Capt. Bristow’s passion for big fish started on the famous Cairns, Australia, grounds, just after the discovery of the Great Barrier Reef black marlin fishery in the mid-’60s. From 1970 to 1992 Bristow weighed 59 1,000-pound black marlin — the biggest was a whopping 1,323-pounder — for his clients.
I first met Capt. Peter Bristow during the Cairns heavy-tackle black marlin season in 1975, and I fished with him a few times off Moreton Island, Brisbane, during the ’80s. Peter Bristow has spent five decades chasing only the very biggest marlin from Australia, throughout the South Pacific and eventually Madeira. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more experienced big-fish captain or boat man anywhere in the world.
A Natural-Born Fisherman
Born in Brisbane in 1938, Bristow moved to southern Queensland’s Stradbroke Island in his teens and was immediately immersed in all kinds of fishing, including commercial fishing on large trawlers. In the mid-’60s he moved to Cairns, where he met a fellow named Gordon Hallam who became one of Bristow’s lifelong friends. They worked the deck for a couple of years with Capt. Alan Collis on a very successful locally built game boat, Marlan. The early captures and losses these guys experienced on the prolific Coral Sea grounds blew them away, and Bristow quickly realized that there was the potential of running his own charter-boat operation.
Bristow got to work building a 38-foot wooden vessel called Avalon, which he eventually launched for the 1971 season. The solid twin-screw vessel proved to be a real fish raiser, and in 1973 Bristow caught an incredible 192 black marlin during a relatively short season.
Back in those days, a lot of the day’s fishing time was taken up by the trip from Cairns to the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, which could sometimes take three hours each way. The wasted traveling hours led Bristow to seek out other ways to spend more time actually fishing out on the reef. Bristow was already one of the first captains to start exploring areas north of Cairns, around the unfished Ribbon Reefs and Lizard Island. Fishing in these remote areas, Bristow started using larger vessels to act as motherships, which could act as floating hotels for his guests on extended charters. Due to Bristow’s pioneering efforts, mothershipping became big business and the best-ever way to fish the Great Barrier Reef grounds, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s.
Bristow fished Avalon for 20 years, and she proved to be one hell of a game boat, handling huge marlin and the sometimes rough-and-tumble conditions on the Coral Sea with ease. During Bristow’s time chartering Avalon, many of the world’s best heavy-tackle anglers lined up to fish with him. Probably none were better than Sir William Stevenson from New Zealand, who ended up catching a 1,231-pound black with Bristow. Another great heavy-tackle master, Jo Jo Del Guercio fished with Bristow regularly and captured 18 granders on the famous Avalon in just six seasons. Bristow said that he reckoned that Del Guercio was the best heavy-tackle angler he’d ever seen!
A New Challenge
After decades of fishing Australia’s Queensland coast from Moreton Island to Lizard Island, Bristow longed for a new challenge and a change of scenery. Always one who was willing to chase down a dream, Bristow took Avalon to Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. Bristow knew that quite a few granders had been taken there by Japanese longliners, so he felt certain that if he fished there long enough he’d encounter one of those giant blues. After all, a replica of one such monster blue marlin adorns a wall in the arrival hall of the international airport lounge in Guam, the capital of Micronesia. Together with American George Bransford, the old fox who put the Cairns black marlin fishery on the world map, the pair founded Pohnpei Deep Sea Enterprises and chartered Avalon there for four years under the Australian flag.
Bristow encountered plenty of small to medium blue marlin and stacks of other game fish around these fishy islands, but he could find no consistency with big blue marlin like he had on the giant blacks he’d cut his teeth on back in Cairns. Although he’d seen his share of giant black marlin, Bristow still dreamed of catching a 1,000-pound blue, and he wanted to find a place that could afford a better shot at his fantasy fish.
During the mid-’90s, news of an emerging giant Atlantic blue marlin fishery around the Portuguese island of Madeira began leaking into the fishing press. Marlin magazine began touting the region in 1993 and was the first to break the well-kept secret [“Madeira’s Secret Grounds,” January 1993].
“I first heard about Madeira from my wife, Pepe,” Bristow says. “She’s English, and she kept telling me about this place in Europe where they were catching big blue marlin. Then, once Peter B. [Wright] got over there, he started to nag me about getting my ass over there too, but I was still fishing Micronesia at the time,” Bristow says. “My first day on the water off Madeira, I took a ride out with Peter B., and we had an 800-pounder on only 20 minutes from the dock. As far as you could see, there were 200-pound bigeye tuna jumping and 800-pound bluefin busting right beside the boat. I thought I had died and gone to heaven!”
Bristow sold Avalon, packed up his wife and daughter, and moved to the United Kingdom to start a whole new adventure. The desire to fish Madeira soon became a reality for Bristow, who began a search of London waterfronts for a suitable boat to take to Madeira. Trying to find a game boat where little or no game fishing existed proved to be a challenge, but Bristow eventually stumbled upon an old naval gunboat lying in a paddock around an industrial site. The 40-footer, built by Halmatic Boats in the United Kingdom, was commissioned in 1967 for duty in Dubai. She sported a pair of 177-horsepower V8 Perkins diesel engines that were still in reasonable condition, and since the hull was constructed of a thick layer of fiberglass, Bristow didn’t hesitate and bought the boat on the spot.
Bristow completely gutted the old girl and extended the short cockpit to allow room to swing a heavy-tackle game chair. He also raised the gunwales, finishing them off with a solid timber combing to give the cockpit some style and create a good place to secure the heavy-duty rod holders needed to hold bent-butt 130s. As Bristow stripped down and rebuilt the motors on the newly named Katherine B (after his daughter), reports of giant blue marlin being caught in good numbers off Madeira spurred his efforts. Bristow busted his gut trying to get the boat ready for the start of the 1997 season.