On an expedition to the watery wilds of Vanuatu, The Captain encounters a fellow skipper with fishing in his blood. Russ Housby has the same obsession with blue marlin that Captain Ahab had with his great white whale — but a much better boat and Tiagras instead of a harpoon.
Cap’n Russ Housby sits on the transom of his 40ft Black Watch, faded fishing T-shirt draped loosely over his tanned and slender frame, smoking an exotically fragranced rollie. He greets the boarding party in a husky Cockney accent — “Allo lads, I’m Russ.”
At first, The Captain suspects he’s a Pommie backpacker picking up extra cash as the ship’s cook. But Russ is the big dog of Nambas Charters. He’s not your typical charter operator, but thankfully drinks like one and can spin yarns like an inebriated parrot. We were in Vanuatu — with several bottles of duty-free Sailor Jerry in our kit — to hear his tale.
Russ Housby’s first-ever taste of Vanuatu was on a mission to catch a world-record blue marlin on fly. He succeeded, catching the first ever blue on a 12lb test.
After tasting success, Russ explored Vanuatu’s potential, noting it was a year-round fishery and — barring a cyclone — you could fish for blue marlin, sailfish and yellowfin all on the same day. “There’s not many places in the world you can catch seven blue marlins in a day without losing sight of your house,” Russ reckons.
This skipper has fishing in his blood. His father, Trevor, was a fisho and author. He penned more than 50 books including several about catching sharks and whaling. He was also an avid fly fisherman, crafting the first patented fly. “It was known as the Dog Knobbler,” Russ says. “It was so effective, they banned it from just about every fishing waterway in the country.
As a kid, I was completely absorbed in fishing. I could give you all the Latin names of everything fishing-related.” Russ reckons he has an encyclopaedic fishing knowledge, especially about tackle, skippers and fish. Bad move. Up for the challenge, The Captain will torment Russ with game-fishing questions for the rest of the trip. We test him out on the Latin name for flying fish. He doesn’t know, but claws back some kudos by dropping its Hawaiian name — malolo — which happens to be the name of his old boat, as well as the name of the lure he’s holding in his hand.
Tragically, his old man died when he was 13 years old, but Russ was already on a saltwater trajectory. “I was always going to be a fisherman,” he says. “I worked out pretty early that I wouldn’t be able to do as much fishing as I needed, so the next best thing was to be good enough for other people to take me along. I figured it was almost like getting a sponsorship to fish!”
Leaving school early, Russ hung out on the pebbly beaches of Madeira, in Portugal. It’s where his dad courted his mum, Ilda. “I used to hang out on blue marlin fishing boats,” Russ says. “Obviously, as a kid, you don’t get paid — you clean bilges, you do anything to get that chance to be out there fishing.”
Since his bilge-cleaning days, Russ has crewed on several notable game-fishing boats including Margarita, one of the first game-fishing boats to start in Madeira. He crewed on the Hooker in Ghana and did a bunch of seasons aboard Allure in Cairns. He even did a TV show with respected fly fisho Dean Butler, cruising the east coast of Australia and Vanuatu in a Pleysier game boat. It’s an impressive resume for an English lad who’s only just turned 40.
His travels led him to Port Havannah, Vanuatu, aboard his 40ft Black Watch Nambas. Russ reckons he named the boat after a couple of local tribes on Malakula. Interestingly, on a troll through Wikipedia waters, The Captain discovers that namba is the word for a traditional penis sheath and one tribe — the Smol (small) Nambas — are named for the size of their, er, Nambas.
“There are 83 islands in Vanuatu and when you go to any one of them, everybody remembers the name of the boat,” Russ says. “We give them fish, tackle, leaders and rigs. We hand out rice, sugar, lollies and cans of Coke. And we give a fair bit of fish away — fishing in someone’s front yard, but not bringing a gift, is uncool.” Well played, Russ.
Sentimentality aside, Russ is here to catch big fish, blue marlin specifically. “Every lure, every hook, everything we do on that boat is to catch fish — we’re here for the fish, not the money,” he says. “As anyone with half a brain knows, there’s no money in charter fishing, so I’m not doing it to get rich, I’m doing it because it’s what I’ve got to do.” None of the crew argues the point.
LIFE IN THE FLYBRIDGE
Nambas Charters offers a smorgasbord of fishing options including fly fishing, ultra-light, light and heavy tackle fishing, popping for GTs and tuna, and jigging for doggies. There are half-day charters for those who prefer to end the day in a hotel plunge pool with a cocktail, full-day charters or live-aboard charters. But a word of warning for those expecting island stopovers and tropical waterfalls — you’ll be disappointed. On Nambas, the lines hit the water before sun-up and don’t get pulled in until sundown.
