The Captain has been trying to hitch a ride on Jamie Culver’s rugged Stabicraft 2250 for some time. Recently, the stars aligned and The Captain’s crew headed north to investigate the fishing out of Port Stephens, NSW.
For those in on the secret, Port Stephens in NSW is fishing heaven. For starters, the estuary here is twice the size of Sydney Harbour. From its mudflats and mangroves to the 16 islands in the estuary and offshore, all the way out to the continental shelf, this is a unique fishery with something waiting for anyone who cares to bait a hook. Game fishermen call this place the “Port of Gold” and it’s renowned as marlin central when the offshore action heats up from January to March and the black, striped and blue marlin are competing to jump on the hook.
The Captain’s ventured into these bountiful waters to spend the day on a fishing mission aboard Jamie Culver’s 2250 Stabicraft. It’s been a bit of a logistical nightmare to get things organised, but Jamie’s pulled out all the stops. His good mate flies choppers out of Newcastle and The Captain’s camera crew is about to climb aboard in the hopes of getting some great aerial shots of Jamie’s Stabi blasting out through the Port Stephens heads.
TAKE TO THE SKIES
It’s 5.30am at the Aero Logistics hangar in Newcastle and The Captain’s camera crew is attempting to convince chopper pilot Tom to take the doors off his Robinson R44 so we can risk life and limb to capture that perfect action shot. Turns out, Tom is a big Captain fan and is even sporting a Captain sticker on his helmet. Rip the doors off? No problem. Tom fuels up the R44 while we stow the gear. Pretty soon we’re flying north above the sand dunes of the 32km-long Stockton Beach, which from the air resembles nothing more than the world’s biggest cheesecake. We’re in radio contact and arrive at Port Stephens in time to catch Jamie and his 2250 flying through the heads and making for open water. We track him through the heads at wave height and Tom pulls some epic aerial manoeuvres to give us every possible angle.
The big cliffs, crystal-clear water, beautiful beaches and steep drop-offs make for a very scenic backdrop. We follow Jamie as he does a lap around Broughton Island then fly back along Bennetts Beach. The wildlife is out in force and from our eye in the sky we spot a huge school of salmon, several pods of dolphins and three great white sharks hanging around near a group of surfers. Hopefully, they’ve already eaten. Tom puts the chopper down in Port Stephens and it’s time to go fishing.
Jamie welcomes The Captain’s crew aboard his Stabicraft 2250. He’s still pumped from the photo shoot. “I didn’t know choppers could fly that low,” he says. “At one stage you guys were right beside us. It felt like we were shooting a James Bond movie!” Originally a Sydney boy, Jamie moved up to Port Stephens a few years ago and is a social worker for the Hunter New England Health youth services team. He is an unapologetic fishing addict. “You can fish for snapper and kingfish then head out wide and deep drop,” he says. “You’ll find kingies, jewfish and bar cod on the outer reefs and there’s all the game-fishing action on the continental shelf with the marlin and tuna runs.”
Along with its abundant fishery, Jamie also rates Port Stephens for its natural wonders. “I’ve travelled up and down the coast for tournaments and I’ve come to appreciate this place more and more,” he says. “All the islands and the wildlife — you see massive schools of mulloway in the surf, penguins, seals, whales.” When The Captain mentions the trio of great whites his crew spotted from the chopper, Jamie smiles. “They’re regular visitors. That’s why I prefer fishing to spearfishing.”
THE ODD COUPLE
We’re now heading to Broughton Island and The Sisters reef where Jamie hopes to snag a kingie or two. Along for the ride is his fishing sidekick Riagan Dowling. They’re an odd couple. Passionate about recreational fishing, Jamie is big on catching his own food and sustainability of resources. “What I like most about fishing is eating what I catch,” he says. Jamie is raising his three young kids on sea-fresh sushi. Riagan, on the other hand, comes from a family with a commercial fishing background. He allegedly exists on a diet of chips, chocolate and Coke. But the combo works.
“Riagan is the king of the beach,” Jamie says. “He likes to fish the beach and I like to fish the reef — and between us, we usually come up with a few fish.” We test this theory by chucking in some stickbait at The Sisters, but there’s nothing happening. The boys decide we’re a bit early for any kingie action and we continue north. After a few hours of fruitless search, we realise the theme for the day appears to be “struggle”. Riagan tells us a westerly has been blowing everything clear for the past few days and says the best part of the day for fishing was probably while we filming from the chopper.
We’re running a fairly light jig and fishing anywhere from 8m to 40m — with the same zero result. Jamie remains upbeat and talks up the virtues of Broughton Island as a sure-fire snapper sanctuary. “It’s snapper ground everywhere. It’s just a matter of looking at your contour lines and finding where the reef breaks are, throwing plastics and hoping a big angry red jumps on it.” He disses The Captain’s preference for sinkers and paternosters, saying snapper prefer slowly wafting soft plastics drifting down to the sea floor. “There’s not a lot to it, but once you hit the bottom, it’s over — you’ll either get snagged or catch a fish you don’t want.”
It’s tough going, but we hang in until sunset when Riagan finally hooks a substantial snapper on a soft plastic in shallow water close to the island. Jamie confesses the snapper is not his lucky fish. “I’ve yet to break into the nineties,” he laughs. “My biggest snapper was 87cm, but it had a big nose so I was probably cheating.”
With so much fishless time to kill, The Captain asks the skipper about his 2250. The boat’s toughness and safety rep were crucial in persuading Jamie to pull out his wallet. “I go fishing, not boating,” he says. “I run it aground, I run into things — rocks, jetties, wharves, trailers — so I didn’t opt for paint, either. I like to take the stress out of fishing, the safety anxiety, and just have a good time. The foam-filled pontoons are a great safety option, but they’re also good for cutting down noise.”
