Anyone can slide a pilchard onto a paternoster rig and pull hard on a snapper, but not many can lay claim to catching snapper on topwater stick baits. Mike Bonnici can. It’s time for The Captain’s crew to find out how this renowned surface slayer rolls. Yep, it’s time to strike like Mike.
We arrive at Coffs Harbour boat ramp on a Saturday afternoon after a gruelling six hour drive. To our dismay, the weather has turned to custard and every fisho in town is strapping his boat back on the trailer. We contact Mike Bonnici, suggesting a few Sailor Jerry and Cokes while we wait for the seas to settle. But he’s not having a bar of it. He gives us the hurry-up, demanding we get our arses on board asap. The few fishos still hanging around the ramp make it pretty obvious what they think of the out-of-town blow-ins. Their faces have that “you guys are nuts” glaze.
For those that don’t know Mike, he’s a Sydney-based angler with an impressive reputation for catching very big fish on the NSW east coast. His favourite trick is sweeping stickbaits across the surface, duping huge kingfish into topwater strikes. A pissy southerly bust-up won’t keep Mike off the water. He drives his 21ft Sea Devil like an F1 racer and he’s never flushed his E-TEC outboard with fresh water. The Captain will have to strap in for this mission. We did consider wearing skateboard pads, but given Mike’s penchant for no-f**ks fishing, er, maybe not.
WHIP IT GOOD
After a surprisingly soft ride across a choppy sea, bitch-slapped by a 20-knot southerly, we arrive at South Solitary Island lighthouse. Mike circles over the ground, closely eyeballing the red bananas on the Simrad sounder. He sticks his head out from behind the clears, feels the breeze on his face and assesses the drift direction. Without a word, he turns to his fishing sidekick, Steve King, and gives him the nod. Steve leaps into action, tying a couple of Ocea Pebble Stick jigs. The boys then get busy dropping and retrieving the shiny lead at ultra-high speed to the beat of Devo’s Whip It.
They quickly connect with a pair of rat kings, but Mike refuses to let us photograph our quarry, insisting: “we’ll catch something much bigger”. We begrudgingly agree as we watch the kingies swim away without a single shot. It’s not until late afternoon that we get the cameras out again, when Mike turns his attention to Spanish mackerel. His hunting ground is a big patch of offshore reef rising up from 30m into 15m.
A huge storm is rolling in from the south and we have serious reservations about getting a single fish, let alone a decent photo. But the front misses us by a few kilometres, temporarily calming the surrounding ocean.
A flat sea is all Mike needs to entice a mack. After a few casts, his lure cops a huge aerial strike. Something massive circles under the boat and a short time later a 12kg model is aboard. Mike reckons the fish is pretty unlucky. “It’s 50/50 whether you get cut off with macks, especially with small lures in poor seas. I didn’t crush my barbs like I normally do, but it was such a tough bite.” Thankfully, he did and we celebrated by snapping away like madmen.
Mike describes topwater fishing as “addictive and expensive”, but adds “there’s nothing better than when you connect”. He reckons you can have the best gear, but there’s no substitute for effort. Even when the bite is slow, he takes the view that they have to chew at some time during the day. He’s caught good fish in all types of water, debunking the myth of “good” and “bad” water — long an excuse for unsuccessful fishos. When Mike does hook up, good gear is the key. “Everything has to be 100 per cent, particularly for kingfish — hooks, lures, line, knots, rods and reels — there can be no weak link in the chain,” he says, adding, “you get what you pay for.”
Coincidentally (if you’re reading this, Mrs Captain), his arsenal features all the brand names The Captain hopes to find under the Christmas tree every bloody year. Mike’s been using Stellas since he could afford them and his reputation for slaying surface fish and being tough on gear has earned him the right to test out a few new Shimano models. The jigging reels on our trip feature the new Infinity Drive. The lads on deck reckon the new gear is super-light, but still powerful. Better still, they’ve been fitted with rubber gaskets in the line rollers so they’re more watertight than a German U-Boat — and just as deadly. The Shimano research boffins claim the rubbers are 10 times more durable than previous models.“
I store them in my side pockets so they cop a fair bit of boat rash,” Mike says. “Saltwater is constantly pouring over them.” He likes to store all his casting rods flat to avoid any danger of them snapping. The Captain suspects it might have something to do with his driving, but Mike doesn’t seem particularly worried about his now-drenched Stellas. The new models can be fully immersed in over 1m of water, thanks to new seals and tougher one-piece aluminium outer shell. They have a waterproof rating of IPX8. We reckon if they’re Mike Bonniciproof, they’re good by us.
The fair weather doesn’t last long and Mike has barely retrieved his stickbait from the mackerel’s razor-sharp gob before it’s blowing 25 knots again. So we call it quits and head for home. Even behind the clears, the water blows in from every angle, soaking us — and the rods and reels.
On day two, Mike decides we need new fishing country. So we pack up the Devil and head south to, er, South West Rocks. After filling the live-bait tank with slimies and the tuna tubes with bonito, we discover all of Mike’s favourite fishing grounds are plagued with giant sharks. We give it a crack anyway, snapping several hooks. All this hook bending is an interesting phenomenon for The Captain’s crew, who are more likely to snap the line at the knots. It makes us think we should up our line class — or maybe pay more attention to Peter Pakula’s video tutorials.
Steve loses out when he hooks a solid jewfish only to have it morph into a shark halfway to the surface. Steve fights the 300kg whaler for an hour on the Stella 14000 until the hook snaps off at the shank. He and Mike are pretty relieved, but we’re a little disappointed, hoping to see this monster from the deep in spite of Mike’s desire to get into some shark-free froth further south.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The Sea Devil is back on the trailer and we’re heading south to Forster. “If we move quick, we should just have enough time to grab some KFC (Mike’s kryptonite) and live bait, and catch the afternoon tide change,” Mike says. This highway-hopping activity really is next level. It shows why this fisho catches more fish than the average Joe. He travels further and fishes longer and harder than anyone else we know on the water.