“I spend 22 hours a day in the flybridge,” Russ says. “We fish from when I can see to when I can’t. If we’re dogtooth fishing, it’s an hour before light and an hour after light — every hour God gives us. I sleep up there at night, only coming down to cook your dinner. It’s a fairly salty existence. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining on your trip so I didn’t have to kip in a puddle. Me, Laura and Lani spend most of our lives on that boat.”
Laura Maclucas is Russ’ partner. She was a cop in the UK before getting the fishing bug. Since then, she’s hooked fish in Kenya, Fiji, Abu Dhabi, the Canary Islands and Kenya before hooking up with Russ in the Pacific. It was love at first bite — now she’s full-time crew and main leader (wo)man on Nambas.
Lani Mantae is the ever-smiling deckie. Before joining the crew, he was head chef at the Wahoo Bar on the edge of Havannah Harbour. Russ rates Lani’s unflappable nature — and his cooking talents. “Lani is a mad cook,” he says. “With all the fresh ingredients we get, we’re working on the principle you don’t need much to make something that’s already awesome, awesome. We get lobsters and mud crab up in the islands, and freshwater river prawns.”
Often, we eat three or four species of fish on any given day — raw, cooked or in such dishes as ceviche, namas or poke. The Captain’s favourite dish is the blue marlin poke bowl served with seaweed, ginger and the “full catastrophe” (Note: this is a word Russ uses regularly).
Russ sailed his 40ft Black Watch across from the Gold Coast to Vanuatu in 2015. Originally, she was custom-built to fish Cairns, so the boat is stuffed with refrigeration — 400L of freezer capacity. “In the tropics, never-ending cold is a good thing,” Russ says, chugging a stubby of the local Tusk brew.
The go-fast comes courtesy of a pair of electronically controlled Caterpillar C9 diesels, which push the boat to a comfortable 30 knots. “Having 1100 horses, you can get where you need to be in a hurry,” Russ says.
For tired bodies at the end of the day there’s a double stateroom, a side cabin with two bunks and a foldout bed in the air-conditioned saloon. “I don’t take more than four passengers, but three is the magic number. Everybody has a comfy spot with drawers to put their stuff in — if you bring less camera shit, then there’s more room,” Russ notes, pointing to the several large Pelican camera cases. Trav, The Captain’s trusty cameraman on this trip, makes a mental note to conceal his camera boxes more thoroughly in future.
TACKLE TALK – WHAT’S IN RUSS’S BOX?
Russ says when it came to tackle choice, Shimano was a no-brainer, as his dad had been a Shimano tackle consultant back in the day. “He fished out of army supply boats down at Ascension Island in the South Atlantic well before it appeared in fishing magazines,” he says. “Trust me, I’ve tried to destroy them. Vanuatu is a pretty good place to break shit and if it doesn’t cut the mustard, it won’t take long to find out here. Every reel and rod we use to catch proper fish is Shimano. I reckon it’s as good as you can get.”
On reeling in the giants, Russ reckons he’s always ready and bigger is better. “For marlin, I like to pull Tiagra 130s, because in the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen them as big as 514kg,” he says. “We’re always hoping the next fish will be bigger than the last. I’ve caught one over 1000lb (453.6kg), so now I’m fishing for number two.
We set our tackle for the biggest fucker we can find. Every day we fish, our gaffs are laid out, everything is ready to roll if the right fish comes along.”
It’s at this point that The Captain realises the customers are merely pawns (not prawns!) in one man’s salty quest — a bit like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. When he mentions this to the skipper, Russ responds with a smug wink.
THE NAMBAS ARSENAL
• 4x 130lb Shimano Tiagra chair rods each marked with their own ID and position in the spread — for example, LS for left short. Each reel also has an indicator for drag settings depending on what’s being dragged. Every night on the back deck, Russ resets the drags, his rum and Coke never far away.
• 2 x 50lb Shimano Tiagra stand-up rods.
• 2 x 80lb Talica stand-up rods set up as 80s, so 80 bent butts, Talica 50s with 100lb braid and80lb top shot.
• 2 x Tallica 50s, run as 50s.
•2 x Shimano overhead jig rods with Talica reels.
• 2 x Saragosa spinning rods.
• 2 x 50 narrows we use as 30s — they have a nice retrieve if we’re trying to catch stuff on 30s.
