SWORD CRAZY IN AUS­TRALIA

AN EMERG­ING NEW FISH­ERY IS CRE­AT­ING A WORLD­WIDE BUZZ

Marlin - - CONTENTS FEATURES - BY AL MCGLASHAN

An emerg­ing new fish­ery is cre­at­ing a world­wide buzz

By Al McGlashan

TThe bump on the rod tip was so sub­tle, it could have been eas­ily dis­missed, but ev­ery­one on board jumped to at­ten­tion. Even though we had been star­ing at it in­tently for hours on end, that one lit­tle bump was ex­actly what we had been wait­ing for. It may have been slight, but it could mean only one thing: a swordfish strike.

Capt. Ritchie Abela jumped on the rod and cranked the han­dle of the Shi­mano Tal­ica, rip­ping the bait up through the water col­umn. The the­ory was the old cat-and-mouse anal­ogy, try­ing to get the swordfish fired up. It worked a treat, and the rod tip bounced again, sig­nal­ing an an­gry swordfish; sec­onds later, the rod loaded up un­der some se­ri­ous weight. As I strug­gled to get the bent butt clear of the rod holder, I quickly re­al­ized that this was the fish for which we had dragged a cam­era crew half­way across Aus­tralia.

Un­like a blue mar­lin, there is noth­ing melo­dra­matic about a swordfish fight. Ev­ery­thing is slow and steady, but they nearly al­ways rocket to the sur­face af­ter hook­ing up. Sure enough, that is ex­actly what this fish did within min­utes of com­ing tight. I was crank­ing madly to keep the line tight as the fish charged up ver­ti­cally from the depths. It’s amaz­ing to think that af­ter hook­ing up some 1,800 feet be­low, the fish was on the sur­face that quickly.

We had the cam­eras ready for the jump shot, but the fish stub­bornly re­fused and then, turn­ing tail, it headed back down into the depths. Typ­i­cal of swordfish, I ex­pected a drawn-out, long fight, but barely an hour later, the fish came up again. This time we man­aged to re­move the strobe lights from the line, sig­nal­ing the fish was just 100 feet away.

The crew had ev­ery­thing set up and ready, just in case we got an early shot, and be­fore we knew it, the fish was at the boat. Luck­ily, ev­ery­thing came to­gether like clock­work, and with the cam­era crew film­ing ev­ery­thing for the Out­door Chan­nel’s

Mon­ster Fish, we took ad­van­tage and se­cured the huge swordfish.

It wasn’t un­til we tried to get the fish aboard that we re­al­ized just how big it re­ally was. Abela’s

Dream­catcher 2 is a 30-foot cat so it’s not small, but the mas­sive swordfish got stuck in the side door. Get­ting it on board took al­most as long as the fight, tak­ing us an­other hour to bring it over the tran­som. We re­al­ized why when it weighed in at a whop­ping 489 pounds.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG FISH

Day­time sword­fish­ing re­ally has taken off around the world, but for some rea­son, Aus­tralia was a bit slow on the up­take; how­ever, once it started, this style of fish­ing ex­ploded across the coun­try. In 2014, Leo Miller and his crew de­cided to have a crack off Ea­gle Hawk Neck on Tasmania’s eastern coast. Now while the com­mer­cial guys had caught swordfish in th­ese waters, there had never been one recorded by recre­ational an­glers. A rea­son­able ef­fort had been made at night fish­ing for swords, but with a huge pop­u­la­tion of makos, it proved im­pos­si­ble to catch any­thing else. So when Miller and his crew came up win­ners al­most im­me­di­ately with a 300-pound swordfish, his lo­cal coun­ter­parts called it a fluke. That did lit­tle to de­ter Miller, who

I WAS CRANK­ING MADLY TO KEEP THE LINE TIGHT AS THE FISH CHARGED UP VER­TI­CALLY FROM THE DEPTHS. IT’S AMAZ­ING TO THINK THAT AF­TER HOOK­ING UP SOME 1,800 FEET BE­LOW, THE FISH WAS ON THE SUR­FACE THAT QUICKLY.

backed it up with an­other qual­ity fish. In fact, he caught three more big swordfish in the en­su­ing weeks. Al­most in­stantly, his suc­cess sparked a sword­fish­ing frenzy.

Sud­denly there were an­glers prob­ing the depths right along Tasmania’s coast­line, and they met with suc­cess. Un­like the Florida tech­nique where mul­ti­ple weights are added to the rig, in Tasmania, once the bait hits the bot­tom, the weight is snapped off. With the re­gion’s min­i­mal cur­rent, sim­ply by

strike zone and, while it is of­ten hard to de­tect the bite, once the fish is on, there is no deny­ing it. How­ever, what made it all the more ex­cit­ing was that the av­er­age fish was huge, av­er­ag­ing around 250 to 300 pounds, with some real mon­sters crack­ing more than 700 pounds.

