The Captain is back in Coffs Harbour, blasting around the spectacular Solitary Islands Marine Park, chasing kingies and getting acquainted with Sam Gilchrist and his deadly 520 Sea Devil centre console.
Having been to the home of the Big Banana on the NSW Central Coast a few times, The Captain rates it a pretty speckie spot. For a start, Macauleys Headland is one of only two places in Australia where the Great Dividing Range dips a toe in the Pacific — the other is further north, at Cape Tribulation. Then there’s the Solitary Islands Marine Park, which stretches from Nambucca and South West Rocks in the south to Sandon River in the north.
Local fisho Sam Gilchrist reckons this makes Coffs unique as a fishing destination. “You’ve probably got more fish-holding structure than anywhere else on the east coast bar the Barrier Reef,” Sam says. “We’ve also got spectacular sweetwater fishing and phenomenal bass fishing in every creek on the coast. You’ve got stocked creeks for trout out around Armidale and Ebor, and a bit further west, Copeton Dam is known as ‘the metre factory’.
Here at Coffs, you could easily catch snapper, kings, dolly or a marlin in one day. I’ve spent 20-odd years giving it a fair hammering. I focused on snapper in the early days, but I’ve progressed to predominantly topwater fishing. It’s a very attractive location. I love it. All we need are big GTs and barras, and we’ll be set.” An accountant by trade, Sam admits he doesn’t really fit the stereotype. “That’s not the first time that’s been said,” he laughs. “I don’t do tax returns as such, I mostly work with Indigenous communities helping them establish businesses. It’s a strong passion of mine. So is driving fast in this boat and catching a few fish!”
“This boat” is why The Captain has ventured north to Bananatown. Sam rocks a 520 Sea Devil centre console and apparently spends a fair bit of time airborne. This we’re keen to see. “It’s a 5.2m hull — close to 6.8m with the engine,” Sam says. “The 150HP Yammie pushes it along. It’s got plenty of grunt, plenty of bottom end. For these hulls, you need that bottom end torque to get you out — that way you use that 24-degree deadrise as it should be used, to really cut through the ocean. Top speed is 41.8 knots — that’s trimmed right out — and I don’t know how much of the boat is in the water, but you’re hanging on!”
As Sam tells the story, with his current pride and joy it was love at first sight. “I’ve had a few boats, including alloy boats, and a Cruise Craft Reef Raider, but this boat is something else,” he says. “The first time I rode in one, it was local dentist Justin Ward’s 520 cuddy, and the way that boat performed, I couldn’t believe it. We were doing 20 knots into 20 knots of breeze with a couple of metres of swell and the thing tracked beautifully in the air, it did things I’d never seen a boat do before. It’s a beautiful investment, I reckon.”
Sam occasionally finds himself just gazing adoringly at his Devil in the driveway, which pisses his wife off. “The Devil is my second wife,” he says. “My actual wife gets a little bit jealous over her sometimes, especially when I refer to her too affectionately.” The Captain’s favourite snapper slayer, Mike Bonnici, must also take his fair share of the credit for getting Sam’s trousers bulging over the Sea Devil. “When I first spoke to Mike about Devils, he said to me, ‘You’ll be disappointed if you don’t drive it hard — and I mean proper drive it hard.’ That lit a fire and I was like, I’ll take that on!
CATCHING THE KING
Sam reckons a big plus for fishing around Coffs is the weather. “If we get a southerly system through, we get beautiful blue water and fishing conditions improve significantly,” he says. “But because all of the reef and island locations are so close to the harbour, you can just about fish in any conditions.” Not today, apparently. “The worst weather conditions are what we’ve got at the moment, which is a nor-easterly heading for 25 knots,” Sam says. “It turns the water over, greens it up, makes it cold and we often get uphill current, which makes everything very difficult. The conditions are tough out there today. There were a couple of reds around, but with little or no current and pretty ordinary water conditions, it was always going to be hard.”
That said, Sam did manage to haul in a reasonable kingie. “I dragged a stickbait past one and he ate it. Kings are a funny species to target topwater. There’s no formula, no rhyme nor reason to them. It’s difficult to predict their patterns because they don’t seem to have any. At first light, when it’s prime time for snapper, kings can be missing in action. But you get some light on the water at 8am and they’ll start to come up — or it could be 1pm, you never know. But this morning, funnily enough, I was standing up the front sweeping away and telling a few lies to you blokes down the back when out of the corner of my eye I saw the flash and then heard him hit the lure. It was a really good bite where he’s come side-on and sucked the lure right in — solid contact. That was fun, bloody unreal, actually.”
DROPPING THE HAMMER
Chuffed as he is to have snared a king, what’s really rocked Sam’s boat is getting to put his Sea Devil through her considerable paces for the Captain’s cameraman. “Mike Bonnici and I got to carry on like 17-yearolds who’ve just got their Ps and are at the wheel of an overpowered vehicle,” Sam says, grinning from ear to ear. “It was so good. With one or two people and not a lot of weight, she’s like a drift car, you can do anything in her. She goes fast and the hole shot is amazing. Keeping her in the water is challenging, but she loves being in the air, so let her fly, I say.” He emphasises the Sea Devil responds well to whip and spurs. “You can turn as hard as you want, but with that deep entry point, it’s like you’re on tracks and she wants to go in a straight line. The harder you push her, the harder she’ll go. This boat has no rules, no speed limit, you just go. If you’re at a spot and the fishing hasn’t worked for whatever reason, you just take it out on the ocean, you go harder!”
TOPWATER ZEN MASTER
“I don’t like knowing what anyone else is doing, seeing things on social media and chasing yesterday’s fish. I like the challenge of reading the conditions in front of me. You’ve got to plan as best you can and try to get ahead of the curve. My favourite part is the space where you don’t think about anything else — you’re focused on what you want to catch and how to catch it.
