Bill Billson is a legend of Australian game fishing, and rightly so. This year marks his 30th consecutive season as a captain marlin fishing the Great Barrier Reef, in addition to 4 and a half years as crew. His list of state, Australian and world record catches for his clients on conventional tackle as well as saltwater fly, plus tournament wins (including the Port Stephens Interclub and the Lizard Island Black Marlin Classic), are as long as a tag pole.
So yes, we’re talking about a lot of experience here! Early on in a game fishing career, it’s mostly about doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. If you stick with it, you’ll get there eventually, but to remove a few frustrations it doesn’t hurt to get a leg-up from some of the pros in the industry – either through chartering or practical workshops like the ones Bill runs a couple of times each year out of the Gold Coast.
This was my first time aboard the 46’ Woodnutt Viking II, and I was impressed by the masses of cockpit room, the light, airy interior, and absence of an aft bulkhead so you’re always just a step or two away from the action – which is perfect when you’ve got a group of nine students and one freeloader (me) all keen to see what’s going on.
Bill’s game fishing workshops – a hands-on weekend of practical experience and fishing, are now in their 15th year, with hundreds of anglers having attended and become more rounded bluewater fishos as a result. While there was a fishing element to the weekend’s program, it wasn’t a fishing charter as such – the anglers were here to learn the finer details about what makes a slick game fishing operation tick. Unfortunately, the southerly change we could see marching inexorably up the coast on Saturday morning meant the piscatorial cart had to be put before the horse for this particular weekend, and the on-water day was conducted first.
A light nor’wester dropped out to nothing as the morning progressed. With a nice run of current, blue water, and a couple of flying fish flipping about, the conditions were made for blue marlin.
A run-down on how to fish a chair and a bent butt heavy tackle rod was the first item on the agenda. The class kicked off with Bill explaining the chair’s fittings and how to adjust them to suit different sized anglers. This led to getting the most out of the rod and reel, including the importance of drag adjustments during the fight. A few of the class had some heavy tackle experience – but there’s a world of difference between standup tackle and a heavy chair rod – this was pure gold.
Meanwhile, deeper bait was starting to rise off the bottom, and with a number of blue marlin caught in the area the day before, it was looking decidedly fishy. Up on the bridge, we had the perfect position to have depth sounder readouts and what bait and billfish look like explained.
The lure spread was certainly intriguing; just two hooked lures, one on the shotty and one on the second wake wave. On the bridge sat a Lindgren Pitman deep drop electric reel, set up as a teaser reel running a giant 16” Meridian skirted lure in the long ’rigger position, with a couple of rubber flying fish spaced along the leader. Another teaser lure was an oversized Pakula, which was run flat off a teaser pole outfit in what would ordinarily be the short ’rigger slot, guarded by deckhand Sam Baillie. Around 10.30am the release clip went off like a rifle shot and announced a fish in the spread. It switched perfectly, and by the time the teaser lure had vanished, it only had eyes for the veteran Guzman Tube with a hook in it.
Student Sam quickly found himself in the chair and putting what he’d just learned into practice. After plenty of aerial activity, an 80kg blue was released after a ten-minute fight. Late morning the call from upstairs was, “Marked one.” Followed seconds later by, “And another.” Suddenly there was a blue crawling all over the flatline teaser, pouncing on it a couple of times before Sam Baillie whipped it away and the Marlin Magic Tube was the only option left.
Kenneth Oppenheimer from Nauru was in the chair and had the 180kg fish up to the boat in reasonably quick time, but then it dogged and a little bit of added drag pressure was called into play to knock it over. Gotta love 130!
Unfortunately, the afternoon light tackle session was killed off by the southerly, but it had been an engrossing day with the big gear in the water. A couple of blues were caught along the way, which was a nice bonus.
Day two saw us in the classroom – the fishing cockpit. The class kicked off at 7.30am and ran through until 5.00pm. Comprehensive? You betcha.
Bill explained the philosophy of game fishing and why it is important to fish according to the rules set down by the International Game Fishing Association (IGFA) and the Game Fishing Association of Australia (GFAA). Otherwise we might as well all just use 200lb line and 50’ leaders and be done with it.
With the emphasis more on light to medium tackle, we started off with line; colour, diameter, the pluses and minuses of different types such as fluorocarbon, monofilament, Dacron, spooling up techniques, top-shotting reels, and line wear. This evolved into the positives and negatives of fixed guides versus roller guides on rods, and advantages of the same. Basically, stick with fixed guides if maintenance is not your forte, especially in the lighter line classes, as a non-rolling roller is a pretty poor option.
Reels were also covered. A lot of people set their reel drags at 1/3 the breaking strain of the line at strike, but sometimes you’ll get a small fish on heavy tackle so it’s not a bad idea to have lighter settings marked on a bit of tape alongside the drag quadrant. Similarly, check what the strike drag is on top of the stop button and just over it for when you have to stick it to a stubborn fish to break its will.