At the same time, the main­land fish­ery was also start­ing to evolve rapidly, with fish turn­ing up ev­ery­where from Syd­ney all the way to Perth in Western Aus­tralia. De­spite be­ing wide­spread, the big­gest fish have been com­ing from a rather un­ex­pected lo­ca­tion. Nat­u­rally we ex­pected Aus­tralia’s east coast would be cen­tral to the sword­fish­ery since it is the main area of fo­cus for game-fish­ing — es­pe­cially bill­fish. The fact that there is a wellestab­lished long­line fish­ery that has sub­stan­tial quo­tas for swordfish added fur­ther weight; how­ever, it was far eastern Vic­to­ria that proved to be the real hot spot, which is aptly named Juras­sic Park.

BEASTS IN THE EAST

Eastern Vic­to­ria is a sparsely pop­u­lated re­gion with min­i­mal in­fra­struc­ture, which in part has helped keep it off the radar. How­ever, the re­cent con­struc­tion of an all-weather ocean boat ramp at Bas­tion Point near the re­mote township of Mal­la­coota sud­denly opened the doors for a whole new fish­ery.

Ini­tially, an­glers tar­geted mar­lin; the first swordfish came al­most as by­catch. In April 2016, Abela, Lee Rayner and Julian Coyne spent an un­event­ful day chas­ing mar­lin. While trolling, Abela no­ticed some re­ally promis­ing ter­rain show­ing up on the fish finder, so he de­cided to drop a swordfish bait. It was late af­ter­noon, and when the bait hit the bot­tom, Rayner found him­self in­stantly hooked up to 297 pounds of swordfish. This was not the first Vic­to­rian swordfish, though, be­cause just a cou­ple of days prior, Matt Porter had qui­etly caught one 100 miles west off Lakes En­trance.

The cap­ture of th­ese fish opened the doors on a new fish­ery that had been sit­ting un­de­tected. Bass Canyon quickly be­came swordfish cen­tral, home to some true sea mon­sters.

Di­vid­ing Tasmania from the main­land, Bass Strait is a no­to­ri­ously rugged stretch of water. It can whip up wild seas, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to ac­cess for much of the year. How­ever, what lies be­neath the sur­face is the hid­den gem. Bass Canyon is one of the largest ma­rine canyons in the world. Stretch­ing more than 100 miles across and drop­ping to depths in ex­cess of 11,000 feet, it is mas­sive. A num­ber of smaller trib­u­tary canyons drain into the greater canyon, and it’s here in the 1,300- to 1,800-foot range where it is the most pro­duc­tive. Loaded with amaz­ing struc­ture like ver­ti­cal drop-offs, pin­na­cles, ledges and mud­flats, it is home to an amaz­ing ar­ray of life — in­clud­ing huge swordfish.

The best news is that it seems to be the land of giants. No small swordfish are en­coun­tered in th­ese waters; in fact, fish un­der 200 pounds are rare. Bet­ter still, each sea­son the fish seem to be get­ting big­ger. In 2016, swordfish topped out in the 400- to 500-pound range. In 2017, things ex­ploded, with some true giants be­ing caught. The av­er­age size of the fish jumped up from 300 pounds to more than 400 pounds, but the big­gest fish were al­most dou­bling that again.

Ge­orge Li­rantzis on his Mer­cury-pow­ered cat

Side Ef­fect caught an ab­so­lute mon­ster, pulling down the scales to 764 pounds. Not bad when you con­sider that the day be­fore he caught a 463-pounder, and a month be­fore, while fish­ing with Abela on Dream­catcher 2, he boated a 590-pound beast. There have also been some mon­ster fish re­leased as well: An­gler Chris Cleaver set free a num­ber of fish, in­clud­ing a cou­ple in the 500- to 600-pound range.

Most of the day­time deep-drop­ping ef­forts for swordfish have been fo­cused around Ever­ard Canyon and Western Wall. What makes it so ex­cit­ing is that this is barely a drop in the ocean, with hundreds of miles of vir­gin coun­try yet to be ex­plored. How big a fish might be swim­ming in this canyon is any­one’s guess.

NO SMALL SWORDFISH ARE EN­COUN­TERED IN TH­ESE WATERS; IN FACT, FISH UN­DER 200 POUNDS ARE RARE. BET­TER STILL, EACH SEA­SON THE FISH SEEM TO BE GET­TING BIG­GER.

DEAL­ING WITH THE WEATHER

As ex­cit­ing as this fish­ery is, there’s a down­side, and it’s a big one. The weather is tem­per­a­men­tal at the best of times and, when cou­pled with the re­mote­ness of th­ese grounds, it is a real is­sue. Winds in ex­cess of 50 knots are not un­com­mon on this stretch of water, which can whip into an in­cred­i­bly scary ocean. The up­side is those gale­force storms are bro­ken up by calm spells, which can see the water glass out com­pletely. As a re­sult, crews have to be ready to go at the drop of a hat and still might get only a sin­gle day on the water.