• Couple of popper rods and smaller Talica 16s to troll for wahoo, sailfish and dogtooth.
• The game chair is one of Russ’ main weapons. Every Tiagra 130 is connected to it and somebody always has the job of pointing it at the line.
Russ typically runs a four-spread of lures and two teasers for blue marlin. The lures, broadly speaking, represent the four types of marlin-shaped lure heads available. All are rigged on a single, semi-stiff rig. Russ rates colour as far less important than shape and position in the spread.
1. The Koya Poi Dog — run in the short corner on wave three.
One of Eric “Koya” Koyanagi’s game-fishing lure creations, the Poi Dog is a proven big marlin lure we use as a short bait. It has a suggestion of plunger with a long steady taper towards a slanted nose. It creates a big rolling molehill and chews lots of water.
2. Koya Bang Stick — run in the long corner on wave four.
The bang stick has lots of forward taper and a little bit of reverse. It has a nice sharp angle, goes underwater to a fair depth, has a bit of a shimmy then comes up and pops.
3. Tantrum AMN — run in the short rigger on wave five.
Not dissimilar to the Mold Craft Wide range, the AMN has a hard head and flat face with no angle, and a foam insert, which means it’s good in the calm as well as the rough. It’s straight, with no forward or reverse taper, so it doesn’t stay on the surface. It comes up, grabs a big breath of air, then dives, leaving a plume of air before backfilling with water then coming up for another breath.
4. Malolo Bullet by Jon Niiyam — run in the long rigger on wave six.
The bullet-shaped lure that did the business on The Captain’stour looks boring. It doesn’t do anything fancy on the surface, just fizzes and ripples just under the surface a bit like a skipjacktuna. It’s keel-weighted, so always runs true and the skirt is made of flashabou, often used for tying flies. It offers less mass, therefore less obstruction than vinyl or rubber. Often, the first sign of a hit on the bullet is you hear the clip go off and the rod load up. Apparently, all those fancy lures that push water, look cool and make us happy — don’t necessarily make the marlin happy. At the end of the day, we’re in the business of catching fish not looking fancy, as you can tell by the way we dress. In the calm, you can run the Bullet with a bird teaser.
1. The Bird Teaser — run in front of the Bullet.
The bird has wings that can be soft or hard. It runs across the surface tapping its wings from side to side. Run in conjunction with the Bullet, it gives the illusion of two flying fish— one that you’re too late to catch(the bird) followed by the Bullet just rippling beneath the surface looking like an easy meal. Almost every time, the marlin will drop back to eat the easy meal.
2. The Flippy Floppy — from the bridge teaser, wave two.
This teaser is designed to make maximum noise and splash. It’s made up of nine-inch squid and hard and soft birds. It’s run one-and-a-half to two waves back, with a reasonable-sized lure out the back.
3. The Mud Flap — run on wave one.
It looks like a catastrophe, but the marlin love it. It features tuna shapes cut out of black rubber, each flap bridled to a swivel then attached to its own dropper with a three-way swivel. A common boat fender pulls the whole show underwater and there’s a lure on the back of that. You can see every part of the fender surface is scuffed where blue marlin shave attempted to eat it. The blue marlin usually want to eat the end one, so they fade off the Mud Flapteaser and eat the short corner.
THE BLUE MARLIN BUNCH
Our Nambas posse includes a couple of property developers from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Neil and Stuart, who have traded in their Hugo Boss suits for embroidered Shimano shirts, neatly pressed buffs and a tackle receipt longer than Russ’ favourite popping rod. Then there is Dave, who builds very expensive homes along Sydney’s waterfront. He’s a seasoned fisho and can tie an FG blindfolded in the dark. He proves that rigging skills (and fishing experience, generally) is handy in a location ruled by large powerful fish with menacing teeth that live in diamond-bladed ledges.
On the first day, we leave late and miss the hot bite —validated by a sailing cat that hooks and lands several blue marlin that morning. We have to settle for a GT off the back deck at sunset, caught by Dave.
The next day, we push up to Cooks Reef and subdue a few amberjacks and jobfish before retrieving half a dogtooth, but the bite is slow. We venture past MakiraIsland, waving at about 100 locals who have ventured down to the beach to give us a royal welcome. Russ is more focused on boating some fish and pushes to the reef edge to jig dogtooth in the swirling current. Volcanic islands that would make Hemingway blush rest on the horizon. Russ attempts to inspire the crew with stories of hand-feeding schools of 20kg models at the back of the boat, but we just lose jigs to dogtooth and sharks and then ask Dave to re-tie our rigs.