On the highway in Mike’s Toyota Hilux, we’re musing about fishing while feasting on his favourite road food, the Colonel Sanders original-skin drumsticks. Mike confesses people think he’s a full-time fisherman, but he says he’s just a weekend warrior — especially now he’s got a little daughter, Marley. He says some days he might only get one bite and on many days he gets none. This is reassuring news to The Captain’s crew, who often score doughnuts.
The Forster locals give Mike some cracking intel and within the hour we’ve got a live-bait tank full of slimy mackerel and squid. Next stop is a jew and kingfish spot ripe for the picking. On the first drift, we manage a double hook-up on kingies. On the second, we snag a 1m jewie. With fish in the boat and camera cards full, Mike suggests we bust out and head to the pub while dinner is still on. Much as we love fishing, we don’t take a lot of convincing.
KING FOR A DAY
Mike is a fairly understated character. It takes a fair bit to register on his excitometer, but the subject of topwater kingfish really gets him buzzing. “I’ve been chasing them for five years,” he says. “They’re definitely my favorite. They’re explosive, coming up from nowhere. You see a pack of 15kg-20kg fish and you’re wondering which one is going to eat it, then they hit the lure, run around and give you two minutes of hell.” We ask Mike how the big donkeys compare to the 10kg minnows. “Most of the big fish you catch, you barely see them,” he says. “They just come up to the surface, but they’re slower and more powerful.”
For the second time on the trip, Mike confesses he’s actually human, admitting to a big kingie that haunts him. “I was in deep water, I couldn’t budge him off the bottom. I was worried he was going to rub me off so I told the boys to drive off. I was holding the spool as hard as I could with my hand and ended up popping the 80lb braid.” His face turns glum. “Until this day, that’s the one fish I wish I saw.”
Kingies will be our quarry on the last day of the trip, and we’re a bit worried. “How much of a sure thing is this, Mike?” we ask the skipper. “Boys, lets just say it’s one of my favourite spots and I’m damn confident we’ll hook one — just can’t guarantee we’ll land it.”
Of course, we can’t say no and at 4am the next day we’re charging out again, this time to the kingie grounds. We’re sworn to secrecy on the exact spot and Mike’s trust isn’t something we’re willing to test. The sun hasn’t even cracked the horizon when Steve loops out his first cast on the Shimano Grappler stickbaiting rod. He’s pulled the lure halfway back to the boat when a donkey kingfish smashes it off the surface. Steve’s legs are shaking as he tries to haul the beast off the reef. The Stella roars as the fish struggles to pull drag from the spool. After a tense 10 minutes, Mike has a 15kg kingfish by the tail.
A few photo ops and high-fives later, the fish is back in the water, unharmed. Mike refers to the fish in this area as “his pets” and The Captain is not about to argue. Steve and Mike continue to throw stickbaits throughout the morning until a 4m great white circles the boat and turns the bite off. Off we go again, The Captain’s crew lob a few soft plastics around to kill time.
After a few casts, one of them is nailed mid-water. The fish screams off the line and the boys call it for another kingie. However, after 15 minutes, a serious snapper pops up from the green depths. This time it’s The Captain’s crew shaking like a hornet shithouse. Mike reckons it was snapper on plastics that converted him from spearfishing almost 10 years ago, before he moved up the water column to topwater kings. It’s not even 9am and we’re pumped, having caught a 17kg kingie, a 7kg snapper and been up close and personal with a huge great white. “Wanna go home now?” Mike asks. “Yep, I reckon that’ll do us just fine, thanks mate.”
Mike’s owned Sea Devils all his boating life and his current model is the 620, built five years ago. “It’s a boat that can do everything,” he says. “You can sleep on it, trailer it everywhere, it’s not too heavy, not too small. You can fish four people comfortably. Game fishing, sport fishing — I cast off the front deck. It ticks every box for me.”
He’s been running E-TEC almost as long as he’s owned Sea Devils. Of the 250HP G2 currently fitted, he says, “This one’s been amazing, so much power. I’ve done 1700 hours and fuel consumption is just under 1L per nautical mile, cruising at 30 knots. Those are nice numbers for a deep-vee glass boat with all that power.”
DEVIL IN THE DETAIL
The Sea Devil was originally developed by Peter Williams in the 1980s and based on the lines of the legendary Haines Hunter V17. The 520 and 620 models both feature flooding keels (200L and 300L), 23.5-degree dead-rise at the transom and a full composite construction. They’re a favourite among spearos, who can often be found hitting the Long Reef beach at high speed, sliding up the sand with the hydraulics on the motor disengaged. Purely to avoid dumpers landing in the back of the boat while they’re waiting for the trailer, of course.
On the digital gear front, a pair of NSS12 and NSS16 Evo3 displays run via a S5100 fed through a transom-mount TM275LH-W transducer. “Without (the Simrads) it’s pretty much hard work,” Mike says. “Once you learn how to use ‘em with depth and arches, fishing is easy. It’s been a game changer for marlin fishing over the past couple of years. We can tell what’s going on down there. Last weekend, we were fishing in a comp, we marked a fish 120m down, bombed a bait and watched the fish swim up to the bait before the rod went ‘doomph!’ It was like TV. Doesn’t get much better.”
Discover the dirty little secrets of the South Coast bait ballers.
When he heard that Grant Shorland had put up Glenn McGrath-like figures of 16 from 21 in a single session off Mallacoota, The Captain was impressed — and more than a little intrigued. Determined to find out more, he came up with a cunning plan. The next day, armed with a slab of spiced rum and cola lubrication and a few spy cameras, The Captain’s crew cast off on a mission to expose the mysterious ways of the southern bait ballers.
