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Life on the Great Barrier Reef, Reboot

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

Gaz and I had only four short days in Cairns to fill up, fuel up and fix up the boat, before heading back out to the reef again, this time joined by our two Kiwi mates, “Thirty-Knot” Tony and Steve, the Chicken Man. They had blown in from Auckland a few days ago, their wives in tow, for a tropical break from the New Zealand winter. After Tony and Steve put in some quality tourist time with their ladies, Julie and Brenda, the men boarded November Rain for a four-day fishing trip, abandoning their wives in a resort with their credit cards and the pool boy as distractions. Steve and Tony planned to meet up with the ladies again, a few miles up the coast in Port Douglas, hopefully with black marlin tags swinging under their middle aged belts, a feat always sure to impress their women. Joining the four of us on the fishing trip are our volunteer crew,  26 year old Aidan the Horse, and 18 year old Goldfinger Mitch, both also known to impress women for other reasons (in their own minds).

Tony earned his nickname “Thirty-Knot Tony” for his uncanny ability to bring bad weather with him anytime he is aboard November Rain. In years past, marlin fishing trips have been recast as snapper trips after we have had to take shelter in a bay for up to a week, waiting for gale-force winds to die down. The forecast for the coming week was calm, so perhaps we can put away the weather curse of Tony and move into a new era. Steve’s nickname has more to do with his business, for he owns broiler chicken farms. In a previous life, he was a butcher and I once watched him debone a chicken in less than a minute. Recently, he also claimed to have been a baker but he had failed to prove this to me just yet. (I can’t help but wonder if he’s tried his hand at candlestick making?)

Mitch and Gaz demonstrate bait rigging techniques to Tony and Steve, while Horse practices macrame

The first day, we spent four hours just heading out to the reef, trolling divers behind in hopes of picking up a few fresh baits. As we had no such luck, we were going to have to rely on the baits in our freezer, caught the previous week. Once beyond the reef, two skip baits were rigged and towed from the outriggers, along with a swimmer bait, towed from a makeshift rig setup that ran up to the tuna tower and back down to the flybridge. We didn’t see a single fish that day and the next day was wash-rinse-repeat, although we did catch a few baits in the morning. The biggest highlight of the day was the 50 meter swim completion in reverse, measuring who could reel in the two skip baits the fastest. Gaz won, after he cheated by reaching over and switching Steve’s rod into low gear during the race. Steve repaid Gaz by beating/cheating him at cards later that evening. Bait races have become a nightly event since then, with Goldfinger consistently smoking everyone else.

The third day, something very large came into the gear and scarfed down one of the skip baits. Goldfinger, driving from the tuna tower, spotted the take, and sounded the alert, confidently cocky that it was a marlin. Gaz, who had also witnessed the take, wasn’t quite as convinced. The guys bounced down to staircase from the flybridge, like kids heading for the presents on Christmas morning, to set the hook and clear the gear. Steve was on point for the rod, and got settled into the chair while the other bait was reeled in. Gaz took over the controls from Mitch and began backing up on the line. The fish never showed itself, and we began to get suspicious about what was on the end of line. Odds were 3:1 that it was a shark, and bets were placed. Steve pushed the drag up to sunset and began the hard work of cranking in the mystery fish over the next 45 minutes. When we could finally see some color, it was disappointedly brown and white, not the black and silver of a marlin. Mitch wired the 300 kg tiger shark and held on until the leader snapped, freeing the shark to swim away completely unfazed. It was the largest dangerous shark I have ever seen in real life and is making me seriously reconsider swimming in Australia.

Game fishing, great barrier reef

Steve wrestles with a tiger shark

Tiger Shark, Great Barrier Reef

Tiger shark, caught by Steve, Goldfinger on the leader

The radio chatter on the VHF was discouraging, large marks were being spotted on the sounders, but the marlin had gone off the bite, most likely due to the big tides and the full moon. About this time, Tony started to become to be unsure as to which date they had planned to meet up with the wives in Port Douglas. Were they to be gone three nights or was it four? The more they discussed it, the more unsure they became. Without cell phone reception or internet to clarify with the wives, we decided to head in Port Douglas to arrive either right on time or a day early, rather than risk arriving a day late. We feared that Julie and Brenda would raise the alarm with the coast guard if their men didn’t arrived as scheduled. Worse, consequences might be in the form of a revenge shopping sprees. We also knew the ladies were booking a crocodile feeding excursion and we didn’t want to see the men accidentally end up on the wrong side of the boat.

