Words and Images: Jackson Boric
Every year between October and January in south east Queensland we experience a run of juvenile black marlin that are migrating for the first time in their life. Fisherman from north of Cairns right down to the north coast of NSW get the privilege of chasing these feisty little fish but it’s the fish trap of Harvey Bays Fraser island where the magic really happens, black marlin in gin clear shallow water is what Harvey Bay is all about.
Harvey Bay is a sleepy town situated about 3 and a half hours by car north of Brisbane, from Harvey bay you can launch your boat at the Urangan boat ramp and start your journey across the bay to a little spot named Rooneys.
Rooneys is about 60km as the crow flies from Urangan but some people will cut across to Fraser and follow the beach up, dependant on the weather and what sort of boat they venture over in. Rooneys is an incredible place where beautiful sand flats meet immediate depth and sight casting marlin in the shallows is a reality however a lot of fish are caught along the drop off that follows the sand flats of Rooneys.
Black marlin congregate in the north west coral sea around Cairns and lizard Island each year to spawn, not long after this the juvenile fish start their migration south in conjunction with the EAC (east Australian current). Male marlin reach maturity once they reach a weight of about 30kg and females not until they reach around 100kg so the importance of a catch and release fishery at Harvey Bay is imperative especially when double figure sessions are a reality in this part of the world. Facts supplied by tag and recapture and also long line fleets show that marlin move large distances of up to 7,200klm in only 359 days but many fish continue to follow previous migration patterns throughout their life so it’s up to us as sport fisherman to help keep our marlin fishery the way it is and over the last few seasons the marlin fishery both commercially and recreationally is as good as it’s ever been.
What makes the Harvey Bay marlin fishery so special is chasing marlin on the flats and at certain times the little blacks get right up on the flats to feed. All the marlin you will be targeting on the flats are under 2 years old and at this stage they are still very dumb and very very sloppy eaters. This means that most things you throw at them they will have a crack at; stick baits, plastics, divers, poppers and even chromies will put you in with a good chance. Remembering the fish are horribly sloppy eaters you don’t want to pull the lure away from them when they try to strike, the marlin will attack the lure first by swiping at it with their bill. They do this to try and disable the bait before eating it and I’ve found that sometimes pausing a plastic or suspending stick bait will fool them into thinking they have wounded their pray. Even if they don’t eat your lure on the first follow the beauty of their stupidness and fishing the flats is you can still see the fish and they don’t spook too easy so you can continue to put casts on them.
Marlin, tuna, queenies, kingfish, goldens and more venture up onto the flats around Rooneys for a feed. schools of bait feed and seek shelter of a high tide and as the saying goes find the bait find the fish. Getting up on the flats, dropping the electric motor and heading in a down wind direction is a good way to start also having a good pair of polarised sunglasses helps. When patrolling the flats you’re looking for the obvious dark shadows but it’s not always calm and sunny on darker days you need to try and find other tell tale signs like surface disturbance, bait jumping and bird action. Next time you’re out on the water and it’s a bit windy take note of how when you face into the wind you can see the water looks much more disturbed like glare over waves and white caps but if you turn around 180 degrees the water looks a lot calmer, no white caps, no glare. Keep this in mind when you’re heading up or down the flats and remember to take a look behind you every now and then because fish can make their way up on the flats at any time.
Moving off the flats and along the drop off a lot of marlin are caught by the more common tactic for marlin that is trolling. Probably the most effective way to troll for the baby blacks is to work your way along the drop off that runs along the edge of the flats, with the tidal flow that runs past the corner of Rooneys and the immediate depth that runs parallel its nothing short of a fish highway. If you do opt to troll there’s a few key secrets to success like the speed. trolling between 6.5-7 knots seems to be the key, I’m not sure why but all the marlin I’ve seen caught trolling have come from this speed range. Secret number 2 is to have a firm drag setting for the strike.