In Grant’s eyes, the job starts with a detailed study of currents and water temperatures. “A lot of time and effort goes in to finding the fish,” Grant says. “We use RipCharts, which cost about $260 a year. If you really want to excel, follow RipCharts and the weather reports. It’s not luck — what we’re doing is narrowing our luck down into a four-mile (6.5km) radius.” South coast bait balls are typically made up of slimy mackerel and jack mackerel. The macks are feeding on krill and algae drifting in the east Australian current where it butts up against nutrient-rich water from the Southern Ocean. But while the macks are chomping krill, the marlin have them on the menu. On the shelf off fishing ports such as Bermagui, Eden and Mallacoota, the action gets fast and furious as striped marlin go into chow-down mode.
Finding the fish is what drives Grant, rather than actually catching them. “The ideal marlin hunting ground is warm water between 19 and 23 degrees, out of the current,” he says. “When it funnels down this way and forms an eddy, I get excited. If the eddy is on bottom structure or a canyon, I know that’s where the bait will be stacked up.” Just finding the fish doesn’t guarantee they’ll bite, Grant cautions. “The day before we caught those 16 fish, we had headed out for a recce, seeing heaps of free jumpers, but catching none. It’s not always a given. But it’s finding the fish that gives me the biggest rush. I don’t like winding the fucking things in.”
Grant reckons the fish have always been at his Mallacoota doorstep, but not many people hunt them. That’s why he bought himself a Grady-White 258 Journey powered by a pair of 150HP Yamahas. He calls it “a poor man’s game-fishing boat”. The walk-around configuration is ideal for getting up the bow and scouting the seas for bait ball signs.
Once Grant knows where the fish are, he’ll drop everything, including his newborn baby girl, Harley (into the cot, of course). “If you want to catch fish you can’t say, ‘we’ll go next time’. You’ve got to drop whatever you’re doing, get on a boat and go fishing — otherwise you’ll miss it,” he says. Grant also offers career advice: “It’s fucking good fun and fuck work.” On combining fishing and a relationship, he says, “Behind every good fishermen there’s an angry wife.”
GET ON THE GOOD GEAR
If you saved hard for your first shiny Tiagra 50W like The Captain did, you’re off to a good start. Now buy another seven. Grant goes to bait ball battles armed with eight 50W Tiagra reels. “When the bite is hot, you don’t want to be tying doubles,” he says. They’re all spooled with 24kg Momoi line with 200lb Momoi wind-ons tied by Matt Cassar. “Make sure your gear is all top-notch, double-check everything, especially crimps,” Grant says. “When conditions are tough, its gonna be the gear that lets you down. When that happens, you’re gonna be pissed off. This way, the only person you can blame is yourself.”
Grant’s gear is suitably sharp. “We run Shimano 50W Tiagras with a mix of Terez and Tiagra rods,” he says. “They’re stock-standard off the shelf, but there’s nothing better. You hear a Tiagra go off and it could put the horn on a jellyfish. They’re a little bit heavier, but they’re a proven product.”
On the hook set-up, Grant says, “We crimp our circle hooks, we don’t have ’em loose. We do the same with our skip baits. There’s less chance of a gut hook. When the fish swallows the slimy, it curls right over — and when you crank it out of his guts, 90 per cent of the time it’s right in the corner.”
When you’re in the strike zone, Grant says observation is the key. “Keep a sharp eye for seals, birds and lit-up marlin. Have your best set of eyes on the bow up front, especially on days like today when the sun is low and bouncing off the clears. I’m amazed how many boats drive straight past marlin or balls because they’re rooting around with their sounder and not watching.”
Communication is another key to Grant’s success — and this involves a fair bit of swearing, apparently. “There’s a lot of yelling,” he says. “Once you spot the ball or marlin lit up, tell the skipper to get in front of it. The ball can be moving really quickly in the tide and wind, so drive in hard and flick it around on the driver’s side. You want to pitch your bait as close as you can to the front of the ball. If you can pitch 10m like Matt Cassar, that helps. He’d go to the World Series of bait ball pitching if it was a sport.
Grant’s all excited now, revelling in the fight. “Now the live bait will swim back into the school, but he’s tethered to your line and struggling,” he says. “That’s when the marlin will come and dong him. You feel him swallow the bait, then you gently pull him out until the hooks pin him — then strap up and get into him.”
During the fight, Grant likes to keep the fish, angler and skipper all on the starboard side. It helps with communication and to keep an eye on the line. It’s another reason why dive doors are on the starboard side. On the direction of travel, Grant says, “If the weather conditions prevail, backing down is fine. I love water coming over the back, but in a shitty sea, you go the way the boat’s supposed to go — forward. It’s much easier on the gear.”
Bait ball fishing isn’t without its challenges. Ironically, finding bait that’s not fleeing for its life can be hard. For this reason, Grant’s advice is to “load up when you can, then get 10 more”. He also suggests marking bait when you come across it, in case you need to stock up later on. He’s even resorted to jagging slimeys off the surface with trebles when bait was hard to find. He reckons he once traded Morgans for baits during a hot bite, but The Captain has his doubts that Grant would ever part with a rum and coke.
“When the bite is hot you can burn through a lot of baits very quickly, and fresh ones always get belted first,” Grant says. “Having your sounder dialled in for deepwater bait is also a must.” When you drive like Grant, stuff breaks. On our trip, the hydraulic steering was leaking fluid faster than it was going in. The alloy T-top also started peeling open like a sardine can — at roughly the same time Grant was steering his Grady through a 20-knot nor’easter with metre-deep troughs. He had got word that the bait was balled up five miles north. (Captain’s note: see previous advice on dropping everything.)
The weather can also make bait balling tough. Big seas can mask balls and the wind can play havoc when pitching baits. Then, of course, there are those other bastard boats trying to do exactly the same thing as you. The Captain fully expects to be writing about bait ball rage this time next year.
FAST & FURIOUS
Grant fishes heavier than most — he’s here for a good time, not a long time. “You back down on him, bang, crack him off, then go get another one,” he says. “If they get their second or third run and go down, then you’re on the fish for a while, which is cool, but it definitely stresses the fish out more, in my opinion. Not that I give a fuck about anyone else’s opinion.”
