Chasing Australia’s Giant Black Marlin

The 50th anniversary of the first thousand-pound black marlin caught off Cairns did not disappoint
50th anniversary black marlin tournament boats line up
The highly anticipated 50th Anniversary Black Marlin Tournament in September, 2016, attracted top captains, crews and anglers from all over the world. Adrian E. Gray

Back in September 1966, an American fisherman by the name of George Bransford set off from Cairns aboard his 32-foot vessel, Sea Baby, and he had a good feeling about catching a large billfish. The former charter boat captain from Florida had been stationed near Cairns during World War II and returned following the war, drawn by what he had experienced during R & R on the Great Barrier Reef. What happened that day changed fishing history forever.

first thousand pound black marlin in Cairns Australia
In 1966, Capt. George Bransford and Richard Obach captured the first grander marlin in Australia and claimed a then-world record. Courtesy Pacific Marinelife Institute

Building the Dream

Capt. George Bransford’s dream of skippering his own charter boat out of Cairns came to fruition in the early ’60s when he met up with Capt. Alan Collis and his father, Harold, who had recently built the 32-foot timber vessel Sea Baby. Bransford purchased the vessel, and Collis worked the deck for a short time, but he resigned to help his father build his own charter boat, Marlan. Bransford was on the lookout for another deckhand, and it was by chance that a young man named Richard Obach, also from the United States, was on the Cairns dock looking for work. Bransford employed Obach with the proviso he would listen and learn how to work the deck and rig baits. At first without any charters, the two just fished inside the reef catching all kinds of pelagic critters, including juvenile black marlin.During those first couple of months, Obach impressed the captain. From the bridge, Bransford observed his new deckhand as he rigged baits to perfection while catching and gaffing fish on his own. All his rigging was done the way he was first shown: His terminal tackle and haywire twists on the single-strand wire traces were always spot on.


On September 10, 1966, Bransford woke early to a nice, quiet morning — he knew Obach would already be on the boat, cleaning or sorting tackle. With still no charters around, the two headed to Jenny Louise Shoals on the outer edge, some 38 miles from port. Two large baits were put to work: a swimming mullet on the right outrigger and a skipping 15-pound bonito on the left.The hours slipped by without a strike, even though the sea was alive with flying fish and signs of recent kills leaving oily slicks on the calm, cobalt surface. When a big crashing bite finally came on the tuna bait, neither could believe what they saw, and it had both of them trembling with excitement: a gigantic marlin head with a body that looked as big as a whale shark. A five-hour ­battle ensued, and it took its toll on both the tackle and Obach’s back. When the wire trace finally broke, Obach fell off the fighting chair backward onto the deck, totally exhausted.


Ready for a Rematch

Two weeks later, Sea Baby headed to the outer-reef edge again, determined to have another crack at a giant marlin. The pair was better prepared the second time around, with a stronger harness and a sturdy footrest on the fighting chair. Fresh baits were easy to catch on the reef edge, and a 5-pound rainbow runner was caught and rigged for a skipbait on the right rigger. The splashing runner didn’t last long when a large marlin — considerably smaller than the monster they’d lost a fortnight earlier, though — piled on the runner. The hookup was perfect, and Obach was back in the chair to do battle. The fight, using a 10/0 Penn Senator with a star drag and loaded with 80-pound line, was brutal: The drag’s side plate was so hot from the friction of losing so much line it felt as if it were on fire. The marlin ran hard and jumped all over the ocean before going deep. This turned out to be a good result — she had worn herself out. By the time the trace came to Bransford’s hands, the big black quivered quietly on the surface, and the gaff was not even needed. It was all over for the giant black marlin.

Without a transom door or any lifting device like a winch, they tried to pull the marlin over the covering board. Even with adrenaline still rushing, they quickly gave up and realized their efforts were an absolute waste of time. Not knowing how big the marlin really was, they had no choice but to tow it all the way back to Cairns. They secured a rope behind its massive gill plates and around the bill. It was slow, but they had no other option.The following day, the big black was weighed at the Queensland Rail weigh station after lying on a cold concrete slab at the ice works overnight. The catch weighed a massive 1,064 pounds and turned out to be a new world record on 80-pound-test line, putting Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef on the world’s fishing stage. The rest, of course, is history.

captain peter bristow avalon cairns australia
Capt. Peter Bristow ran the 37-foot Avalon out of Cairns and fished the Reef for 25 seasons. He is credited with catching more thousand-pound marlin than any other captain in history. Courtesy Pacific Marinelife Institute

