The 2011 Cairns Giant Black Marlin season is over for anther year and by all accounts, it has been one of the best seasons in several years. Kelly Dalling Fallon spent 70 days on the reef in 2011 and was at the thick of the action. She spoke to several of the veteran captains and shares their combined observations of the season that was.
Making an early start
The fine line between light tackle and heavy tackle fishing in north Queensland is often blurred. September is the transition month, but a distinct lack of small billfish in the waters off Townsville and Cairns in recent years has pushed the professional charter fleet to start their heavy tackle seasons earlier than ever.
Once again this year, by the last week of September most boats were already fishing and big fish were already being hooked. While in general September can be a good month for small fish in numbers, this year some monsters also showed up nice and early, like the fish Capt. Ross Finlayson on Top Shot encountered on September 20.
With Japanese fly-fisherman Susumu Ishikawa on board for his 12th year aiming to challenge the World Record (currently held at 220lbs on 10kg) they raised a big fish in the spread and were able to switch it onto the fly right at the back of the boat. Capt. Ross tells me that its very rare to get jumps out of the big fish on the light fly, but this one did, giving 8 or 10 big jumps which allowed him the perfect opportunity to gauge her size. He put the fish at a massive 1100lbs. Unfortunately, after a hard 3-hour fight, the inevitable happened and the 20lb tippet broke.
Where the fish were
As a general rule, the fishing in early October is usually towards the northern end of the reef. 2011 was no exception with the Lizard Island Tournament start fishing on October 1, most boats were already fishing to the north and off the edge of Number 10 Ribbon Reef from the outset. Fortunately, this was where the bulk of the fish were, with well over half of the marlin released during the tournament caught on Number 10 Ribbon or further north. In fact, by my count, there were more than 100 black marlin released in the vicinity of Number 10 Ribbon in the first two weeks of October. And, by the third week of the month, if you weren’t fishing at Number 10 Ribbon, you were wishing you were.
But by the end of October the fish had moved on. So abrupt was their departure, I can name the exact date—October 29—which is the last day I have a fish recorded being released on that part of the reef.
However, the professional fleet is very mobile with operators for the most part offering extended live-aboard charters. Flights in and out were re-arranged where necessary and the boats turned south. There was a week of steady fishing in the middle and all the way down to the bottom (Number 1 Ribbon and Lena Reef in particular) before the same dirty water that shutdown the top pushed through there as well. Then bite went completely south and the fleet spent most of the remaining season fishing at Linden Bank as they did in 2010.
And the fishing was great on the Bank, with lots of big fish caught for the entire month of November. Capt. Jared Weir on Shaka enjoyed a particularly good run late in the month with 5 from 9 including one over 1000lbs and another pretty close-to one day, and then weighing a fish at 1097lbs for the same angler, Chris Morris, the very next.
Unless your name is Captain Daniel Carlson, the grounds off Jenny Louise Shoal and Euston Light did not really fire at all in 2011. Little Audrey was the exception to the rule spending the last couple of trips of their season off the Light, and caught several big fish on those grounds, including three fish that Capt. Dan reported at over 1000lbs in three days fishing.
And while the much anticipated tuna aggregation was a ‘no show’ in 2011 (the long liners were catching lots of tuna, but far too far out wide for the fleet to venture), as the black marlin cleared out at the end of November, fishing wide for blue marlin came into play. All season the long liners had encountered plenty of big blue marlin out wide (in previous years, 90% of the marlin they encountered would be blacks.) Fishing one of his last days of the season, Capt Ross Finlayson on Top Shot caught a giant blue that he put at 850-900lbs.
New faces on the reef
While once again, many veterans returned to the reef in 2011 (such a Candace and Jay Meyer who fished the reef for perhaps the 20th year on board Square Bear with Capt. Craig “Sparra” Denham), there were also a number of new faces. Many captains were also buoyed by the number of European visitors to the reef this year, in particular because of the decline in the number of guests from the USA (due to the financial duress many are still experiencing over there and a strong Australian dollar).