He has some advice for the eggbeater brigade. “Leave the Stellas at home for kingfishing. You’ll only ever reel in one marlin on a thread-line reel.” It’s not all fast and furious fishing action. “When the bite dies down, we run a spread,” Grants says. “If you can’t find bait, you run the lures out. We’re running Catbo lures at the moment. We had a really good hook-up rate on the bright pink — we got four fish when we were trying to get bait. We also run one skip bait and a teaser to try and switch them.”
MAN WITH A PLAN
Plenty of fishos come to the south coast and head home empty-handed, their limp rod between their legs. Grant says the key to producing is to come up with a plan and stick with it. “Don’t get too caught up on what other people are doing — don’t go running around the ocean,” he says. “Run your own program and stick to it.” But the advice doesn’t stop there. “When you run out of alcohol, go directly to port. That’s not port as in ‘starboard’ — that’s port as in home.”
Grant was not paid by Shimano to endorse any of their products — although he’d like to be. If you work at Shimano and you’re reading this, please send a Shimano T-Curve Stand Up game-fishing rod designed by Ian Miller to AFCOL Abalone Co-Op, 1 Commercial Road, Mallacoota 3892. In all seriousness, he pays money for good shit that works and Tiagras have never let him down.
GRANT’S DIRTY DOZEN TIPS FOR BAIT BALL SUCCESS
1. When the bite is hot, drop everything, get on a boat and get to the bait ball
2. Always be catchin’ bait, however you can
3. Get the best gear you can afford and double-check everything.
4. Be assertive. Drive onto the balls with, er, balls of steel.
5. Roll with a good team and communicate clearly.
6. Have a go-to spread when you’re on the prowl
7. Stick with your plan
8. Take spare hydraulic fluid or ask The Captain to pick some up on the way down
9. Leave the thread-line reels at home.
10. Take grog, especially if fishing with Grant.
11. Hunt in the slack, warm eddies, especially over bottom structure and canyons.
12. Dial your sounder in for deep-water bait.
If John Haines Sr is the father of Australian monohulls then Bruce Harris surely owns the title for Australian Cats. What’s more, Bruce doesn’t owe anything to the Yank designers for his achievements — he did it all with good ol’ Aussie ingenuity, designing and building what would become Australia’s most legendary cat brand.
In a sprawling, dusty yard in a Gold Coast suburb, the perfume of freshly cut hardwood, fibreglass and, er, honey wafts on the breeze. This is where The Captain finds Bruce Harris, father of the Shark Cat. He’s weaving his motorised scooter between beehives, past an old 18ft clinker hull and into a shed that’s home to a new 23ft prototype cat. It’s just had a spot of glass work finished and The Captain happily breathes in the familiar fragrance of Australian boat building. (Note: The Captain always inhales.)
We manage to grab the handbrake on Bruce’s motorised scooter and put him into neutral just long enough to get him to tell his tale. His wife, Daphne, serves us hot tea, salad sandwiches cut neatly into triangles and a generous plate of Arnott’s Butternut Snaps — in between ferrying photo albums and filing cases. As Bruce slowly winds into the story, The Captain sensibly suggests, “We might need a few more cuppas to see us through.”
CAT OUT OF THE BAG — WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
In 1958, Sir Robert Menzies was prime minister and the FC Holden was Australia’s best-selling car. Bruce was a prawn fisherman in his early twenties, fishing out of Stockton Beach, just north of Newcastle on the New South Wales coast. One morning in May, he decided he’d had enough. It was snowing at Barrington Tops (100km away) and so cold he had to pluck his prawns underwater so his fingers wouldn’t freeze. So, at 4am the next day, his timber trawler loaded to the gunwales, he steamed out past Nobbys Head and headed north. Navigating old-school style, guided by paper charts and a compass, he didn’t stop until he got to Bundaberg in Queensland. Several days later, he was trawling for banana prawns. Fast-forward a couple of years to 1962, and Bruce — with his dad, Ollie — scored the contract to shark net the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast, earning him the nickname “Sharkie”.
One Xmas Bruce decided to build his father-in-law, Fred, a boat. How hard could it be? After all, he used to draw and build boats in the sand at the beach. Bruce picks up the story. “I used to watch the Quickcat sailing catamarans going in and out of the surf at Kirra, on the Gold Coast and reckoned I could build two hulls and put a plywood box on top. It turned out pretty good. Fred rejected it at first, but after he put his little 5HP Johnson outboard on it and went out in the water he came round. My daughter saw me building it under the house and said, ‘Dad, it looks like a tippy willy’. So we called it the Tippy Willy.”
LOOK WHAT THE CAT DRAGGED IN — BRUCE PUTS TIPPY WILLY TO WORK
“One day my trawler broke down,” Bruce continues. “A mate said, ‘I’ve got a 20HP outboard here, how about we put it on the Tippy Willy?’ I wasn’t sure, as I’d never even been in a speedboat — and there was no breakwater back then just a sandbar. Anyway, we put it on and realised how much easier it was to pull the shark nets in. It used to take me two and a half hours to steam out at eight knots from Coolangatta to the Gold Coast, but I could do it in 40 minutes in the Tippy Willy.”
Bruce saw the potential in the new tub and put some of his design instincts to work. “I realised how good it was, but it didn’t have a proper front on it. I also realised it wasn’t strong enough — it was only built out of quarter-inch marine ply — so I decided to build a glass boat.” There was one small problem — Bruce had never built a boat from glass before. That didn’t stop him. “I walked into a boat-building factory down the coast and had a look around. The owner wasn’t too happy, told me if I didn’t get out he was going to boot me out, but I found out how it was done.