Labelling each outfit ‘LR’ for long rigger, ‘SR’ for short rigger and so on is a smart move. With inexperienced or new crew, a lot of the time it comes down to idiot-proofing your fishing systems as much as possible. The most hands-on segments for the students were tying a bimini twist and making a wind-on leader. With knot tying you can have a library of knot books and watch every instructional demonstration you like on YouTube, but there is nothing quite like having someone standing by your elbow and guiding you through the various steps. The plait is an excellent game fishing double knot, but is time consuming to tie and difficult to do in a small boat on a rough day. When done correctly, the Bimini has excellent strength and is quick to tie. Speed is of the essence when tackle needs to be re-rigged in the field. Getting the angles right as the line wraps back around itself is the key to a good bimini.
“Pay attention now,” Bill would periodically intone, “because this will be in the exam later...” (There never was any exam, but as any chalky can tell you, it’s a good bit of teaching leverage!). The other advantage of the bimini was tying one in a spare spool of line, so a top shot could be connected in a matter of seconds via a 3-loop cat’s paw. While tinkering with tackle might seem like fun to most of us, time is of the essence when you’re doing it for a living and no crew wants to be up half the night prepping gear. It’s all about putting efficient processes in place (especially when the big white bear is calling).
Making wind-on leaders can be a fraught process if not done right, leading to lost fish and terminal tackle, including expensive lures. Consequently, everyone got to make their own, with the teacher examining their work before issuing a pass or fail. An apt demonstration at this point was how easily the mono will pull out of the Dacron if a gloved hand grabs it or slips up onto it boatside. When the Dacron loop is pulling along the mono it will almost never slip, but reverse the pull and it will slide out in an instant. This is also why plenty of tight whipping at the Dacron/mono connection is necessary, with Bill preferring half hitches over the use of a bobbin to finish the rig off.
Rigging skirted lures for medium to heavy tackle revealed some interesting developments. Stiff hook rigs with heavy multi-strand cable (650lb+) inside the skirt is good for a number of fish before it needs to be replaced, and smallish single hooks rigged with just the eye in the skirt with the points riding down has produced cleaner hook-ups. Jobus are preferred for their strength, although we did straighten one, albeit on the leader. Self-amalgamating tape rather than electrical tape is a much better way of fixing the eye of the hook to make it a stiff rig, which invariably begins to unravel in the water unless you tie it in place with a piece of dental floss or waxed thread.
A good point that Bill made, and one us skirted lure junkies need to note, is maintenance of lures and rigs. If you’ve got 50 lures in your lure roll (and let’s face it, most of us have), it’s hard to ensure they’re all in tip-top condition, with fresh, scuff-free leaders, corrosion-free crimps, blemish free cable wire and sharp hooks. Bill feels it’s better to carry a smaller selection of proven performers so they’re easy to maintain, with backup leaders on hand so they can be re-rigged after a fish if necessary.
Of course, a lot of game fish are still caught on bait. Rigging skipping garfish and tuna was also covered, and it was good to see that a use has been found for the pointed tips of lure skirts (which most of us throw out) as a way of streamlining a skip bait and adding a bit of colour to the rig. Now you’d think that there was nothing new in the live baiting field, but using bridles made out of 15-20kg mono makes the connection almost invisible in comparison to the Dacron or rubber bands more commonly used. A uni knot at each end of the bridle (tied with just two or three wraps so it can be easily undone) makes it simple to replace a tired bait. Good stuff.
Alternatively, a lumo bead on a traditional light tackle #12 rubber band bridle might be the difference between getting a bite or missing out when deep dropping a live bait for marlin (which, it must be said, Bill is no fan of). And on slow days when the marlin are wary due to boat pressure and a lot of pinging sounders, it sometimes pays to drop down as light as 24kg fluorocarbon leader to get the bite.
Another clever live bait rig used is a perfection loop for a snap swivel connection as opposed to a crimped loop or solid ring. This means a sinker can be incorporated into the rig and can be changed or discarded altogether in a matter of seconds.
As a follow on from the switch session the previous day, the group did some practice drills freespooling live or dead baits back to an imaginary teased up marlin (almost certainly 1000+ by the way). Rod tip held high, clicker on, with line held between stripping guide and reel with just enough pressure to stop a backlash, but not so much as to spook the fish on the bite (‘the velvet thumb,’ as Bill described it). Drop the tip on the bite, count to five and ease the drag up and hope for a hook-up!
Having been actively game fishing for over 30 years, I came away with quite a few tips and alternative approaches to old techniques, so if game fishing is new to you, this is an excellent workshop – well worth doing.
Bill can be contacted on 0427 183 159, via email at --e-mail address hidden-- or visit the Viking II website at www.australianmarlin.com.Reads: 790