The Anniversary Tournament

Since that memorable day in 1966, Cairns has become the world’s best black marlin fishery. The Coral Sea comes alive from September through November: Incredible numbers of black marlin aggregate just off the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Blacks of all sizes, from little 80-pounders up to grander-plus-size animals, arrive here in large numbers, along with many other species of game fish. It’s truly a scene to behold.

thousand pound grander black marlin jumping
A thousand-pound black marlin takes to the air off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. John Ashley

Ten years ago, the Cairns Game Fishing Club celebrated Bransford and Obach’s incredible achievement by holding the 40th anniversary tournament. I was lucky to be on board the winning vessel Mauna Kea for the duration of that four-day event, and it was a celebration I’ll never forget. The stage was set for the 50th anniversary tournament, which was anticipated to be even bigger and better. Captains, crews and anglers, new and old, aimed to come from far and wide to celebrate the event. Capt. Peter Bristow made the journey all the way from Madeira, and Capt. Peter B. Wright ventured from the United States.

Let The Tournament Begin

The tournament briefing for the 50th anniversary saw an amazing turnout of retired and non-retired captains and crews, along with all the new young guns. Two-hundred anglers aboard 54 vessels registered for the massive four-day event, and the lineup of magnificent game boats in the harbor for the start was the largest ever seen. The sail down the harbor gave the thousands of locals and visitors on the docks a great spectacle.

The run to the outer-reef edge took around two hours. The fleet had spread out from Jenny Louise to the east of Cairns up to the beginning of the gorgeous Ribbon Reefs by the start at 10 a.m. Most of the fleet were professional charter boats based in Cairns, but many boats also came from southern ports down the east coast. An incredible number of private vessels entered the tournament, and some came from as far away as Port Hacking to the south of Sydney in New South Wales.

great barrier reef tournament teams line up
A total of 54 boats and approximately 200 anglers competed during the four-day tournament. Those crews and anglers released 40 black marlin while fishing the storied Great Barrier Reef. John Ashley

Generally, the early part of the heavy-tackle season in September can be a bit on the wild side because the trade winds tend to blow a steady 25 to 30 knots. Luckily, the weather gods smiled on the tournament, and we were greeted to a pleasant 10-knot breeze outside the reef. As the clock ticked down for the start of the tournament, the anticipation for that first hookup was nerve-wracking for all. It took only a few minutes before the first black marlin was hooked: Capt. Tim Dean aboard Calypso tagged the first fish, estimated at around 350 pounds. Soon after Calypso‘s release, the excited call came over the radio that everyone was expecting — the first giant black marlin was hooked up by the crew aboard Athaldo, with Capt. Alan “Tiger” Geale at the helm.

thousand pound grander black marlin jumping
During the 50th annual tournament, the crew aboard Viking II took advantage of the magic on the Great Barrier Reef and released a grander black. Courtesy Michael McInnis

They had their hands full with an estimated 850-pounder going berserk on the 130-pound tackle. After a 30-plus-minute battle, the big black was tagged and released. Considering it was still early in the season, a steady bite continued all day, and a few other giants were hooked and lost by other teams. Some spectacular action was found along the outer reef over the next couple of days. Absolute hooked a monster black and fought it for over three hours only to see the big fish win its freedom when the leader wore out. On board Ice Man, we were trolling lures out wide of Linden Bank when we hooked the craziest 500-pound blue marlin any of us had ever seen. It went absolutely insane, jumping and somersaulting for a few minutes before playing dead.

Capt. Corey Hard and Askari team
Congratulations to Capt. Corey Hard and the Askari team, winners of the 50th Annual Black Marlin Tournament. Adrian E. Gray

We backed up to the blue lying on the surface and had the easiest of tag shots right at the transom. The tag stung the marlin back to life and it went ballistic, belting the transom with its tail before leaping around the starboard-side of the boat, smashing the engine-room air vent to pieces with its bill. It then dived under the boat, breaking the line on the running gear. On the last day, Calypso was trolling lures wide of the Bank when they hooked a hefty 800-pound blue. Unlike the drama we had on Ice Man, the crew on Calypso neatly tagged and released their well-behaved blue after a hectic half-hour fight. Capt. Billy Billson on Viking II raised probably the biggest black seen in the tournament, then hooked the monster marlin on a large skipbait.


