The Captain’s crew head north, to the warm waters of the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef. They hunt game fish amidst incredible scenic beauty – and become stranded in a millionaires’ playground.
The water transformed from an olive green to a deep blue as the twin Detroit diesels powered us further east of Cairns Harbour towards the Great Barrier Reef. The venerable 48ft charter boat was old, yet commanded admiration from all who stepped aboard. Meticulously maintained, but with no shortage of battle scars, she told the story of a successful game-fishing career. “Hmm, wonder how many granders have been brought alongside her”, I mused, sitting in the polished teak game chair. As if reading my mind, the skipper slowly decreased the RPM, signaling for us to deploy the lures. We hedged our bets, setting a combo meal of skirts and divers – after all, this was mackerel country, too. We’d only been trolling for 10 minutes when the long corner came alive. A small black, but a marlin no less. What a way to start our Coral Sea adventure.
TRIP OF A LIFETIME
The Captain has been to the Great Barrier Reef on many occasions – each trip usually better than the last. The game fish are large. They peel hundreds of metres of 64kg line in a single beat of the tail and are caught using gigantic baits that could actually feed a small Polynesian village. The reef fish are abundant, beautifully decorated in ruby reds and flame oranges. The waters may be treacherous with sharks, stingers, powerful trade winds and jagged coral reefs, but it’s also spectacular and rich with life. It’s a fisherman’s paradise, one The Captain was eager to return to.
The invitation came late one night in the form of a text message from one of The Captain’s deckhands, Jason Hedges. “Hey fellas, have I got the trip for you! I’m skippering a 48-footer with a tuna tower from Cairns down the coast – the fishing is going to be unreal. Are you in?”
We pondered for all of five seconds before booking our flights, grabbing our snorkels and tuning up our poppers with fresh sets of razor-sharp hooks.
When we finally touched down in Cairns the anticipation had grown tenfold. We scurried over to the marina, rod tubes in tow and greeted the crew. As it turned out, the Reel Fever had only just been purchased. Proud new owner, Nick Hanlin had big plans for this sport-fishing sled and had decided to come along for the trip south. There was an excited buzz aboard as the new crew found their feet and we departed for the fishing trip of a lifetime.
ON THE REEF
Day one couldn’t have started any better; a stunning rig, beautiful waters and the aforementioned marlin. Later that afternoon, we cruised towards our proposed anchorage for the evening. It was a tight squeeze as we manoeuvred between bommies, but eventually the boat was positioned perfectly in the lee of the large reef. The colossal anchor was deployed, a can of XXXX cracked and some celebratory swan dives off the top of the tuna tower performed. Home sweet home.
After a restless first night’s sleep on the boat, I eagerly awaited sunrise. As the first warm rays cracked the horizon, I peeled myself off the sticky vinyl couch ready to get straight back into the fishing. The skipper had similar ideas and turned over the drowsy Detroits. Before too long, we were scoffing down greasy bacon and egg rolls and making our way back towards the honey hole where we’d picked up yesterday’s marlin. We worked the spot for a couple of hours before continuing our voyage south.
We trolled all day without so much as a bite – something I thought was impossible in Far North Queensland. Nevertheless, we continued mooching towards the next anchorage with the lures skipping along in the evening light. Tonight, we’d be dropping the pick in the sheltered waters of Dunk Island. Although only a small speck on the charts, it had a somewhat dramatic history. Sitting only 4km off the coast, directly opposite Mission Beach, the island had always been a food source for local Aborigines It was a RAAF base during WWII and then a commercial tourist operation for a series of wealthy owners. But everything came to a grinding halt on the 2nd of February 2011, when the eye of Cyclone Yasi passed directly overhead and devastated Dunk.
As we closed in on the island, I decided to be a good team player and research what (if any) facilities remained. It was Saturday night and, more importantly, one of The Captain’s crew had a birthday to celebrate. Our luck was in. Astoundingly, there was a beachside bar – and tonight was party night.
The Reel Fever crew was weary from all that southern steaming – and already out of beer – so the decision was made to storm the beaches. We donned our favourite Hawaiian party shirts and started blowing up the RIB. After nearly capsizing, with water coming in fast, we looked more like a boatload of struggling refugees than cool-cat fishermen. By the time we eventually staggered ashore, the sun had set, but we followed the beat of the dance music and yells of enthusiastic backpackers.