There were also a number of private boats (including Pebble Mouse a custom built aluminium cruiser from Western Australia) joining the 30-odd professional charter boat fleet on the reef in 2011, as well as two overseas vessels. Mea Culpa, a 138-foot motoryacht, that has been fishing all over the world in the past few years (travelling to New Zealand, Vanautu, Fiji, Samoa, French Polynesia and the US) fished the Lizard Island Black Marlin Classic. Another giant super yacht Valkyrie, which has returned to Australian waters most years since 2005, was back again and had a particularly good late season out wide. On their final trip, they released four marlin to 500lbs (two blues and two blacks) on the seamount before moving on to head to New Zealand fish the Whanganella Banks.
And what about the big fish?
Overall, I recorded over 30 grander black marlin releases in 2011, as well as 3 more that were weighed. (The weighed fish being Capt. Daniel Carlson’s black marlin on Little Audrey weighed a1038lb black on November 23, Capt. Jared Weir on Shaka caught a 1097lb black on November 25, and Capt. Tim Richardson on Tradition, weighed the biggest of the season at 1103lbs, caught on October 7th.)
There is no other destination in the world that records at least two grander black marlin releases every week of the season, let alone recording multiple double 1000lb black marlin releases in a single day on a single boat. To my knowledge, this spectacular achievement occurred three times in 2011.
Canberran angler Dave McPherson, made up for an unsuccessful trip to the reef in 2010, when he returned for a 4 day solo trip on board Viking II with Capt. Bill Billson and released two fish over 1000lbs on the final day of his trip on October 1st (the second of which Capt. Bill put at well over 1200lbs.) On November 16, Capt. Dean Beech on Castille III released 3 from 8 including two at 1050 and 1150lbs for his first time marlin anglers from South Australia and on November 21st, Capt. Daniel Carson on Little Audrey put his anglers from the Dominican Republic onto three fish, including two that he put at 1000 and 1050lbs on the very first day of their charter.
But as always, in addition to every big fish caught, there were several more seen, lost or missed. On a day in late November, Capt. Tim Dean on Calypso reported the biggest marlin he’s seen in many years (and he’s seen some big fish) show up on his baits. He’d just put the lines in at Onyx Reef on the way out from Cairns when he saw a dark shape coming up on the bait. At first he thought it was a school of fish so big was the shape. but soon it was clear it was a giant marlin as it ate the big bait, which then came tight, and then they pulled the bait right out of its mouth. Tim steered the boat around again and this time it engulfed the tuna on the stinger, and again spat the bait as it came tight. Try as he might, he couldn’t raise it again. Capt. Tim says that’s not the only experience he had with giants in 2011, with a couple of grander releases himself (both he put at 1100lbs), he put 2011 right up there as a year for big fish.
A return to the glory days?
Capt. Bob Jones on Iceman, a 27-year veteran of the Cairns season, tells me that in his opinion, 2011 was 500% on the past few years. While Bob himself admits that’s a slight fisherman’s exaggeration, it is fair to say it was indeed a much better year, most certainly the best since 2006. Not only were there big fish around (and he caught them!), which Bob explains is noteworthy as they provide good breeding stock, but there were good numbers of smaller male fish as well.
Perhaps enjoying the best the season had to offer both big and small in 2011 was Capt. Luke Fallon on Kekoa who reported 8 days of 4 marlin releases in a single day’s fishing – practically unheard of in recent years where more than 2 fish was considered a particularly good day. In addition, he also encountered several triple-headers, including one on a spectacular day of fishing on November 25, which included a 1000lb fish.
Of course there were periods of tough fishing, but when the fishing was good, it was excellent (this pearler came from Capt. Ross Finlayson.) And as many will be quick to point out, even in its worst year, the reef off Cairns is still the best spot in the world to catch a giant black marlin, and it always will be (if there was going to be somewhere else, they would have found it by now!)
If you haven’t put it on your list of spots to fish, do it now!