It’s all com­pli­cated fur­ther by the fact that the grounds are 35 to 50 miles off­shore and are largely ac­ces­si­ble only by trailer boats. This is par­tic­u­larly so for Mal­la­coota, which has no fa­cil­i­ties for cruis­ers what­so­ever: The only an­chor­age is be­hind Gabo Is­land, some 10 miles up the coast. There is no fuel or other fa­cil­i­ties.

Lakes En­trance is the only other op­tion. Al­most 100 miles to the west, it does of­fer the ad­van­tage of ca­ter­ing to larger boats, but it also has a much longer run to the grounds. As an ac­tive port ser­vic­ing the oil rigs and home to a com­mer­cial fleet, it has de­cent boat­ing fa­cil­i­ties, al­though be warned that there is a bar cross­ing that makes the port in­ac­ces­si­ble in big seas.

DAILY BITES

When it comes to sea­sons, we are still pretty much work­ing it out. Last year the fish­ing ef­fort didn’t start un­til May. Al­ter­nately, this year crews started fish­ing in Fe­bru­ary and were still catch­ing them well into June. The prob­lem is in June, the win­ter storms pick up tempo, mak­ing it hard to get out to sea and im­pos­si­ble to tell if the fish are still there.

The peak of the sea­son so far seems to be April through June, where on good days crews get a bite on ev­ery drop. Even on slow days, it’s rare not to get at least a shot or two. As more ef­fort is put in, we will get a clearer pic­ture of the fish­ery, es­pe­cially re­gard­ing the sea­son and the ef­fects weather and moon phases have on the fish.

Fish­ing tech­niques have also changed over the past cou­ple of years. Ini­tially, crews fished a sin­gle out­fit, but in re­cent times, there has been a trend to run two rods. One rod is weighted and fished down deep near the bot­tom, while on the sec­ond rod, the weight snaps off so it can drift up through the water col­umn. The free-drift­ing rig has worked re­ally well in Tasmania, where there is min­i­mal cur­rent, and it cer­tainly pro­duces the goods. It makes sense to cover as much of the water col­umn as pos­si­ble, and a sec­ond rod al­lows you to do that.

Run­ning two out­fits, Abela has had a num­ber of dou­ble­head­ers, in­clud­ing two dou­bles in a sin­gle day. He has even scored a dou­ble hookup where he man­aged to get both fish, an im­pres­sive ef­fort in any­one’s book.

DAY TIME IS BEST

Hav­ing caught a few swords at night, I can cat­e­gor­i­cally say that I am happy never to do it again. Fish­ing at night is cold and wet, and the fish­ing is bloody tough. In­ter­est­ingly, crews fish­ing overnight in the Bass Canyon have failed to get a bite but then hook up as soon as the sun rises. This is mu­sic to my ears be­cause I am much hap­pier to get sun­burned than freeze to death.

I don’t think in Aus­tralia’s his­tory have I seen such an ex­cite­ment for a new fish­ery. Part of the ex­cite­ment is that it’s a brand-new fish­ery, and we are still very much on a steep learn­ing curve work­ing it all out. It is only a mat­ter of time un­til some­one hooks the magic grander swordfish here.

Sights like this day­time­hooked swordfish (above) are be­com­ing more com­mon­place in the waters off Aus­tralia as an­glers em­brace deep-drop­ping tech­niques.

The au­thor and Capt. Ritchie Abela (op­po­site, from left) cel­e­brate a hard-fought bat­tle against an in­cred­i­bly wor­thy ad­ver­sary.

The im­pres­sive size of swordfish in the re­gion only adds to their al­lure for vis­it­ing an­glers.

Blue-eye trevalla (top) are a wel­come by­catch in the day­time swordfish fish­ery. Th­ese bot­tom dwellers are well-known as pow­er­ful fight­ers and for their ex­cel­lent ta­ble fare.

Swordfish rigs (above) gen­er­ally con­sist of a strip bait from species like bonito or mahimahi, sewn onto a large J hook. An oc­to­pus skirt adds pro­tec­tion from the fish’s slash­ing bill plus a bit of color and ac­tion, and a com­mer­cial swordfish light clipped well above the bait pro­vides fishat­tract­ing light.

A good harness is crit­i­cal in win­ning the fight with a big swordfish, es­pe­cially on boats with­out a fight­ing chair. Us­ing a prop­erly sized harness, an an­gler can ap­ply plenty of pres­sure over the course of an ex­tended fight with­out wearing him­self out.

Al McGlashan is one of Aus­tralia’s top fish­ing pho­tog­ra­phers. He hosts the pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion se­ries Fish’n with Mates, and spends al­most 200 days a year on or in the water. ABOUT THE AU­THOR:

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