As it turned out, we arrived a day early, and so Steve and Tony enjoyed another night aboard November Rain. Gaz was able to book in for two nights at the Super Yacht Marina in Port Douglas, on the promise that he would produce our (non-existent) insurance policy to the marina office manager. He spent the next two days playing e-mail dodgeball with her on the paperwork, and I suspect we won’t be welcomed back anytime soon. The marina was as advertised, home to a dozen super yachts, each staffed with full-time stainless polishers, and was easy walking distance to shops, bars and restaurants. Steve managed to lose his wallet the first night in a bar, but I speculated that it was a ploy to cancel his credit cards after learning about some recent shopping sprees in Cairns by the Mrs.

Early in the evening, faint strains of an aria could be head wafting down the dock and so I slipped on my jandals and went off to investigate the source, pleasantly surprised to stumble upon a mini opera concert, a tenor and two sopranos, performing live in the middle of Dock E for a private wedding charter. This is the most art culture I’ve been exposed to in three years and there was no better way to enjoy it than under the stars on a balmy spring evening, hiding behind a dock piling in my pajamas.

Port Douglas’s Marina is chock-a-block with tour operators, mostly offering scuba and snorkel trips to the Great Barrier Reef aboard massive catamarans, along with a smattering of crocodile excursions out among the mangroves. A quick stroll around the town revealed several blocks of tropically-themed holiday apartments clustered around the city’s famous Four-Mile Beach, cute boutique shops and scores of trendy bars and restaurants. The beach was loaded with early morning joggers, but I noticed no one was swimming inside the designated shark-free zone, a flimsy mesh cage cordoned off in the surf. Signs posted every fifty meters warned of hazardous sea life. Every hundred meters or so, a large bottle of vinegar was prominently displayed and available to self-treat for jellyfish stings. Every two hundred meters was a suture kit and emergency transfusion supplies.

After we enjoyed a seafood dinner as adequate as Australia is capable of, we said our goodbye to our Kiwi mates and left them to their crocodile feeding tours and shopping sprees. We warned Tony about acquiring the more unfortunate nickname of “Lefty” and left it at that. The next morning, Gaz and I headed back to the reef with Horse and Goldfinger, with plans to sweep up all the fish that Tony and Steve had left behind. Our plan is to fish for the next eight days, right up until we drop Horse and Goldfinger back in Cairns, where they will both fly home, Mitch to NZ, Aidan to the UK. It would be nice to send them home with the memories of another grander, a kind of reward for all their hard work over the past couple of months, helping us cruise the boat over from Vanuatu and with all the fishing and dishwashing chores.

November Rain Sport fishing

November Rain out on the Great Barrier Reef

The reconditioned fridge/freezer unit is still giving us fits, sometimes running smoothly, purring like a well fed cat, other times, screaming and squealing like a starving pig, belts slipping and otherwise just bouncing around loudly on its’ mount, like an unbalanced load of wet towels in the washing machine. While we were in Cairns, Gaz hailed down a passing marine fridge-tech on the dock to have a quick look-see. The tech located a small leak in the compressor unit and topped up the gas. She seemed to run better for a few days after that tweak. A couple of times the motor has become smoking hot and, in an attempt to cool the unit, Gaz installed two fans, but they did nothing to placate the angry beast. In the past few days, the issues have escalated and total nuclear meltdown is expected any day now. With over a $1,000 worth of food at risk for decomp in the fridge/freezer, I am more than concerned. Meanwhile, the outdoor fish freezer is working like a champ and we have plenty of frozen bait. My pleas to ditch the bait and transfer the food to the working freezer are met with disgust and disbelief from the crew at the audacity of such blasphemy. Certainly, bait is more important and why can’t we eat our way through the lifetime supply of canned spaghetti on board? I counter that I had donated the wretched food to Ni-Van islanders several months ago. We compromise with the low-tech solution of freezing down blocks of salt water in the working fish freezer, then transferring the fishy smelling ice to the non-working food units. Gaz put in an emergency SOS to our fridge man in New Zealand. His advice was to check the salt water pump that cools the unit. It’s only then that I find out that we are still equipped with the originally model, circa 2002. Hmmm, ya think? Gaz knocked around with the pump, located in the starboard engine bay, and that appears to be at least part of the problem. He’ll dig the spare out and install it in the morning.