On the last few days of the charter, Russ heads closer to port, where his home looks over the cobalt waters. Our luck turns when a small blue marlin climbs on the Bullet and is hooked badly in the face. On the Tiagra 130, itis quickly subdued. Any life it has left is snapped by The Captain’s camera at the side of the boat. The fish is shared with members of Lani’s family, who happily whip it off the back deck via their Yamaha-powered banana boat. A few slabs of it will later magically reappear in the poke bowl.
Inspired by the marlin bite, or perhaps because it’s our last day on board, Russ fires up the twin CATs in the dark of night and heads toward an offshore FAD. The crew sleeps for most of the trip and when we arrive it’s still pitch black. It takes us a few minutes to find the FAD. We put a couple of Rapalas out and score a double-header of wahoo and dolphin fish that pleases the crew.
Russ is also happy now the line has been stretched and we’ve got some meat on board. But he’s got other things on his mind, namely, blue marlin. From the flybridge, he sniffs the breeze then points the bow towards “The Nipple”, a patch of reef that projects out from the 1000mline. Trolling just inside the nipple, a solid blue marlin ventures deep into the spread, turns away at the Bullet on the long rigger and is pinned with 20kg of drag.
“He’s gonna be a rock star, get your cameras ready!” Russ screams before dropping the throttles in reverse and filling the cockpit with back smoke and saltwater mist. His prediction comes true. The fish flies through the air just 50ft from the back of the boat. It never takes the top shot off the reel and every time Lani grabs the leader, 400lbs of pissed-off blue marlin sticks its bill out of the water and thrashes around.
THE FULL CATASTROPHE
The excitement proves all too much for The Captain’s intrepid cameraman, who insists on jumping in and filming the commotion. (Captain’s note: poor impulse control, that lad.) Russ later recounts the saga of what will undoubtedly become another of The Captain’s legends of the sea. “Our illustrious cameraman decides to jump in,” he begins with a grin. “Unfortunately, he has the world’s smallest fins on his feet. We get the fish to the side of the boat and it’s all under control.
Now, for me to keep pace with this cameraman in the water, I have to keep the boat in neutral, but the only thing keeping that fish parallel with the surface is forward momentum. Then the fish starts to sink, swinging on his axis with his head poking up and tail down. As they tend to do, he starts kicking and it just gets worse.
I tell Lani to let go of the leader — and then the fish swims straight at you. I see your head pop up, your eyeballs pressed up against the inside of the mask, the little red veins in your whites — like a Disney cartoon. It looks like he’s going to kebab you, so I pull him around on the leader and back under the boat where he gets caught up on the rudder.
So now it’s totem tennis and all that marlin can do is swim round and round. But when I suggest you swim over to get the leader off the rudder, your eyes switch back to Disney mode, so I tell Dave to grab the gaff. To be honest, I just want my lure back —I’m not too worried about you. I take a swipe, the lure slides up its bill and the marlin heads back to the deep. By this time, you’ve emptied out your board shorts, so I grab your GoPro and ask you to unhook the leader off the rudder. I know you’re claiming a world record dive to save the boat, but in truth she only draws about 900mm.” Trav is very quiet at this point.
All good things eventually come to an end. The Captain’s crew goes 6.4.4 on blues over the last few days of the trip, leaving everyone on board with huge smiles, especially Russ. First-timers Neil and Stu are well and truly hooked on blue marlin fishing. Saying their farewells, the boys and Dead-eye Dave retire to a hotel in town for a long massage, followed by dinner at the Blue Marlin Club in Port Vila, naturally.
The Captain’s crew chug a few farewell Tusker brews a board Nambas, soaking in memories of the trip. When asked what his dad would think of his life in one of the world’s best game-fishing playgrounds, Russ says, “My old man would be a fucking happy man to see what we saw today. Anybody who’s into blue marlin fishing likes seeing them fizz across the surface like we did. When you’ve got 50ft of string out and the fish is flying through the air, well, that’s the shit.”
As Russ revels in the fight, we can practically smell the diesel soot. The Captain asks a sensible question —“Other than the bullshit blue marlin bite you got here, why else should people come?” Russ sucks hard on his rollie, sits back and says, “It’s a bucket-list destination with bucket-list species. If you haven’t fished here, you probably bloody should.”
As The Captain’s crew disembarks, Trav can be heard promising to buy a longer set of fins — and a new pair of boardies. Nuff said.
IN RUSS WE TRUST