Michael McInnis snapped a great shot of the airborne marlin with the tag pole still attached to the shoulder of the fish just as the crew released the beast. The incredible photo was proof that she was well over the grander mark, demonstrating once again that even 50 years after the first 1,000-pounder was caught off Cairns, these incredible Coral Sea grounds have never stopped producing the biggest black marlin in the world.

The Legends

Capt. Dennis “Brazakka” Wallace

During the 50 years since the Cairns giant black marlin fishery was discovered, many superstars have fished there, including legends of the big screen, rock stars, politicians and even royalty. For some reason, many of them wanted to fish with the larrikin of the fleet — and that, of course, was none other than Capt. Dennis “Brazakka” Wallace aboard the 55-foot Sea Venture. He heard about giant black marlin being caught off Cairns in the late ’60s, so he purchased Sea Baby from Capt. George Bransford before quickly finding out what kind of monster marlin lived out in the Coral Sea over the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.

captain dennis brazakka wallace sea venture australia cairns black marlin
Capt. Dennis “Brazakka” Wallace was one of the early pioneers, fishing aboard Sea Venture. Courtesy Peter Bristow

After selling Sea Baby because few heavy-tackle anglers were around to charter, Brazakka rented vessels until he fell in love with Sea Venture. She was the pride of the marlin fleet, attracting the rich and famous who wanted a comfortable boat to charter. One such angler to turn up was tough-guy actor Lee Marvin, and Brazakka ended up guiding Marvin to many granders, season after season. Other famous anglers to join Brazakka were President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter. The list of well-known celebrities went on and on up until he retired at the turn of the century.

Capt. Peter Bristow

Capt. Peter Bristow started charter fishing in Cairns back in 1968 when he worked the deck of Marlan, skippered by Capt. Alan Collis. Bristow always wanted to build and run his own vessel, and he started work on the famous 38-foot Avalon in the early ’70s. She was completed in time for the 1971 season and went straight to work catching grander black marlin.During Bristow’s first few seasons, word spread about Cairns and the number of giant black marlin taken aboard Avalon. Anglers queued up to fish with Bristow, but probably none were more famous than New Zealand’s Sir William Stevenson and American JoJo Del Guercio. They both caught blacks in excess of 1,250 pounds, and Del Guercio’s heavy-tackle talents saw him weigh an incredible 18 granders in just six seasons.

captain peter bristow avalon cairns australia
Capt. Peter Bristow started charter fishing in Cairns in 1968, working the deck of Marlan for Capt. Alan Collis. He ran his own boat, the 38-foot Avalon, in the early 1970s. Courtesy Peter Bristow

After a successful 25 years on the Great Barrier Reef, Bristow needed a change. The call for blue marlin fishing saw him move Avalon to Pohnpei in Micronesia before heading to Madeira to take advantage of the incredible blue marlin bite. At the ripe old age of 78, Bristow is still working his vessel, Katherine B, off Funchal, Madeira, and he continues to catch giant marlin. For nearly five decades at the helm, he has caught more thousand-pound marlin than any other captain on the planet. He was inducted into the Cairns Game Fishing Hall of Fame and recognized during the tournament, along with Billy Fairbairn, Vince Vlasoff, Dave Curnock, Pat Gay and Bob Lowe.

The Cairns Black Marlin Monument

A marlin monument was discussed in detail about 10 years ago to commemorate Capt. George Bransford and Richard Obach’s capture of the first grander black marlin in Cairns. But nothing was done until a few years ago, when one of my high-flying grander photos was considered as a model for the monument. With the 50th anniversary tournament looming, the task was finally given to a guy who has a habit of getting the job done: Dennis “Brazakka” Wallace. He was one of the founding members of the Cairns Professional Game Fishing Association back in the early ’70s, and he was also on the Cairns Game Fishing commemorative committee.

cairns black marlin monument australia
The Cairns Black Marlin Monument in Cairns, Australia. Adrian E. Gray

Brazakka started work on the project by commissioning his friend and well-known marine artist Craig Smith to design and create a larger-than-life black marlin. A huge sculpture was carved out of foam blocks before being sent to a foundry in Melbourne, Australia, that had a reputation for producing superb bronze monuments.

They completed the massive 20-foot bronze marlin on time before the statue was trucked all the way up the east coast to Cairns. A fitting tribute, the statue was erected on the mariner’s waterfront boardwalk a week prior to the unveiling ceremony on September 25, just before the start of the 50th Anniversary Black Marlin Tournament.


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