In the late arvo, Horse hooked up a 90 kg black marlin, officially ending the drought brought on by “Dry Spell” Tony. The fish expelled his stomach in an attempt to ditch the hook, an evolutionary defense mechanism that is harmless to the animal but still looks quite disgusting. Goldfinger wired the little guy, enticing him to do a couple of jumps at the back of the boat for our entertainment. After a couple of minutes of posing for photos on the wire, Goldfinger realized that there was a tag in the fish, along with an old J hook embedded in the guts. He decided to retrieve the tag in the interest of science but the marlin wanted none of it, and quickly broke away, returning to us our own circle hook and a half chewed bait as a lovely parting gift. (We prefer circle hooks over J hooks as they are designed to hook into the fish’s jaw and not the gut cavity, providing fish with a much higher survival rate upon release.)

Marlin spills his guts, previously tagged fish

Gaz spent the next morning replacing the failing saltwater pump for the fridge/freezer unit and she is back to purring like a well loved kitten. I can’t help but wonder if that wasn’t the main issue for the problems that we have been struggling with for over three years now, having spent three BOAT* $$$ in the meantime to rebuild/recondition the motor as well as beef up the electrical breakers. Time will tell.

At 2:00 pm bite time, also known as my nap time, I heard the boys shouting excitedly out on the back deck. An unknown species of considerable size had just taken the extra-fat skippy bait that I had boated earlier that morning. I stumbled outside just in time to help clear the other rod before taking my seat in the game chair. As Gaz began driving away, the line went tight, and a nice black marlin jumped off in the distance. Gaz backed up on the fish while I cranked in the line and Goldfinger got his first chance at the leader within ten minutes. The fish gave a couple strong jumps and Goldfinger sensibly let go of the line. He got another chance for the leader within a few minutes, this time eliciting a big aerial somersault from the big girl, right at the boat. The line went taunt as the fish was flying past us, suddenly snapping off at the hook and whipping back, spanking Goldfinger across the chest and leaving him with a glorious welt in the shape of flaccid male genitalia, apparently her opinion of him. I think we should permanently tattoo the whip mark as a testimonial to the catch. He claims he’s satisfied with just the photos but I knew he’s secretly proud of it and hopes it will scar. The consensus is that she was about 240 kg or 500 lbs, a decent fish with a long distance release at the boat.

Long distance release, snapped off right here

Mitch get’s himself bitch slapped

Ten minutes later, we raised another fish, but failed to hook up. Earlier in the day, Gaz had noticed the rest of the fleet had turned around and were now heading south. Since he was unhappy with the color of the water as we headed north, he decided to turn around as well and follow the pack. Maybe they knew something we didn’t. It looks to be a good decision as we’ve already had two strikes today.

Late afternoon, we hooked up another good-sized marlin. Aidan was on point and Mitch had the leader early, coaxing the fish to jump for us. This time, Mitch decided to have fun with the fish a bit, dropping the leader when she peeled off, rather than snapping off the hook too early in the game. Aidan played the fish for about twenty minutes and Mitch acted as ballet coach, coaxing leap after leap, every time he grabbed the leader. At one point she kicked her tail so hard, she soaked everyone on the deck. Finally, Mitch wrangled her to the side of the boat and cut her loose after a few photos. She was our second 500 pound fish for the day. We were pretty stoked and reviewed the video footage late into the evening. She took a pretty picture and left us with some nice profile shots for her social media page.

Sporadic cell coverage popped up, so Gaz made sure to text “Dry Spell” Tony the news of our three most recent catches, as well as inquire how the souvenir shopping was coming along. Rub that salt into that wound, Gaz.

