up like a neon sign. It wanted more and was just about to have another chew when Dale yanked it away. The effect was like taking a bone from an unsociable dog. “Out of gear” the skipper yelled. A critical protocol in big league fly fishing is for the cast to be made from a boat not under mechanical power – current, wind, and inertia from the motor yes, but not with any propeller rotation.

Chook lures marlin

Article author Rod Harrison with an early fly caught sailfish.

Article author Rod Harrison with an early fly caught sailfish.

The rest was the easy part. The fly – more like half a chook than a dainty mayfly imitation – made a splashdown beyond the marlin, zipping about as if still searching for the mullet. It saw the fly and charged throwing caution to the wind. The hookup was good and the fish headed away from the boat, a sign the hook was located in the side of the mouth. I’d previously caught sailfish on fly and gained valuable experience from those encounters. Events became a blur as the reel unloaded in the wake of a spectacular series of aerial gyrations that punctuated the lightning fast run. As minutes wore on the fight tempo changed. Leaping fish burn energy at a rate that might be comparable to the fuel consumption of a jet fighter with afterburners ablaze. During a series of shorter runs terminating in half-hearted leaps that failed to clear the surface, I kept switching rod angles so’s to maintain pressure from directly behind. This inhibits forward motion and water flow across the gills thus tiring a fish faster than pressure from the side which allows fish to swim in circles around the boat.

A breakthrough, of sorts

An ideal hookup -  fly fair and square in the corner of the mouth.

An ideal hookup – fly fair and square in the corner of the mouth.

Finally a tail lobe broke the surface and it was all over – for the time being at least. My reckoning was it exceeded the existing world record for the tippet class – but I wasn’t about to kill a fish for a piece of paper. Head down, the tail slowly swayed as it disappeared into the depths, the swim reminded me of the tired gaits as shearing mates of old trudged back to the huts and warm beer after a day on the board when it’d been a hundred in the waterbag. Fast forward thirty something years and it was a case of Déjà vu. Skimming south on a benign sea with mates Mick Winterton and good mate Peter with his boat full of camera gear. Skipper Benny steered a parallel course in the backup boat containing Josh Jensen and his Cousteau caboodle. On their previous trip down to Cape Bowling Green, Mick and Ben raised 17 blacks, both scoring fish on fly. Confidence was high yet tempered by the fact that it was late in the June/September season. Those juvenile blacks, very catchable on tarpon tackle are just as migratory as their thousand pound ‘big mumma granders’ – here today and gone tomorrow.

Tough day at the office

Nothing flash about early days billfish flies.

Nothing flash about early days billfish flies.

After four hours of fruitless trolling around and over the baits schools, the latter probability had taken root. Marlin fishing is a team effort. The bigger the fish the more critical the role of crews. It can be said without fear of contradiction that grander captures wouldn’t happen but for the skill and know-how of skippers and deck hands. Some anglers, the inexperienced especially, often take no expanded role beyond cranking the reel. Fly fishers have an expanded role in proceedings and those playing by the rules are governed by the stringent regulations formulated by the International Game Fish Association. Whereas gear anglers are insulated by heavy leaders up with 30ft lengths, fly fishers have a mere 12inches of castable leader material between the fragile line class section and fly. The skill requirements are commensurate with the increased difficulties.

Hours of boredom punctuated by minutes of mayhem

Ben Agar and black marlin on fly. Ben scored at his first attempt.

Ben Agar and black marlin on fly. Ben scored at his first attempt.

But whether towing a spread of hundred buck skirted lures, a pattern optimised for switch-baiting, bridle-rigged live baits, or a hookless teasers for a shot on fly, the tedium is the same. Hours of boredom criss-crossing an empty ocean, then out of the blue – no other way to describe things – events go into hyper-drive. So often it’s a fleeting apparition – was that movement, a flash? one often asks. Sometimes minds re-wind and surrounds become surreal as the question is pondered, however the time lapse reality is split-second as more often than not a majestic billfish reveals itself in the most tangible of ways. It was and it is. As Mick called the shots, I made the cast. Not a good one, in front of the fish rather than behind. Mick’s fly, a tandem hook silver and blood red flashy profile, it was immediately taken. There was tension on the flyline but no real weight and a lot of head shaking. “Good boy, Rod” Mick calls. My response isn’t as optimistic and I say as much on the film. I’m really looking forward to putting a bend in the TFO #12wt BVK (which stands for Bernard Victor Kreh aka Lefty) and the BVK #IV reel, but those pleasures were short-lived.
Dazzling current day gear.   The Mako reel is regarded as the best of the best as drag settings remain constant without the fade that happens with reels with a  cork disc set up

Dazzling current day gear. The Mako reel is regarded as the best of the best as drag settings remain constant without the fade that happens with reels with a cork disc set up

The odds were a bill-wrapped fish which always leads to lots of problems for the angler. There’s pressure enough to imbed the hooks into the bone and gristle – and there’s more of the latter in the billfish mouth – risks rasping the vulnerable tippet section against the abrasive bill. It became a case of hoping for the best but not discounting the worst as the marlin finally got the message. It bolted a hundred yards before a belly-flopping leap. I dropped the rod to create slack but at that distance it made no difference. The line went slack. You win some and lose some – the hooks hadn’t located in a soft spot. I’d been mulling the one hook versus two on billfish flies for some time. All things considered, my take anyway, is that one is better than two. We pressed on through an uneventful afternoon. It seemed a small concession seeing a trolling rod on board and not a lot to do in the camera boat.

Black marlin saves the day

You wouldn’t want to know; we’d not travelled the length of a football field when Ben’s voice sheepishly came across the radio. “Umm, err…we’ve got one on.” It was a feisty little black marlin that saved the day visually, Josh shooting some neat underwater release footage. But in overview, fish or no fish, everyday on the briny usually contains a learning experience, though sometimes not in ones face. When it comes to marlin’s toughest gig, the act of nailing one of fly, the inescapable fact. Given that there are no perfect scores, anglers need the shots for the numbers to finally tumble in their favour.  
Rod Harrison

About Rod Harrison

Rod Harrison is a sportfishing ‘lifer’. At the cutting edge of the sport since the 1970s, he remains at the top of his game and continues to spend the amount of time on the water that the rest of us only dream about. A former shearer and street cop, he has since guided fisherfolk extensively in both fresh and saltwater, his most recent venture being at Queensland’s world renowned big barra paradise,Lake Awoonga.

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