After settling in with a beer and delicious local calamari, we got chatting to the island caretaker, Angelique. She regaled us with tales of Dunk Island, explaining that the expansive resort, once a hive of amorous wealthy tourists, was now owned by a private businessman and used mainly for small private functions. She was part of the skeleton crew keeping it running.
After a few more beers, we persuaded her to take us for a midnight tour of the island. She loaded us into a 4×4 buggy and took off down a pitch-black track. Giggling like nervous schoolgirls, we whooshed down the island airstrip then zigzagged through a sandy track to the resort. There was nobody in sight with an eerie, almost apocalyptic vibe. We weren’t sure if we should be amazed – or very afraid. Then Angelique showed us the luxurious freshwater pools, cascading one into another. To a bunch of salty sailors, this was like parading an injured slimy mackerel in front of a famished black marlin. We stripped down to our jocks – some less than that – and leapt headfirst into the delicious water.
We awoke the next morning with hangovers. The pounding headache got worse with the dreaded sound of a clicking starter motor. We’d flattened the batteries. Someone had turned the Genset off without shutting down all the power and we were stuck.
On the bright side, there were worse places to be stuck. While the owner and skipper somewhat animatedly discussed a backup plan, we snuck back to Dunk in the RIB and gobbled a brekky wrap. Then Angelique gave us the day tour. We drove to the top of the island, patted some wild horses, cracked coconuts, knocked fresh oysters off the rocks and even spied the beautiful blue Ulysses butterfly – the symbol of Dunk Island. More than anything we were amazed by the hospitality of someone we’d only just met. Angelique, The Captain salutes you.
BACK ON TRACK
Another day on Dunk and the boys eventually found a way to jerry-rig the battery banks together and turn over the big Detroits. We were finally back in the game. We continued cruising south until we came across a huge shipping channel marker. The skipper definitely knew something we didn’t and snuck down from the bridge with a Shimano Stella popping outfit tucked under his arm. One cast is all it took for a massive explosion on his assist hook rigged popper. The Stella groaned, but didn’t donate a centimetre of line to the struggling GT.
After a great session, we pushed on towards our next anchorage, Orpheus Island. It was a cracking spot we’d been to a couple of times before with a dramatically beautiful landscape. Orpheus also has plenty of good spots to anchor up for the night, completely protected from the elements.
LAST NIGHT IN PARADISE
We dug the anchor into the muddy bottom and the boys got to work on dinner. Plain ol’ pasta was on the menu this evening, but as this was our last night on the boat before flying home, the skipper decided the last night would be a moonlit bottom bash. So we whacked on the floodlights, rigged up some rigs and deployed some stinky baits. Before our snapper leads had even hit the bottom, we noticed something in the lights. Squid alert! They were in plague proportions and we fumbled in out tackle boxes for squid jigs, but didn’t need them. These calamari were so aggressive, we’d catch one or two simply by tying a bait onto a piece of mono without a hook, waiting for them to grab it and then hoisting them aboard. Too easy. After 20 minutes we had dinner for the whole boat and a couple of live baits to boot. Within the squid frenzy we hadn’t even noticed, most of the baits we’d dropped to the bottom were going off. We focused our attention on the big outfits and hauled in a couple of tasty red emperor. Tonight’s dinner was turning into a serious fisherman’s basket. After dinner, the fishing continued, hauling in everything from reef sharks to a giant chinaman fish.
The next morning, we explored Orpheus via snorkel, before packing up our gear and heading for Townsville. Although the fishing wasn’t off the Richter scale, we’d met cool people, experienced castaway life stranded on an island (albeit a five-star one) and enjoyed this spectacular Coral Sea environment. When it comes to remote touring, this trip really goes to show that it’s all about the journey, not the destination.
GEAR FOR THE GBR
The Great Barrier Reef is without doubt one of the toughest fishing climates in the world. The fish are brutes, relentlessly shredding tackle and egos on the razor-sharp coral. There are no tackle shops to replace cooked drag washers and freshwater is reserved for drinking only – not cleaning gear. With that in mind, this definitely isn’t the place to bring the free reel you scored with your Fishing World subscription.
Here’s a list of must-have tackle to have you covered on the GBR:
-Shimano Tiagra 50Ws and 80Ws
-Shimano Tiagra T-curve 24kg standup and 37kg chair
-Shimano TLD 20s
-Shimano Backbone Elite 15kg standup
-Shimano Stella 6000 and 20000
-Shimano Ocea Offshore Stickbait
Reel Fever is based in Tweed Heads and available for charter: www.reelfeversportfishing.com