Late afternoon, we hooked up a marlin, and it was my turn on the rod. Once I was strapped in, Gaz gunned the boat forward to tighten up, but there wasn’t enough weight on the line to give us confidence in a hook set. Something heavier than the bait was on the line, but it wasn’t heavy enough to be a big marlin. As I was reeling in the bait, Gaz spotted a marlin following it up, but we couldn’t entice her to take it again. Something was really wonky about the bait, so the boys quickly tossed out a fresh one while I retrieved the damaged one. It turns out that my bait had hooked into to another half-chewed bait, one that the marlin had regurgitated up when she spat my bait. Really weird to catch a dead bait with a dead bait, but there were a dozen other boats trolling around us, and one of them had recently lost their bait to this marlin.

We anchored up on Opal Reef that night, along with the rest of the fleet that included a big mothership. Several of these large mother ships are scattered around the reef, acting as floating gin palaces for some of the smaller charter boats to tie alongside at night. They are rumored to host gourmet food, decadent parties and perjury competitions between anglers. Many also carry certified scales and can weigh fish. Horse and Goldfinger toyed with the idea of swimming over to party with the crew but decided to pass as it was 0’shark:30.

Mother ship and her chicks

In the morning, we compared notes with a couple of the other captains, including the one from Hot Shot, a boat we had been invited aboard at Lizard Island a couple of weeks back. After giving November Rain a much-needed bottom cleaning, a chore that can only done in the water, Goldfinger decided to swim over to a nearby boat, Askari, for a chinwag. He returned to tell us about their double strike yesterday, a 700 pounder and a 900 pounder, both of which earned tags. Some people have all the luck.

After another long, hot and dry spell day, we dropped anchor again on Opal Reef, along with a dozen other boats. We salivated with envy as we watched Lavante towed a huge carcass over to the mothership to be weighed. Another fish reported over the airwaves weighed in as a grand and a quarter, or 1,250 pounds. We were feeling a bit deflated. While it’s only been a couple of days since our last fish, we went from heroes to zeros in our own minds. We are like drug addicts and we need another fix, and soon. One of the smaller game boats on the reef was cranking out obnoxious rap music, and consequently, the neighboring mother ship retaliated by blasting classic rock through blown-out speakers. We were parked between the two idiots and got the worst of both. I’ve had quieter nights in South Auckland.

Dawn on the reef

We raised only one marlin the following day, sniffing the bait with disdain before swimming away. Goldfinger spotted another marlin smash the bait of a boat right next to us with the resulting hook up. It was starting to feel a bit like groundhog day. Mornings; fish the reef for bait, afternoons; fish the deep for marlin, evenings; anchor on the reef, dinner, dishes, showers, movie, rinse, repeat. On the up side, Lavante, the boat that had weighed the fish yesterday on the mothership, reported that it had only caught eight marlin in 27 days on the reef. We had ten under our belt for the same period..Whoo Hoo…we’re on a streak! Another boat, Fascination II, borrowed a hacksaw from Gaz as we pulled into the reef for the evening. They had been on a 700 pound marlin much of the afternoon with only had the head to show for it after sharks claimed 670 pounds of it for their lunch. The crew wanted the hacksaw to chop the bill off as a souvenir. Gaz put his own musical spin on the evening by blasting Metallica and Marilyn Manson, raising the bar for annoying music on the reef.

All that’s left after the taxman takes his cut

Black marlin bill, ready for preservation

We hooked up a really big fish the next morning and I settle into the chair and grabbed the rod out of the holder. Early in the fight, we caught a short glimpse of her when she half-jumped, trying to throw the hook. My estimation of her size was significantly larger than the guys; I called it a 1,000 pounds, while Goldfinger argued for 700, Gaz going for 800. Shortly after that, one of the guides on the rod broke, dangling off the line. Horse quickly wrapped electrical tape around the sharp bits left on the rod, and managed to tape the guide back on the rod, where it stay put for the rest of the fight.

