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REGULAR readers will know that Fisho has recently been campaigning to halt the slaughter of striped marlin by the longline fleet. It’s our firm view that all billfish need protection from commercial exploitation, and it’s something of a joke that while blue and black marlin are protected, stripes continue to be targeted by the commercial fleet.

AFMA, the federal fisheries agency, has given the green light for 390 tonnes of stripes to be long-lined over the 12 months starting from today, March 1. That quota of striped marlin, which equals about 5000 individual fish, will include an unacceptable number of “protected” blue and black marlin caught as by-catch.

It’s only when you get close up and personal with a great gamefish like a striped marlin that you realise how special they are. Unfortunately, the closest most fisheries bureaucrats and politicians get to billfish is seeing it as “marlin steaks” on ice at their local fishmongers.

A gamefishing session out from my home port of Jervis Bay, on the NSW South Coast, on Saturday reinforced to me just how spectacular marlin are, and why it's so important we continue to lobby for them to be declared a recreational-only species.

The day started out like any other gamefishing trip. We put the lures in a mile or so inside the shelf line and started a troll that would take us wide of the shelf and back in over it. The water was clear blue and 23.9 degrees. Mutton birds wheeled and dipped over the swells.

We trolled for about three hours for a lone striped tuna and a hit from what I presume was a dolphin fish around a fish trap float. Things were looking pretty quiet. Three other boats – Trust In Dreams, Southern Navigator and Marlin Feeder – were working the same patch of water east of JB. They were all members of my local club, the JBGFC, and we occasionally chatted on the VHF radio, passing on info about water temp, birds and any signs of fish. Around the change of tide at 2pm the radio chatter began to indicate that things were picking up. A few free jumpers were spotted. Bait rose higher in the water column, although I couldn’t see that as my sounder was playing up.

I spotted a brown patch of bait in the water and headed over to it. It had obviously been herded up by a marlin. We trolled past it and got a hit on the shotgun, a lumo Blacks Snack made by Mitch Calcutt on the Gold Coast. The fish pulled drag but let go within a few seconds. We needed some livies.

Further north of us I could hear the guys on Southern Navigator talking on the radio about baitballs and fish busting through them. “Follow the birds and you’ll find the fish,” they said.

I fiddled madly with the plugs on the back of the sounder, willing it to fix itself so I could find some bait. My fiddling must have worked as the sounder finally came to life. I headed north and soon found a sizeable patch of bait about 200 feet down. My mates Rob and Martin deployed the bait jigs and both pulled up full strings of fat slimies. With some healthy baits zipping around in the tank, I headed south-east to where I could see the other guys following a flock of birds flying low to the water. When we got there I saw a baitball about the size of a kitchen table. Just as I throttled back I saw a lit-up marlin rip through the bait in a shower of spray. Rob and Martin got baits in the water pronto and we headed closer to the action. Randall and Henry in Southern Navigator hooked up nearby, and then Martin got a run.

While he was letting the fish run, I noticed the bait school had taken up residence under the boat. Rob and I saw four marlin cruising around within feet of the transom; huge purple shapes with neon stripes glowing along their long flanks and their crescent shaped pectoral fins almost white. The bait was cowering under us and the marlin had no hesitation in charging in and smashing them.

But there was little time to admire this incredible predator/prey spectacle. Martin came up tight to a good fish which made a few trademark splashy leaps before battling out down deep for the remainder of the fight. This was Martin’s first billfish and he played the fish like a champ, even though he was unused to game gear. When we got the fish to the boat I was happy to see the Eagle Claw circle hook firmly lodged in the corner of the its mouth. After a quick revive and a few snaps of a very happy Martin, the 60kg+ stripe was successfully released and we headed back to the bait ball. The other guys were still in with the fish. Amazingly, there were even more marlin circling the hapless bait. I saw a solid fish charge out of the water right beside us, scattering bait like confetti, a shining purple-blue beast, lit up and glowing. Another fish was like a flash of electricity as it circled deep down in the clear water, arcing upwards to join the feast.

Marlin Martin 2 Marlin Martin
Martin Salter enjoying his first ever marlin encounter.

We were whooping like madmen, drunk on the sight of these amazing, incredible fish. I pinned a livie to my trace and dropped it in the water. Three marlin were on it in an instant, fighting each other to eat the poor slimy. Rob dropped his bait in and more lit-up marlin charged it down. The leader wasn’t even off the spool – that’s how close they were. We both hooked up. I came up tight on mine; it surged away on the surface, then doubled back, making a series of low, straight jumps towards the boat. Rob dropped his fish, then hooked up again, this time right at the boat. I have a mental image seared in my brain of that fish poking its head out of the water to grab the bait, thrashing like crazy, its fins glowing.

My fish started to run and it didn’t stop. I had more than 700m of 24kg line on my reel and within a minute or two a lot of that line had disappeared. I could see splashes across the ocean as the mad fish just kept on going. Martin was in a quandary. My fish was going one way; Rob’s was going the other. All three of us were laughing at the insanity of it all. There was nothing we could do. I was close to being spooled when the line when slack and the weight of the fish was gone. I cranked the line back in as quick as I could. It had popped due to water pressure. Bad luck. Rob was still fighting his fish. I took the wheel, allowing Martin to help Rob. The fish made six wild jumps, the typical high frenzied leaps of a striped marlin, and then settled down. It played hardball in the final stages of the fight, using the strong south-running current to its advantage and making Rob work for every inch of line. It came up, tired and copper coloured, again with the circle hook providing an easy release. I traced it, Rob removed the hook, and then I held its bill as we drove forward to revive it. The fish lay quiet. I marvelled at its big eye and strange beak-like lower jaw. After a few minutes those incredible iridescent blue lines returned to its flanks and its tail beats grew stronger. After a few quick pictures, we released the fish, a 70+ kilo model, and watched it slide away, a blue shape which slowly melted into the deeper blue of the ocean.

Marlin Jim
Jim Harnwell and a nice striped prior to release.

We all knew we’d witnessed a truly awe-inspiring sight. I’ve seen plenty of feeding marlin over the years but having them crash bait right under my boat was pretty special. It made all the fishless trips worthwhile. I didn’t care that I’d lost my fish (which I reckon was a blue – it ran too hard and too long to be a stripe). Being there with Martin and Rob as they caught and released theirs was good enough. But if our government keeps letting longliners target striped marlin, this sort of visual action will be denied to future generations.

We can’t let that happen.

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