These little blacks have an extra hard beak so strong, sharp single hooks will help stay connected. After the hook up you can back the drag off a bit and have a play with the acrobats. Number three is to have a good selection of lures in your spread. I personally run a 5 lure spread which consists of 2 divers, 2 swimming gars and a skirt in shotgun. shotgun is the lure run furthest back from the boat. A lot of people get hung up on just running skirts for marlin but a lot of fish are accounted for by divers such as X-Raps, Lively Lures and Laser Pros. Another hot tip when targeting the marlin is to fish the tide changes and a lot more preferably the high tide change but when the tide does start to run trolling over your chosen patch in a down tide direction is a good idea, your lures action will work better and baitfish use less energy when travelling with the flow thus giving your lure a more natural presentation. While your trolling around keep one eye on the sounder and another out for bird action, bait down deep will hold fish. Dropping soft plastics or live baits down to a bait school is a highly productive method. Marlin will also follow long tail and mac tuna schools around and casting soft plastics and stick baits into a feeding school can work but use slightly bigger lures so you don’t get harassed by mac tuna.
More marlin that are hooked are lost then landed i know this first hand, a trolling session i had at Rooneys sore 9 hook-ups in 30 second but only the one fish landed, every single fish jumped us off before we could get to the rod so sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it but once hooked keeping your rod tip down will stop the fish from jumping so much. Keeping the boat going at the same pace gives you the chance of multiple hook-ups but the marlin often jump incredibly fast towards the boat so driving away from the fish for the first 30 seconds of the battle can be the deciding factor between loose line and thrown hooks or high fives and smiles. Once all the lures are in and the anglers one on one with the fish figuring out the direction of the tide and using it to plane a stubborn fish up on light line can help. This techniques normally applied to larger fish but even the little ones go hard. If you try to pull the fish against current they get their head down in the tide and use it similar to a paravain or bibbed lure and raising them can be near on impossible.
Releasing the little blacks is the most crucial part of catching them, at their young age they are very fragile and will quite literally fight to the death. When the fish comes close to the boat you should be in gear and already heading toward the beach someone should leader the fish and grab its bill firmly with a glove, once the fish has been claimed the angler should put his rod down and drive the boat toward the beach at around 1-2 knots and prepares everything for a photo and release while his or her fishing partner swims it. This keeps water running over the gills but doesn’t push water into an exhausted fishes stomach (unless you intend to release it boat side without pulling the fish from the water and without a photo). Do not pull the fish out of the water no matter how close you are to standing depth you are, pulling the fish from the water means you have to handle the fish and when these fish thrash around they take some taming. Marlin like all fish have a slime covering that is made up of mucoprotein which is basically a barrier that protects fish from bacteria, disease and infection. Damage to their slime is similar to a cut, scrape or burn to a humans skin however fish cant slap a bandaid on so after release they are left wide open to infection and disease that they can’t fight especially at such a young age, also many parasites are only able to affect fish if their slime coat has been damaged. Cuddling a thrashing fish will swiftly remove any slime that your clothing or boat touches. Once you reach the shallows jump out of the boat and walk the fish around to keep water flow over the gills and only stop to get a quick happy snap then return to swimming the fish. When you have your digital memories you can try to release the fish however many marlin are exhausted and the weight of their solid head will weigh them down and they will nose dive to the bottom, if you left the fish after this it would simply stay there and drown. One TV show that had a double figure session and released all their marlin at depth and removed a lot of the fish from the water, the filming of the releases shows all 14 fish nosedive to the bottom where they were destined for death. It can take up to 50 minutes to revive these fragile little fish so consider this before you target them.
Ultra light tackle isn’t a great idea due to over exhaustion and the little guys still go surprisingly hard so tackle around the 20-30lb range is ideal. The Shimano sustain 5000 matched up to a 20lb black Terez is a perfect and affordable outfit for the job. As for leader, marlin have a reasonably raspy bill at such a young age so leader of 60lb and up is safe. Lure selection is endless, like mentioned earlier they are very stupid and will attack most things presented correctly however stick baits, bibbed lures, skirts and soft plastics around the 7 inch size are ideal. hooks must be sharp and strong so if that means upgrading you may have to, single hooks like VMC 5/0 are perfect for the job.
Marlin in the gin clear shallows is certainly a reality and an achievable dream that everyone should experience at least once. Targeting these fish takes dedication, preparation, time and effort and money so we ask that everyone respects our fishery so we have it for years to come.