Hang in there baby

After the first hour of torture, fighting on sunset drag, I was secretly hoping the circling sharks would just finish the job for me. After two hours, the guys started to believe it might possibly be bigger than they originally thought, considering the length of the fight. At the three-hour mark, the boys pulled the gaffs out of storage, deciding that we might have to weigh this one, or at least, recover the head if the sharks got it. At four hours, Gaz came down from the helm and tightened the drag, increasing the pain for both me and the fish. This little operation meant releasing the drag all the way down to free spool, while simultaneously clamping down on the reel to avoid an overrun, then dialing up the drag. Of course, this little maneuver lost me a heartbreaking couple of hundred meters of line. We could see her black and silver color multiple times, sulking down below the boat 15 meters down, but could never get close enough to ever see the end of the 9 meter leader. She must have played this game before, because she was really good at, making all the right moves, zigging when we were zagging, and towing us 9.5 nautical miles. Just to make sure we weren’t getting too hot on the deck, Gaz would back down hard into the oncoming sea and soak us from time to time. He even managed to splash water all the way up to the fly bridge.

Just when I thought we were finally winning, we could see her color and she wasn’t peeling line anymore, PING…the 130 lb line snapped and it was all over. Four hours and thirty-five minutes of torture with only a sunburn and muscle cramps to show for it. Gaz speculated that the line was wrapped around a pectoral fin, because I just could not get her head up. It was like trying to fight a foul hooked fish, always more difficult than a lip-hooked fish. Technically, I’m still on point for the next fish, but I’m standing down for at least the rest of the afternoon, because I can’t stand up.

An hour later, a horrific thundering noise shuddered through the boat, rousing me from my coma. I hobbled outside to discover we had just T-boned a massive floating log. The log was at least 10 meters long and jammed across the tops of both bulbous bows. Mitch had spotted it at the last-minute from the tuna tower and yelled down to Gaz to put the engines into neutral, but Gaz, staring out the back at the baits instead looking of forward, couldn’t understand what Mitch was squawking about. The guys had to reel in the trailing loose lines before Gaz could switch gears into reverse to dump the log off of the bows. Fortunately, the steel collision plates did their job and there was no obvious damage to the boat. Unfortunately, the floating log, covered in barnacles, was populated with fish, including sharks, one of which slunk away with one of our precious baits.

Floating dangers

10 meters long log was jammed across both bows

The next morning, a 35’ Caribbean, Tsukiji, rocked up for a chat, comparing catches and losses with us and after a bit, the captain inquired if we had a water maker aboard. One of the guests aboard had left a tap open, the fourth day out on a ten-day trip, draining their water tank by half. We offloaded 200 liters of fresh water to them with our hose, topping them up to full again. I can’t think of anything worse than suffering through strict water rations for four days, especially with four sweaty fishermen aboard. We exchanged contact details, and the captain offered to assist Mitch in finding a decking handing job for next year’s season.

Offloading fresh water to the thirsty

In the afternoon, two marlin swam into the gear, crashing the baits, and we hooked up the larger one, maybe 500 pounds. This time, it was the abbreviated version of yesterday’s fiasco. Mitch had his mitts on the leader twice within the first ten minutes and I was pushed only half-way up to maximum drag. The fish started going deep, then suddenly, PING, we lost it to a shark that cut us off on the 700 lb leader. At least we touched the leader twice, saw the fish jump and didn’t waste four hours on it for the same result.

We raised three more marlin that afternoon but had no further hook ups. The good news is that the fish are definitely back on the bite. The bad news is that we have to head back to Cairns tomorrow, and are losing our crew to greener pastures. Mitch’s cockiness and Aidan’s agreeable nature have made this trip so much more interesting and enjoyable, and their hard work, humor and good company have made this journey possible. We are going to miss them, as they have both become part of our family, sharing both highs and lows of game fishing and extended boat life. I have demanded invitations to their future weddings if that day ever comes. (all former November Rain crew members, that goes for you as well)

It’ll be difficult for just Gaz and myself to do this style of fishing without crew, so we will head south to Fraser Island, where it’s going off at the moment with blue marlin. We can shut down the bait freezer and go back to towing non-perishable lures, making it a much cleaner operation. Gaz will be doing double duty as captain and wireman, and I’ll be fishing standup, as it’s easier to move around the boat, especially when there’s no one to spin the chair around for you. We might be a bit slack on the photos though, and I know my blogs may become dull without the crew as my muses. Maybe its time to start looking for new children to adopt…. Whoops, I meant crew.

Offloading the last of our baits to the less fortunate

Sunrise on the reef

*BOAT = Bring Out Another Thousand

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