Between the Fiji Islands and New Caledonia lies a group of 80 islands that stretch more than 300 miles north and south in the prime marlin waters of the South Pacific. In this magical place, an amazing six species of billfish can be caught 365 days a year: blue, black, stripe, spearfish, pacific sailfish and broadbills. Consequently, on any given day, there is a real opportunity to catch a grand slam.
I fished Vanuatu in 2005-06, and my two best blue marlin years were there — I logged 136 blues in 2005 and just under a hundred in 2006. I would have caught more in 2006, but I had to leave in August. In those two years, I released two fish that I would call granders: one blue and one black. Even more interesting, I’d bet every cent I have that I saw two world-record blue marlin while fishing there.
One fish I saw twice: once in August 2005 and once in May 2006, over the same piece of bottom both times. The second fish I saw, I still cannot believe they make them that big. I remember very well looking down at the six 130 Tiagras on deck and thinking they were going to have to build me a bigger reel! I honestly believe the next all-tackle record will be broken here.
A Bit of History
During the epic World War II Battle of the Coral Sea, our Pacific fleet was staged out of Vanuatu, known at that time as the New Hebrides. There are a few real historians in Port Vila, and I heard some incredible stories of the war, some passed down and others told by the original old-timers themselves. If you are a scuba diver, you can see so much of the war underwater (do not miss “Million Dollar Beach” in Santo Harbor). At the end of the war, the Americans gave the islands to both the French and the British. We tried to sell all of the equipment to the French, but they didn’t want it. So we built a big old ramp and drove every last stinking piece of equipment into the bay. That’s how it got the name Million Dollar Beach. You can dive this today and still see a jeep sitting on a tank, sitting on crushed trucks. The main port of call in the islands is Port Vila on Efate. This is where most of the charter boats operate. Some of the same guys I fished with eight or more years ago still fish out of Port Vila. These guys are true marlin fishing pros, since they live year-round in the best marlin waters in the South Pacific. The international airport hosts daily flights to Australia and elsewhere, with weekly flights from Fiji and New Zealand, so travel is very easy. Vanuatu is a tax haven, kind of like the Caymans, so a lot of ex-pats own homes on the islands. (They do not own the land however; you can only lease land here from the native Nivans.) Since there is no income tax, some items are very expensive due to the heavy import tax placed on anything coming into the country. A case of beer that costs $25 in New Zealand will cost $50 or more in Vanuatu. Beer, wine and imported foods cost a bomb, so take full advantage of duty-free coming into this place. Local foods and products are much more reasonable at the open-air markets. There are a lot of really nice resorts on the various islands, and there are some interisland flights, while other islands can be visited only by boat. I found some outlying coastal villages in my travels in these waters, and the elders said they had never seen another game boat there. Untapped? Yeah, I guess you could say that.
The Outer Islands
This is where records are broken. In 2006, I broke six world records in three days with David and Sandy Long. Granted, the records were not billfish — we could have had one for a woman’s sail, but the Longs will not kill anything with a bill. The Bank Islands are a day’s travel to the north of Santo, and this is where you would need to fuel up and take on any provisions. Once you go north from Santo, you have just stepped back in time. Charts, GPS, maps — you name it — they all seem like they were drawn up by Magellan. They are so far off, it borders on silly. You’ll be pulling a marlin spread, traveling feet-up with the GPS and depth machine both telling you that you’re in 2,000 fathoms. Suddenly, a wolf pack of wahoo and dogtooth tuna cream $800 worth of Coggin lures in your wake. You’ve just stumbled on another uncharted seamount. I have coordinates on dozens of these — my South Pacific logs are my most prized possession — where there is nothing within miles, according to any chart made prior to 2006, that tell you the bottom is going to be as deep as 10,000 feet!
Seamounts in these waters hold some bloody fish, and unfortunately some huge predators too. Not only doggies and ono, but sharks. I’ve seen the bulls so thick that we could not billfish there at all. I never could get the fish to the boat; any hooked marlin just got eaten. The really shallow mounts, 200 feet or shallower, always seemed to have black marlin on top, and I’ve had three doubles with both a black and blue over the mounts north of Santo. How cool is that? Catching a blue and a black marlin at the same time! If the sharks are not too bad, live-baiting with 5-pound or better yellowfin or skipjack tuna around the drop-off is almost unfair. Something is going to eat that tuna; what it will be is anyone’s guess. I’ve caught blues, blacks, stripes, one huge sail, doggies, wahoo, yellowfin, big-eye, and way too many sharks by sending bridled -yellowfin, skippies, and rainbow runners loose around Vanuatu seamounts. I remember jumping onto deck one hot day to help my mate get a live bait out of a tube, and quickly set on a just-found mound. I tossed that poor yellowfin over the side and watched it start swimming down — that bait quickly thought better and did a 180 bat turn, coming right back out of the water with a 500-pound blue marlin following it.
The native villagers are very friendly; they love to come out and greet you at anchor. I always save one fish to hand out at the end of the day. (Never more than one. If you brought three one day and only two the next, they would want to know where the hell the third one was.) You can go to shore and drink kava. Kava tastes like bad bilge water — just choke the stuff down and get over it. It won’t kill you, but it is going to mess with your taste buds. The locals love to visit with you, and gifts such as T-shirts, hats, fish hooks and flip-flops are all very much appreciated. Any gifts you give will be returned in the form of fresh fruit, lobsters and such, which they will bring out to the boat. During my stay, I always — always — checked with the locals to make sure it was OK to swim or snorkel an area before anyone went in the water. If they said there was no swimming, we didn’t. In 2006, a little girl who was visiting her grandparents on a cruising sailboat was killed by a bull shark after the locals told them not to swim there. In the Bank Islands, there are also a few bays that have saltwater crocodiles.
Vanuatu is a special place. It has been eight years now since I’ve been back, and Maggie and I will return. Those two world-record blues might still be around, and even if they have passed on, they’ve left that gene pool behind. Someday an angler like Gary Carter, or the Holts in the rebuilt French Look III, or maybe even Doc Conkle will spend his kids’ inheritance and stay a year or so fishing Vanuatu, and it’ll be all over … Hemingway’s fish will be caught.
It’s pretty cool that although I haven’t stepped foot on the islands since ’06, my friends who fished with me still hold 24 Vanuatu records, and a few world records from those waters. This is the ultimate distant-water -destination in the South Pacific.