So then I made a mould out of Masonite under my house and built my first Shark Cat. Everyone used to say, ‘Here comes Sharkie’s cat’, so I decided that’s what I’d call it.” Bruce says it was pretty slow going at first on the boat-building front. “It wasn’t right, it was a bit wet. I finished up cutting the mould about six times to get the right shape before I built one I was happy with. I had no intention of going into it (production), but Queensland Department of Harbours and Marine wanted a boat for survey work in the surf. I told them I’d lend them the mould, but they wanted me to build it. So we got into it and it just took off.” And so the Shark Cat business was born. The boat attracted interest from the boating media after respected boat tester Peter Webster took a ride and gave it a glowing review. Then the business really took off.
“Air Sea Rescue, Fisheries, Police and Coast Guard got interested — I was the first training leader for the Queensland Coast Guard. Then the abalone blokes and professional fisherman started using them — I think half the abalone boats are still in the industry.” At the peak of production, Bruce had 42 people working for him, building two boats a week, with a waiting time of nine months. He sold a few to Americans. “They were all grey,” Bruce recalls. “I was a bit suspicious — I think they were going into the drug trade.”
CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS — BRUCE DOES IT HIS WAY
“I wasn’t the first to invent the cat,” Bruce says. “But probably the first to make it perform like it did. Earlier catamarans never had enough clearance above the water and pounded badly.” The main deck on a Shark Cat sits about a foot above the waterline, trapping an eight-inch deep pocket in the tunnel. When the pocket is filled with air and water (vapour) it creates a cushioning effect. The boffins tell us air on its own can’t be compressed in this environment — and water on its own is too hard to compress, but mix the two and you’re floating like Bob Marley at the One Love Peace Concert. The hull lands on tapered sections nine inches wide, opening to 18 inches when fully submerged.
The Shark Cat occupies about half the water surface area as a monohull. This displacement helps with the low planing speeds and efficiency cats are renowned for. Shark Cats proved a big hit with the professional fishing industry. They could travel at high speed in open seas, carrying 3000lb of payload and up to 1000L of fuel. They also offered twin motors for safety and self draining decks with huge scuppers should they cop a big green wave.
Bruce credits his racing days for design refinements that included wider planks, extra chines and flared bows. Effectively, he was his own on-water R&D department. “The beauty about racing was I could work out how to make them go faster,” Bruce says, cracking a fat grin as he recalls his go-fast days. “The monohulls with planks were getting up and going very, very fast, so I put a big plank below my boat. It was a lot faster, but it was a lot harder running. I could get away with it with my 18ft boat, but on the 20ft it wasn’t real good.
So I took the plank off and made it a round bottom shape, using a length of four-inch galvanised pipe. I put more little chines up the front, which made so much difference, and I flared the bow —for the simple reason that when I went into a wave the flare would throw the water clear and give a lot more lift. None of the cat builders today have got that flare in the front compared to what I had back then.”
In the ’70s, Bruce knocked out three or four 18ft models for every big boat he built. Inspired by Cruise Craft, he put a clinker configuration into the sidewalls of the 18-footer, making the boats lighter and stronger. He also built a split mould for the 20/23-footer. This was designed to increase the waterline beam a couple of inches without blowing out the beam at the gunwales. The final hulls were joined and capped with rubber or aluminium. The 20-footers were pulled out of the same mould as the 23ft after they were blocked off.
CAT ON A HOT, TIN ROOF — GETTING THE BEST OUT OF THE CAT
We’re onto our second plate of Butternut Snaps by now, and Bruce can practically smell the two-stroke, so we ask him to describe the ride in one of his boats. “To hop into a Shark Cat, particularly if you haven’t been in one before, it’s the most wonderful feeling, Bruce says. “To feel the response of the big motors on the back, you just give it to it and the boat gets straight up on the plane and you’re floating on top of the water. There’s no hitting hard — the air gets underneath, especially running into the wind. We’d get on top of the bar with the waves breaking under us, and just gun it off. She’d fly through the air — always stern-first — and then you’d be on top of the next wave that’d already cracked. I loved being in the boat.”
“What about sharp turns around the buoys, Bruce?” The Captain asks with a smug grin (for those who don’t know, hard turns aren’t a big cat’s strong point). Bruce draws a patient breath. “You’ve got to get used to turning with a cat. They lay out on turns whereas a normal (monohull) boat lays in. If you haven’t been in one when it starts to lay out, yaaaaaww!”
Bruce is now leaning a fair way to the right in his chair, a wry smile on his face. “Once you’re used to it, no worries. The secret to driving a Shark Cat is the trim. Say the seas are coming on your port side — you have to trim the portside motor up and trim your starboard motor down. You’ve got to get used to the idea that if you lift your portside engine you’ll be lifting your starboard bow up — and vice versa. The best way to set up a Shark Cat is to have it heavier at the back than the front. They’re two narrow fronts and perform best by lifting out of the water and coming back into it slowly. The air under the hull helps this action.”
CAT’S WHISKERS — BRUCE’S FAVOURITE
“What’s your favourite Shark Cat, Bruce?” queries The Captain — a question Bruce is often asked. “I always liked the 20-footer with the round bottom and double chine,” Bruce says. “I came first in the Sydney to Newcastle in ‘72, racing in the 200 cubic inch class against John Haines in his needle-nose Haines Hunter Formula. We were up there on a couple of stools, laughing — averaging about 50mph with the twin 100HP Mercurys. It could do 62mph in calm water.” Bruce confesses to having had some non-regulation ballast on board.
“I’d done the shark run from Burleigh Heads to Tweed before we left. When I got to Sydney there were still shark fins and part of a shark net on board. The scrutineer was horrified by the smell!” Only two boats beat him into Newcastle, both 36-footers. Bruce knew the area well from his prawning days, running close to the shore in the rough conditions with the strong sou’westerly blowing.
CUT CAT — BRUCE TAKES THE WORLD TITLE
Bruce eventually built a dedicated racing boat — the 28ft Sharkie’s Cat. “It couldn’t be beaten,” he says. “I had four 175HP motors on it and we could do 85–90mph. I won the world title in 1980, just ran away with it. I really liked that boat. We built a 32ft cat with Tony Low. He put four 200HP motors on it and we won the Pacific race from Cairns to Southport.”