Jamie first checked out the 2250 walkaround with a sports cabin at the Sydney Boat Show and was immediately hooked on the forward-raking windscreen. “It’s not for everyone, but it gives me 33 per cent more cabin room.” He also liked the fact that there was a lot of substance with the style. “It’s a really heavy boat — 1.8 tonne dry hull weight — almost as heavy as two 2100 Supercabs. That’s a lot of boat and it really helps with the ride.”
He reckons you’ve got to ride in a Stabicraft to understand just how good it is. “The ride is second to none. They kind of suck to the water and in a following sea you don’t get the roll or pitch — the pontoons seem to right themselves.” Jamie reminds us that earlier in the day, around the back of Broughton Island, at one stage we had the prop completely out of the water. “At times like that, or when you come off the back of a wave, you tend to brace yourself for that big crash — but it never comes. The Stabi rides like a glass boat, but it’s also a tough fishing boat.”
RADAR & ROCKET LAUNCHERS
The safety factor is a big issue for Jamie, because he likes to take what he calls the “anxiety factor” out of the equation so he can just enjoy every day on the water. “Safety and confidence are a big thing for me and that’s what the Simrad radar gear offers,” he says. “We all have close call stories — like me hitting marker buoys at night coming out of the estuary! The radar gives you that extra set of eyes.” Just as importantly for Jamie, it’s also a big part of his fishing gear. “It’s a must when you’re fishing. It’s such a big ocean out there, so if you can find birds working over sauries or spot other boats working an area, you can really hone in on the fishing. That cuts down on fuel time and helps you get a better result.”
Also helping Jamie get a better result is his impressive battery of rocket launchers up top. He reckons the big range of fishing options in Port Stephens means you want all your gear along for the ride so you don’t ever miss an opportunity. “It’s a bit ridiculous,” Jamie laughs. “You can actually fit 11 50W Tiagras up there and they won’t touch each other — don’t know why you’d want to do that, but you can. It lets you take the day as it comes — you might be fishing for snapper, stickbaiting for kingies, deep dropping for cod and then trolling home for whatever — and you don’t have to compromise your trip.”
Jamie’s a U-Dek convert, appreciating the grip factor and reduced stress on the body over the course of a day’s fishing. “I used to think it was a bit flashy, and it was so easy to hose down the blood and guts of the chequer plate floor, but now I wouldn’t be without it.” Unfortunately, there is not much in the way of blood and guts to hose off the deck today, and with Riagan’s solitary snapper looking like the sum total of the day’s haul and time running out, Jamie makes the call to head back to Port Stephens.
Tucked in the surprisingly roomy cabin, talk naturally turns to all things electronic. The Stabi is styling a Simrad NSS16 Evo3, which sits nicely in the dash. “I used to like having two screens,” Jamie says. “But because the 16- inch is so big, you can run the split and really not have a compromise.” He’s also running a TM275 transducer paired with a S5100 CHIRP sonar module, which he reckons is a great set-up for his and Riagan’s mix of inshore work and offshore sportsfishing. “The S5100 is a must for game fishermen. It allows you to have control of your water column so you can fish high and low CHIRP.
For instance, when I’m at the Car Park (see breakout), it allows me to run a low CHIRP and still keep an eye on the bigger picture of bait and fish. And when you move towards the high CHIRP, you can change the range and just focus on raising a marlin. So if you’ve got fish under the boat in 60m of water, you can see them quite clearly, but also watch everything else going on down there.”
THE CAR PARK
The Car Park is a world-famous spot about 24 nautical miles off the coast. It’s an annual summer Mecca for game fishermen — one of the choice spots in the Port of Gold’s treasure chest. So-named because the congregation of boats resembles a supermarket car park, it’s most intense from January to March. “It’s a unique part of the continental shelf where the EAC races down and breaks away,” Jamie says. “The water eddies up and the bait holds up. When that happens in summer, the marlin aren’t going to be very far behind. You can get huge tuna runs, black and striped marlin, and six species of billfish.”
FUEL FOR THOUGHT
Flying back to port, Jamie is holding the 2250 at a steady 40 knots. At 6.85m overall — 8m on the trailer — the Stabi is a fair bit of boat, and with a 300HP Yamaha hanging off the transom, Jamie is a definite fan of his 300L fuel tank. “The more the better. We covered more than 100km of coastline today with two trips to the island and back at a fair clip, and it’s good not to have to worry about refuelling.
With the 2250, you don’t really get a lot more top end speed with the 300, but I wanted to hold the performance of the boat with a heavy load. With four blokes and a heap of gear — ice, fish, camping gear — you want to have that option. It’s good to be able to go further offshore and to do a bigger variety of trips without having to constantly refuel.”
Back at the marina, Jamie insists we keep the fish and even gives us a couple of slabs of beer. The Captain’s crew is gobsmacked because usually it’s the other way around. As we unload the camera gear, talk turns to weather. We’ve had a pretty top day, but Port Stephens can apparently get nasty when Mother Nature is in a foul mood. “You can be out on the shelf and a summer storm rolls through and it can get pretty wild,” Jamie says. “Or you can be fishing further up the coast and have a southerly change come through. And in certain boats, you just have to sit and wait it out. But I tend not to look at the weather so much anymore. In the Stabi I know I’m going to make it home no matter what — it’s just a matter of how long it takes me.” Can’t say fairer than that.
Stabicraft Marine 345 Bluff Highway,
Invercargill, Southland NZ
+64 3 211 1828