It was a sight to behold: calm seas, no land visible, and more than 150 boats all tightly packed together over the bait schools. Equally impressive as the number of boats was the fact that each one seemed to be constantly hooked up. Every few minutes, a boat would charge out of the pack in hot pursuit of a high-flying marlin. More often than not, several boats would speed off at once, making for some exciting moments as the boats weaved around each other, trying to keep the fish apart and stay attached at the same time.
But the bite didn’t last just an hour or two around the tide, as it normally does; it went on all day. “At no time during the day did I not see at least one boat fighting a fish,” says Shaun Whale, publisher of the Aussie fishing magazine Modern Fishing.
I fish these rich waters every year, and I’ve never seen so many fish caught. For a fishing journalist, it was paradise. I seemed to be constantly reaching for the camera as yet another boat hooked up close by.
By the end of one very hot day’s fishing, the fleet tallied a staggering number of releases: Flying Fisher, 11; Sniper, 11; Viking On, 10; Diversion, 12; Calypso, 13; and the list went on. But the best effort went to Darren Buttigieg, on the 21-foot trailer boat Happy Hour, who managed to catch 15, including a triple-header.
Throughout February, the bite continued, and the number of anglers at Port Stephens on the New South Wales coast rose considerably. While anglers caught a few fish inshore, most big days came on the infamous Car Park grounds just offshore. Just 24 miles southeast of the port, the Car Park enjoys a reputation as a striped marlin magnet, but this season it reached a new level, with anglers releasing hundreds of fish on a daily basis.
“The bite just wouldn’t stop,” says Scotty
Thorrington, the skipper on Flying Fisher. “Every day we just kept catching them. We averaged more than three fish a day, and regularly caught five or six.”
These weren’t small striped marlin, either; fish in the 160- to 220-pound range dominated the catches. Fortunately, there was also a good mix of black marlin, some weighing more than 400 pounds, and even the odd blue marlin thrown in as well.
Traditionally, the Port Stephens billfish bite starts in late January, peaks by mid-February, and then steadily slows down as the current pulls up; however, 2012 proved to be an entirely different story. “The current held, and the fish just kept snapping their heads off right through to the end of the month,” says Capt. Bobby Jones on Iceman. The fishing was so good that it became rare to not tag a fish, and in fact, on Strikezone our worst day of the season was two releases. Never before had we caught a fish every single day — you always catch a few slow days, where you end up with zeros.