Journey to Australia’s uncontested sailfish capital
Journey to Australia’s uncontested sailfish capital
In the blink of an eye, a dozen or more sailfish appear under the portside teaser. Their jet-black bodies are unmistakable in the clear-blue sea, and getting three skipbaits back to the pack is a no-brainer. Moments later, a tripleheader of sailfish begins to jump in all different directions as absolute chaos erupts in the cockpit while three anglers play unders and overs trying to sort out the crossed-up lines. “Hey, John, welcome to Broome,” calls Capt. Chris Nisbet from the bridge of Billistic.
The remote Western Australian town of Broome is unique in so many ways that it’s hard to know where to begin to describe it. From the moment I arrived, this laid-back country town and its wonderful people blew me away, and it was difficult to get away from the interesting sights and history of the place to actually get offshore and go fishing. Despite Broome’s relatively small size, one could truly spend a week touring around the town while taking in the amazing scenery, and relaxing during an evening on the famous Cable Beach as you watch the hot orange sun sink into the Indian Ocean horizon is breathtaking.
Broome and its magnificent neighboring Kimberley region have become a huge tourist destination — not only for us Aussies, but overseas travelers are flocking here as well for the area’s sheer natural, rugged beauty. Situated on the northern tropical west coast, it’s hard to believe how the water colors change as they lap the region’s bloodshot shorelines.
A FULL GAMUT OF POSSIBILITIES
This place pretty much has it all for fishermen, bar heavy-tackle billfishing. Around the rivers, creeks and bays, you’ll find the prized barramundi, along with many other species of jacks and cod, plus threadfin salmon and blackspotted croaker. Anglers can also catch dart, threadfin salmon and blue spot trevally at a leisurely pace along the gutters of Cable Beach and its rocky headlands.
But there’s so much to offer for offshore anglers: Broome has some of the best light-tackle fishing in the entire country, with all kinds of tropical species to target along the coast such as Spanish mackerel, cobia, northern bluefin (longtail) tuna, mahimahi, great trevally and black marlin. But what most anglers chase are the incredible numbers of Indo-Pacific sailfish, and it’s quite common for anglers to tag and release a dozen or more sails in a day on these fishy grounds.
What makes these offshore waters of the Indian Ocean so favorable for sailfish is the extent of the shallow inshore grounds. The warm, rich currents push over these areas and mix with the remnants of the massive 30-foot tides that scour the coastal rivers and creeks. This influx of water causes all kinds of minute marine animals and nutrients to be swept out to sea on a daily basis, attracting
huge schools of baitfish, which in turn draw in the sailfish and other pelagic predators.
Although Broome has a major shipping harbor along with a massive commercial dock for cruise ships and large commercial freighters, there’s no marina or facilities here for charter boats or other boating enthusiasts to operate from. However, there are a number of boat ramps scattered around the town, but most people find it easier, and much safer, to launch off Gantheaume Beach on the southern end of Cable Beach because of the massive tides.
This area is in the lee of the prevailing southeast trade winds and offers protection for launching and retrieving trailer boats from the beach, as well as for the many vessels that tie up to a string of permanent moorings just offshore. The fishermen with moored vessels rely on small aluminum boats — we call them tinnies — to get out to their boats and then back to the beach.
But this hard-packed sandy beach has limits as to how far vehicles can go; four-wheeldrive vehicles are definitely needed, and many of the vehicles often take a good soaking right up to the doors. The adjoining Cable Beach is a restricted area for launching boats, but it is a popular place with the locals and tourists in the late afternoon, not only to marvel at the magnificent sunset, but also to watch with interest as the fishermen put their vessels back onto trailers.
Fishing can start almost immediately after departing from the beach, depending on the target species. Northern bluefin (longtail) tuna and threadfin salmon can be found right up in the shallows close to shore, and even a few miles out because the depth doesn’t vary much at all. The bottom tapers away only gradually, and the secret to finding the action is to locate the bait schools, but the bait can often hang quite close the bottom because of the massive tides and strong currents. Once the guys locate the bait, they quickly go to work in the area and troll for billfish and tuna, or at times concentrate on catching Spanish mackerel.
Capt. Nisbet fishes a pair of multicolored rubber squid chains from the middle of the outriggers that are operated from an electric reel on the bridge of his 34-foot sport-fisher, Billistic. They connect to a small, fresh queenfish on the end of both teaser lines: These tough-skinned baits can take repeated beatings from the billfish and tend to last quite a while. The crew also deploys a small dredge filled with imitation strip teasers under the
WHAT MAKES THESE OFFSHORE WATERS OF THE INDIAN OCEAN SO FAVORABLE FOR SAILFISH IS THE EXTENT OF THE SHALLOW INSHORE GROUNDS.
vessel’s hull, which was tied off on the bow at the appropriate length so as not to get tangled up with the propellers.
Capt. Nisbet advises the four anglers on board to stand at the transom with their rods armed with fresh baits and wait for the shot at a sailfish when the fish enters the spread. The baits of choice: ballyhoo — known locally as garfish — rigged with an 8/0 nonoffset Gamakatsu circle hook on 60-pound monofilament leaders. These rigs get changed over to a light single-strand wire leader with double J hooks in the baits when anglers target the sharp-fanged Spanish mackerel.
The anglers on board Billistic were so keen for a billfish bite that they skipped their baits right up close to the boat while waiting for a sailfish or marlin to come in on the teasers. In doing so, they also paid the price a number of times when a hungry mackerel zoomed into the boat’s prop wash and snipped their baits in half. Anglers prefer the versatile spinning outfits rigged with braid because of the ability to cast light baits to free-swimming sails when other anglers are hooked up. The rods feature open-ringed guides, and have light tips to assist when casting small baits a good distance. I saw this casting technique work many times, and the walkaround deck on Billistic made it easy for the anglers to move around the vessel and get their baits out in any direction.
On light tackle, these tough sailfish give a spectacular fight, and Capt. Nisbet is all about looking after the precious stocks of sailfish here — he avoids lifting them into the boat, even for a quick photo. He also takes particular care where the tags are placed in the fish because the smaller sails have such a slim body that these tags could easily damage a fish if inserted in the wrong area.
There were plenty of times throughout my time offshore Broome when we had double- and even tripleheaders, and it was great fun watching and photographing all the action. With a variety of fishing opportunities and the ability to easily baitand-switch sailfish, it’s a fantastic place for young anglers — or those wanting to learn this tactic — all the way through to veteran anglers to sharpen their skills, and I can say they’ll be blown away by the fishing action.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Ashley has written about his offshore adventures for fishing publications across the world for the past four decades. His travels have stretched from the wilds of Cape Verde to his Aussie grander grounds on the Great Barrier Reef, and there are few places in between he hasn’t fished.
Broome’s location on the northwest coast of Australia provides incredible access to a variety of both nearshore and offshore fisheries, but it’s the number of sailfish that keeps anglers coming back. Most anglers fish from outboardpowered “tinnies,” but some larger boats are available. Find the bait, and you’re almost guaranteed to find the action.
The walkaround design of Capt. Chris Nisbet’s Billistic (above) makes it a perfect platform to chase sails off Broome. But fishing isn’t the only attraction here; hovercraft tours (below) give visitors a unique way to see the coastline.