It’s always sad to hear of the passing of a larger-than-life fishing legend, especially one who had such an impact on those who learned from him. Capt. Billy Billson broke records and barriers. He busted through the 100-marlin ceiling in a single season—twice. With a career best of 11 weighed granders as captain, he released 40 he called over the mark, two that surpassed 1,200 pounds, and a few monumental marlin caught on fly, including a 2003 IGFA men’s 16-pound-tippet world-record black marlin caught by Thomas Evans Jr. Billson died on September 22, 2020.
Capt. Brad “Crafty” Craft, Lelly B, Cairns, Australia
If I had only three words to describe Capt. Billy, they would be innovative, passionate and competitive.
Although the use of circle hooks is mainstream now, the old stalwarts sure had their opinions back in the day, but Billy had a flair for the experimental, and some of the early ideas he presented helped to create the methods we use today. To sugarcoat Billy’s passion about sport fishing would not do him justice. If you weren’t in his sights for a showdown, then you weren’t fishing on the Great Barrier Reef. He lived and breathed fishing, and his boat was always under constant improvement.
In the late 1990s, working on Sea Strike, we had just hit the edge, and our anglers were ready. We hadn’t trolled 100 yards when we were hooked up to a fish around 900 pounds, right in the middle of the fleet. We released the fish and immediately hooked up to another one around 800. As everyone came to have a look, including Billy, we hooked up again. I could see the smoke coming out of his ears. The next day, we hooked another good one in the same area. Billy’s voice rang from the VHF: “How big was that?” “Big enough,” I replied. “Didn’t look that big to me,” he said. “I didn’t know you were the weigh master,” I smarted back. Naturally, we didn’t talk much that season.
He was an amazing fisherman who was larger than life, always ready for a competition. And as my good friend Craig “Sparra” Denham says: “Whether you liked him or not, he deserves your respect.”
In my 40 seasons on the reef, I’ve seen many come and go, but Billy will always be remembered as the fisherman who set the bar extremely high, pushing you to fish harder. I hope he and captains Jeff Gray and Casey Dent are up there living their best dreams.
Rest in peace, my friends.
Capt. Kenton Geer, Vicious Cycle, Kona, Hawaii
After hearing the news of Billy’s death, I couldn’t stop crying. He was the friend I needed when I needed a friend the most. We talked as brothers, but he treated me with the kindness of a father. He was so many things to so many people, but to me, he’ll always be an outright legend. I wish he could have known just how much he meant to me and how much he truly helped me in my darkest hour.
I dedicated a chapter in my book about fishing with Billy that I couldn’t wait to share with him. But by wanting to hand him a copy of the book in person and receive a huge handshake, followed by one of those patented giant hugs, it seemed that time had run out. And while I now regret not sending him the chapter to read, perhaps an excerpt will give a reminder to those who had the pleasure of learning from him—a glimpse behind the curtain of a lifetime committed to something bigger than any one fish:
Our angler, Chase, muttered the likes of, “Come on, you big bitch,” but Billy stood on the bridge: sentry, quiet and focused. His body was at the helm, but his mind was swimming beside this great fish. I could picture these two physically imposing creatures staring one another down, neither willing to blink, both stubborn and hardened by decades on the reef.
Billy wore that certain look. One possessed by a man who had given everything to the sea. It’s a converged look of pain, love, heartbreak and joy; of battles both lost and won; of one who got away at sea and one who got away on land; a distant stare on the outside whose focus is anything but faraway.
Below his cap, nearly 40 years of experience laid in wait for an occasion such as this. Billy called down to Chase: “Hold on, champ, were going to drive away from her. We’ve got to change the angle; we can’t catch her if she stays down deep.”
Chase braced himself for the tactical maneuver by pushing his left hand down on the top of the reel and grasping the armrest with the other. Changing angles meant more line would be coming off the reel; and it did at a steady clip.
Billy was clearly fearless of this fish and the emptying spool. One-hundred-percent confident in his tackle, he hammered down on Viking II’s throttles, and the line screamed as the engines roared. Black smoke came out of the exhaust, like the nostrils of a fire-breathing dragon. The beast decided it was time to retaliate, and a clash of the titans began. Billy ran this boat for so long, it was impossible to tell where the man ended and the machine began. Over the years, they had become one.
As Billy performed a number of mind-blowing maneuvers, tearing circles around this fish in multiple directions, and then backing down hard in order for Chase to crank, our captain effortlessly swung Viking II in and out of gear—his boat a lethal weapon unsheathed, Excalibur in his hands.
Capt. Corey Hard, The Sheriff, Cairns, Australia
Like so many in the gamefishing community, I was gutted to hear of the passing of Capt. Billy Billson. While we were aware of his battle with melanoma, it seemed inconceivable that anything could take the big man down.
I arrived in Cairns in the early 1990s with dreams of catching giant black marlin on the Great Barrier Reef. I’d heard so many stories about Billy and was anxious to meet this great man. When we did meet, I was not disappointed, and over time, he became a mentor, an inspiration, and was a major influence on my life. He was significantly instrumental in continuing the legacy of the Cairns marlin fishery’s founding fathers, attracting clients from all over the world seeking to catch a grander.
Billy was extremely generous in sharing his knowledge and experience on the many occasions we’d meet, or the times I sought his advice. To some, fishing is a hobby or a sport or an occupation, but to Billy, it was an all-encompassing passion. He not only pushed boundaries—he set the standard for what we all aspire to be.
I hope that one day I am able to inspire the next generation of fishermen with that same passion, just as he did for me. And rest assured, each time I’m anchored out on his beloved GBR, I will drink a toast to Billy in earnest. He was a true legend in our sport.
Tim Simpson, BlueWater Magazine, Queensland, Australia
Billy and I grew up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and became friends in our late high school years, when he was already starting to shine as an exceptional gamefisherman. His father was a member of the Broken Bay Game Fishing Club, so it was only natural that Billy progressed through the sport-fishing ranks, switching to the big-game fishing scene in the late 1970s, as I did. At Broken Bay, we were immersed in hardcore gamefishing talent and history.
For many years, Billy fished a sleek 21-foot trailer boat called Outrage, where he caught mako and tiger sharks on 30-pound-class tackle, as well as black and striped marlin. In the early 1980s, when it was first recognized that larger blue marlin existed off Sydney, he and his young crew took an 18-footer on a daring expedition to the far-off canyons, where Billy landed a 458.5-pounder on 30-pound-test, setting an Australian record. This achievement was a sign of things to come.
Billy was always thinking and trying new refinements. He was also a generous teacher and fun-loving man, accomplishing many things in his life—including an astounding list of tournament wins, world records and countless dream fish for his clients. He will be missed.
For another look at Billson’s life and his contribution to our sport—in pictures and his own words—please check out this video tribute by Nick Jones.