Despite Bruce’s racing success, there’s no air of arrogance. In fact, there’s not a trophy in sight. They’d probably just take up space he needs for his homemade honey operation. Nevertheless, we put the question: “Where’s the trophy cabinet, Bruce?” “I’m not a bloke who puts his trophies up, I just considered myself lucky to be racing,” says the humble cat whisperer. “I won the world title and they gave me a goddess or something. I brought it home, unscrewed the head and threw it in the bin, just kept the wooden end. I’m a Christian and I wouldn’t have that goddess in my house.”
SCAREDY CATS — FLIPPING OUT
Cats do have their detractors, some of them ignorant moderators of monohull fan pages, wilfully blind to the legacy cats have earned in the Australian and world racing scenes — as well as in service with the emergency services and in commercial industries. Bruce acknowledges the stigma, noting some cats have perpetuated the myth.
“The biggest mistake most people make is that they don’t make them (cats) full enough in the front, and they don’t make the chines come up,” says Bruce. “Going into a sea, you’ve got to have a boat that wants to lift, but if they’re too sharp, all they want to do is go into the wave. The Shark Cat has a ski in the front and two to three-inch chines either side, and as soon as it goes into the wave it wants to lift.”
When pressed on models he thinks tarnish the cat name, Bruce sighs, but won’t dob in any brands. “A bloke in the Air Sea Rescue asked me if I would teach him how to drive another cat that was being built in NSW and I said I would. Anyway, in calm waters with a wave going past, I went to do a turn and it scared the heck out of me. The bow just went into the wave and kept going down. There was nothing to get it up, just a straight vee, no chines. I rang the bloke that built them and told him, ‘You’re going to give cats a bad name’. He went crook at me, said I didn’t know what I was talking about, but now he’s gone out of business. I’d say he didn’t go out in his own boat — just wanted them to look pretty.”
DEAD CAT BOUNCE — BRUCE’S KEEPS BUILDING
In his heyday, Bruce would be up at 4am. “I’d change the baby’s nappy, give her to Daphne and wouldn’t see her until 7 o’clock that night. She thinks I’m a bit of a workaholic. That’s why I sold the Shark Cat business — I promised Daphne a trip to Europe.” Bruce never numbered his boats, but estimates there must be around 1000 cats with his fingerprints on them. That figure doesn’t include the Shark Cat-branded cats that were built after Bruce sold — including some models branded Noosa Cat.
We ask Bruce how he feels when he sees a Noosa Cat. “It makes me feel very good to see them. They’re a bit different to what I did. Some of the bottoms of the 18 are still the same, but the tops are much more refined and look very nice.” After the sale, Bruce started building a 9m round-bilged monohull called a Cuddles Cruiser. “That turned out to be a very good business. I sold a lot of them — mainly 30- and 35-footers. Then I sold up that business and thought I’d retire. But I was getting bored, so I built myself a marina at Coomera (later to become The Boat Works).
Bruce also started a houseboat business, selling and hiring them out of his Coomera base. He fitted them with hydraulic Yamaha motors on the roof so they wouldn’t get wet. And Bruce kept on building boats, including a 60ft cat with a 26ft beam in which he took the family cruising around the Whitsundays for four months.
One 30ft model, fitted with twin Volvo diesel stern-drives, was rented to a gas corporation that used it to survey underwater pipes. “It was skippered by Grant Shorland from Mallacoota (see issue #10 for Grant’s story),” Bruce says. “They must have paid him a lot because he was one of the top abalone divers in Australia.”
Bruce admits that he finds it hard to stop building boats. “I’m only 80 years of age — all I know is boats. I haven’t had another job in my life. Even when I retired, I built boats, including party pontoons that are still operating in Lakes Entrance.” They feature a forward folding entry that Bruce designed for easy access. He still has the mould and has plans to sell it, lamenting that he can’t build it himself.
Mobility is an issue for Bruce these days, after a car accident that partially crushed his legs.
The love of boats has never left him. He still draws boats, mainly fishing boats and trawlers. “These old wooden boats, they talk to me.” Now beehives take up most of his time, producing Bruce’s delicious Harris Honey. “I make creamed honey and ginger creamed honey. People love it so much and it gives me something to do. I give a lot of it away.” Having persuaded Bruce to part with a couple of jars for testing purposes, The Captain can verify it’s a good brew, especially the creamed honey.
MORE THAN ONE WAY TO SKIN A CAT — THE HARRIS FAMILY LEGACY
Bruce’s son, Ian, designed his own cat, which now sits in Bruce’s shed. It features a stepped racing bottom and the top decks of an old Markham Whaler. “It’s called New Generation Shark Cat. “You might see them on the market one day”, Bruce says. Ian certainly has the genes — and the chops — to do it.
He currently builds and repairs racing boats for Bill Barry Cotter at Maritimo. He’s not ready to throw in the towel just yet. Bruce’s brother also joined the boat-building scene for a while. His rig didn’t have quite the same prestige or seaworthiness as Bruce’s boats — being made out of beer cans — although the Shark Cat resemblance is uncanny. But he continued the Harris winning ways, taking out a beer can regatta in Darwin.
Bruce Harris, The Captain salutes you. In fact, we just made you our inaugural Immortal Captain.
Raf Vargas paddles the drop-offs around his island home of Guam, fishing to depths of 1500M. The day he captured a donkey dogtooth he become an instant yak god.
Guam, part of the Mariana Islands chain in the equatorial Pacific, is a top spot for kayak fishing. Its rugged coastal cliffs provide a dramatic backdrop and the drop-offs around the islands can be as deep as 1500m, the nutrient-rich upwellings attracting a variety of pelagic species. Special features of the tropical climate include monsoonal downpours and the occasional typhoon to swallow unwary paddlers.