Topwater is extraordinarily challenging physically. The guys who catch the most topwater fish have to cast the longest and that takes effort. Then there’s the technical side of top-watering, like rigging your lures. Which one will swim best in what conditions? Which one will trigger a bite on a certain day? What trebles and rings come at different weights that will affect the way your lure swims? Getting that formula right, then casting like you mean it, then getting a bite. Even the hook set is savage — you rip his head off. Then when he pulls drag, grab the spool and stop him. It’s very excellent. I love it.”
THE HULL STORY
Hulls with a really sharp entry point and severe deadrise can be unstable at rest, which is why the Sea Devils have a flooding keel system. It runs the length of the boat with two breather holes at the front. “When you take off, those breather holes suck air in, the water shoots out the back, you’re up on the plane, it’s gone and you’re away,” Sam says. “But as soon as you pull up, it floods again. When you back the boat off the trailer, water pushes through the flooding keel and squirts out those holes and it looks like devil’s horns.”
Given Sam’s preferred style of fishing, it’s safe to assume the flooding keel does the job of creating a solid platform. “It’s all cast and retrieve, standing at the front top-watering, soft-plasticking for snapper — the boat has to be stable at rest,” he says. “We’ve been out on some pretty wild days and we’re still able to stand up the front and fish. If it’s really awkward, you can bury your legs in at the front and you’ve still got that solid base. On one of the first trips on this boat, I took it north and got a fairly decent GT, around 1.27m. I just buried the legs in. It was sick.”
SPANNING THE GENERATIONS
Sam has fished pretty much since he could walk and now his kids continue the family tradition. “I started fishing when I was about three with my dad off the beaches at North Entrance on the Central Coast,” he says. “I remember going down to this tackle shop to get pillies. Dad reckoned they stayed on the hook longer. We’d stand on the beach chasing tailor and salmon. It’s the same with my youngest fella at the moment — he sleeps with lures and stickbaits, and swims them in the bath. He’s probably inherited it from me. My old man instilled a passion that’s been a large part of my life’s journey.” Working at a local dive shop from the age of 17, Sam got his dive master ticket, but preferred the surface action. “It was pretty fun, but every time I was down there and saw a big jew, all I wanted to do was drop a lure on his chin. I love the sea and chasing critters in it — that’s what it’s about.”
By The Gills is a fishing apparel business Sam started a few years ago, which has evolved into a broader chronicle of his watery journey. “I figured out pretty quickly how hard it is to sell shirts,” he says. “My wife came up with the name, I designed a logo with Giant Media and we threw together a website. I still do the odd bit of apparel, but it’s more about sharing a few of the catches and the journey. My little fellas feature a bit — chasing bream and whiting. One of them got a creek slam the other day — a flattie, a whiting and a mullet. It’s a bit of fun — but it’s never going to pay the mortgage.”
“Learn to read your sounder so you can separate your bait from your target species — identify what kings, GTs and dogtooth look like on the sounder. Then utilise your chart plotter and sounder to predict your drift based on the conditions — so you’re fishing at the fish, not past them or to the wrong side of them. You need to plan your attack so you put the lure in their face. If you do that, they’ll eat it. It’s one of the most challenging parts of the sport. It’s about persisting — and understanding that topwater is the hardest way to get a fish to bite, but the most spectacular. You have to work damn hard for it sometimes.”
Sam is running a Simrad set-up — a NSS9 evo3 unit at the bow and a NSS16 evo3 at the helm, mated to TM275 and StructureScan 3D transducers. The StructureScan and S5100 modules live in the console. Sam loves the Simrad kit. “It’s one of the most valuable tools we’ve got,” he says. “Out on the shelf chasing yellowfin and blue eye, you can read the bottom in 800 metres-plus. Inshore, even whistling round at 30 knots or in an impoundment, you still get a solid read.” He’s also pretty happy with his 36-volt electric MotorGuide — although now a bit scared he’ll cop some heat from the missus. “It’s a contentious issue because my wife doesn’t know about all the extras.
The NSS9 is linked to the MotorGuide, which is linked to the NSS16 at the helm. It’s spectacular for spot-locking at sea. I haven’t used it much to line up a drift or create a drift, but I intend to. We’ve been out to Copeton after cod and up north barra fishing, and the electric motor is great in those sort of environments. And I hate pulling in an anchor rope.”
The Sea Devil has a 50L bait tank at the back and tuna tubes at the stern. “It’s not a bad idea when you’re top-watering, to have a pre-rigged livie sitting in the tuna tube, because often a king will come right up to the boat, strafing behind your lure, and you throw the livie at him and he’s yours,” Sam says. The two-inch wave-breaker lip at the front is a custom option.
“We designed it with John from Sea Devil to accommodate the sounder at the front, but it evolved into more than that, Sam recalls. “It was originally just a pocket to fit the sounder — so when you’re up on the cast deck, your 3D structure images are right in front of you. But building that lip up a bit saves a hell of a lot of water coming over the front.” Two large hatches at the front hold safety equipment, anchor rope and paddles. A deep insulated well, the width of the boat, sits forward of the console. “Throw a kill bag, ice and fish in there and it’ll last for a couple of days,”
Sam says before getting to the feature closest to The Captain’s heart — the pie warmer. There’s a pie warmer in the console,” he says. “They’re an essential for every boat. You can’t beat a pie and a can on a hot day — or a cold day, for that matter.” Sam plays his boat beats through a JL system. “The sonic hub runs straight to the NSS16 so I can control all the music via Bluetooth to the two side speakers. But I don’t hear it most of the time because I’m driving too fast.”
Northern Beaches Marine
19 Middleton Road, Cromer, NSW