Undeterred, Raf Vargas scopes the coast for windows of opportunity to do battle from his floating fortress. Paddling the warm waters of the Marianas region for years, Raf has earned a reputation for catching donkey-sized fish from his plastic yak, a Hobie Pro Angler 14. His hit list includes mahimahi, GTs, amberjacks and yellowfin tuna. He loves sharing his adrenaline-fuelled adventures on social channels, giving viewers a first-hand look from the moulded seat of his kayak.
Kayak fishing in the region dates back more than 4000 years. The local islanders plied the waters with traditional handcrafted wooden vessels known as proas. More recently, Raf has watched the modern plastic kayak scene grow, doing his bit by organising kayaking competitions. He’s seen the rise of vertical and slow-pitch jigging (no pun intended) and reckons it’s the perfect way to cover the deep drop-offs where big predators lurk. On a typical day, he might travel 15–35km, all under pedal power.
RAF’S FLOATING FORTRESS
Raf owns several Mirage Hobie kayaks, but his go-to model is the Pro Angler, 4.17m long and toting up to 272kg of gear. The rig features Hobie’s unique pedal system allowing Raf to troll, fight the wind and current, and fish. It features a front hatch that can hold a bunch of fish as well as 9kg of ice. Digital gear includes a Lowrance Elite-5 Ti touchscreen fish finder with moving map. It allows him to find fish and keep an eye on drift rates, especially when jigging over hot spots. The trolling rod holders are clamped slightly forward of his seat on both sides. On the back is a YakAttack gear box to stash his swimbaits, trolling skirts, homemade lures and live bait — plus a VHF Marine radio, PFD and first aid kit.
Fishing gear includes a couple of fitted Bull Bay trolling rods paired with SEiGLER reels, spooled with 60lb and 80lb braided line and 30ft (9m) of 60lb to 40lb leader.
GUAM GOES OFF
When Raf first started he mostly caught mahi-mahi. He wanted to catch a wahoo, but his Hobie couldn’t generate the speed to attract one on lures. “So I cut a rubber skirt from a trolling lure and stretched it over a deep-diver Rapala to give it more action,” Raf says. The next day he was out on the water before sunrise. Passing the outer reef, his homemade lure deceived a huge wahoo and after memorable tug-of-war he had the beast aboard. On another arm-stretching occasion, an almaco jack swallowed a 400g jig in about 200m of water. “It was my longest yak fight to date, even splitting the fluorocarbon leader,” Raf says.
But both these catches were merely a prelude to his next momentous capture — a fish that would do any big game boat angler proud, let alone a yak fisherman. This capture would go viral. “The forecast predicted winds around 15 knots from the northeast during the morning, steadily increasing to 20–25 knots by noon,” says Raf. “The mission was for mahi-mahi, with the jigging rod on standby in the hope of hooking an onaga from the deep.”
Raf met up with a fellow yak angler at Dadi Beach on the west side of the island, aiming to be out on the water before sunrise. He rates this his favourite time of the trip. “There are no other boats on the water, no engine noise and on clear days you can see the sun peer over the cliffs. It’s a good time to dab on the sunblock and slot on the sunnies — while keeping an eye on the water for predatory activity. Our plan was to troll 8km to Orote Point. Getting close to the point, the currents join, lifting the swell and sending the kayak into a somewhat unnerving dance.”
The sea was alive. Mahi-mahi breached the water chasing fastmoving bait schools. Raf’s underwater trolling camera revealed a patch of wahoo as well as pilot whales curiously inspecting the lure spread — and the kayaks.
Arriving at the spot, Raf decided to vertical and slow-pitch jig into 300m of water. The hint of an easterly pushing into his face was a reminder they didn’t have a heap of time before they’d have to paddle back against the wind. But despite all the activity in the water, their jigging yielded zero. His paddle partner headed home while Raf tried one last jig at another spot in 210m of water.
“I had an instant strike, but it came off,” Raf remembers. “So I dropped my 500g jig back down and started slow-pitch jigging again. Then, boom! A massive strike. This fish was different to anything I’d experienced. It fought for almost two hours testing my gear and core strength on the kayak.” With the water now chopping up and the wind gusting to 20 knots, Raf was feeling the hurt. “I couldn’t let go of the rod for a second. I couldn’t even reach for my Gatorade or water. Dehydration was setting in.”
Finally, colour showed through the cobalt blue of the Pacific. At first glance, Raf thought the giant elongated silhouette was a monster wahoo. With a belly full of air, it surfaced. On realising it was a dogtooth tuna, Raf’s heart raced. Dogtooth is a highly sought-after saltwater sport fish and after a two-hour battle he finally had it boatside.
His next challenge was figuring out how to get the fish on the kayak. “After several attempts, I realised the only way to get it in was to grab its massive gills. With one last surge of adrenaline l hauled it in. I couldn’t even raise my arms in celebration as the lactic acid had hammered them.”
GETTING JIGGY WITH IT
Raf also runs several jigging outfits, one for shallow jigging 150g jigs in water up to 300ft (90m) deep and a second outfit for 250g jigs in up to 600ft (180m). The third is for jigs up to 800g in 1500ft (455m) of water, allowing him to get through the strong currents.
Reels are spooled with 15ft (4.6m) of 30lb fluorocarbon leader tied with a FG knot. There’s some contention over what knot is better — FG vs the PR knot — but Raf rates the FG because it’s easier to tie while on the yak. He ties his leaders to a solid ring with a TN knot that connects to a jig. Heavy jigs are dressed with two pairs of assist hooks to keep a good balance on the jig while it drops into the deep.
His inspirations for jig set-ups are the minimalist techniques employed by the committed Japanese crews. A jigging trip with the Deep Liner boys opened his eyes to the potential of deep-water jigging with heavy rods and jigs up to 1500g. It’s thirsty work, hauling jigs continuously from the deep — some days he could be jigging for up to eight hours — but Raf reckons the stability of the Hobie allows him to alternate positions while working heavy lures.
The dogtooth was a monster, weighing in at 170lb (77kg), and measuring 70.5 inches (1.8m) to the fork of the tail, 75 inches (1.9m) to the tip, and 43 inches (1.1m) of circumference. After he’d posted a picture online, the Guam Department of Agriculture contacted Raf to let him know his catch was a Guam record. It was also a first for the kayak scene. The next day he contacted the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), telling them he used braided PE 2 line rated at less than 30lb.
“I’m currently waiting for the results,” Raf says, “but regardless of the pending IGFA findings, this fish is by far the biggest and most challenging of my life.” The Captain salutes you Raf, with a carbon fibre paddle.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF GUAM
The Chamorro people from South-East Asia were the original inhabitants of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. They pretty much just sat around fishing. Life was good.
But life changed completely for the Chamorro with the arrival of Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, who rocked up in 1521 on a mission to grab everything he saw for the King of Spain. Magellan named the place Islas de las Velas Latinas (islands of lateen sails) because of the hundreds of speedy little outrigger canoes, or proas, that the locals zipped about in.
The Spanish moved in to run the joint for more than 300 years and the islands became an important stopover for the trade galleons en route from the Philippines. When Spain came second in the 1898 Spanish-American War, Guam got a new boss — the US Navy. Once again, the islands became a way station for warships, American this time, traveling to and from the Philippines. The next change of management came in 1942, when Guam was attacked and invaded by Japan. In a not quite three-year stay, the Japanese managed to reduce Guam’s population by 10 per cent.
Normal service was resumed in mid 1944, when the US recaptured the island after a bloody battle. Shoichi Yokoi, a lance corporal in the Japanese Army never got the memo. He hid in the jungles of Guam for 28 years, initially killing cattle before moving deeper into jungle and dining on venomous toads, river eels and rats. The Americans show no signs of leaving and Guam is now an island territory of the US. Guam most recently made the news as a potential target of North Korean ballistic missiles in 2018.
With lobbys fresh from King Island on the menu, we figured it was time for Miguel to pull one of our favourite salty recipes from his locker of watery wonder — his signature seafood paella. It’s a visual feast as well as a damn tasty one. And it’s perfect for cooking up when friends and family come over, to be regaled with stories of cranking crustaceans from their underwater lairs.
• 600ml chicken stock
• 250g Spanish rice
• 1 King Island lobster, cut in half across
• 1 free-range chorizo sausage, thinly sliced
• 50g fresh/frozen peas
• 1 lemon, cut into wedges, to serve
• 2 large ripe oxheart tomatoes, roughly chopped
• 4 large roasted red Piquillo capiscums, from jar
• 4 cloves garlic, peeled
• ó bunch parsley
• 3 sprigs thyme, leaves only
• ó bunch chives
• 25ml olive oil
• 1 pinch saffron threads
• 2 tablespoon Spanish smoked paprika
To make the sofrito, place all ingredients in a food processor and process until chunky. If you don’t have a food processor, roughly chop the tomatoes and capsicums and finely chop the garlic and parsley. Combine with other sofrito ingredients. Heat a 30cm frypan or paella pan on high heat, add chorizo and cook until golden brown. Add sofrito and cook until tomatoes start to become juicy, 3–4 minutes. Add chicken stock and bring to the boil. Add lobster halves with the flesh side down. Stir in rice and bring to a simmer.
Continue simmering for about 10 minutes. When rice is tender and liquid has almost fully reduced (there should still be some liquid in the frypan), add peas and cook for a further 2 minutes to achieve soccarrada (crusty goodness on the bottom of the pan). Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper and garnish with chives. Squeeze over lemon juice just before serving.
Now, did I tell you about that 20kg lob monster I hauled aboard off the west coast of Tassie back in ’97?
Kingfish are great to catch and awesome to eat. If you’re reading The Captain, you probably knew that. But did you know just how versatile kingfish flesh is? No, you didn’t. I reckon kingfish is the black angus of the ocean, full of Omega 3 fatty acids and ideal for serving raw or crispy skin, in curries or pan-roasted.
Kingies also have a tidy bone line so they’re easy to fillet and portion. You’ll look like a sushi samurai at the filleting table — or when you part with some flesh for the boss. I remember one particular battle with a 116cm monster kingie. I was on board with Sharkmen Charters, hunting around the entrance to Port Phillip Bay and had bloody sore forearms for a week. If you’ve ever seen the video, you’ll know I was more than a little excited. Anyway, here’s one of my favourite recipes for fresh kingfish — ceviche. I bet you haven’t tried this one before. The flesh is cured in fresh citrus juices, herbs and spices. It’s a feast fit for a, er, king.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Equipment: food processor, sashimi knife, chopping
board, mixing bowls
Plating: shot glass, 2 small bowls
• 1 tbs olive oil
• 1 small stick of celery
• 1 long fresh red chilli
• 1 garlic clove
• 1cm piece fresh ginger
• ½ bunch coriander
• juice of 2 lemons
• juice of 1 lime
• 300g sashimi-grade kingfish fillet, cut into 1cm dice
• ½ Spanish onion, thinly sliced
• 1 ice cube
• 2 shots of vodka
Poached sweet potato
• 200ml (6½ fl oz) water
• 200g (7oz) caster sugar
• 1 star anise
• 1 sweet potato (250g/8oz), peeled
To make poached sweet potato, stir water, sugar and star anise in a small saucepan, over low heat, until sugar is dissolved. Add potato. Boil gently until potato is just tender. Drain. Place in a bowl. Drizzle with lime juice. Meanwhile, place oil, celery, chilli, garlic, ginger, coriander and half the lemon and lime juice in a small processor. Process until smooth.
Place in a serving bowl. Add fish, onion and ice cube. Stand for four minutes. This allows the acid from the citrus juice to cook the protein in the fish.
Place a shot of vodka in each shot glass. Add a splash of the cloudy citrus juice from the fish. Serve ceviche with sweet potato and vodka shot chaser. Serves two. Garnish with shaved radishes for a great crunch — rather like the kingie that monstered my bait!