Far down below a huge fanged monster busted him up on deep volcanic rock. How can a fish run so far in that depth? The dogtooth seemed to be able to bore a trench through volcanic rock, crash through chasms far below and treat our “tough” tackle with a dismissive arrogance and strength that was impossible to control. In a strange kind of way I was happy it was the last day. We’d just about run out of jigs.
We were fishing with Ocean Blue Fishing Adventures in Vanuatu, onboard a mothership operation that took us to some of the more remote locations in the Vanuatu island group. I hadn’t been to Vanuatu for 20 years, and it was great to get back there. I was fishing again with Eric Festa, whom I last shared a boat with in 1993. I was also reacquainting myself with dogtooth tuna after a long absence.
Doggies are certainly one of the toughest fish in the sea especially when you hook them on the edge of an undersea cliff.
They have amazing power, fangs and attitude. On this trip the dogtooth was the main game on the fishing menu. Years ago in the Coral Sea I was fortunate to catch a lot of big doggies on exploratory trips to the outer atolls such as Wreck Reef, Frederick Reef and Cato Island aboard the old Seafari skippered by Joe Wilkinson.
At this time braid wasn’t invented, Damon Olsen of Nomad fame was in short pants in primary school and there was no GPS. On these trips we trolled big minnows off stand up 24-kilo game tackle and jigged with the same outfits. We caught dogtooth tuna to 76 kilos. In shallow water on the troll they ran and ran and ran, but would often blow their swim bladders and be floating by the time we landed them. We caught a lot more than we lost. But on vertical underwater cliffs they killed us most times in monumental wipeouts. Since the early trips I caught a few doggies in the Coral Sea and Vanuatu a long while back, and when the chance came to target them again I was older, crustier and weaker but still very enthusiastic to catch big ones on jig tackle.
Mark Frendin and Blue Phillips, both of whom have done a lot of work for Fishing World over the years, arranged the trip. I paid my money many months earlier and immersed myself in work and other stuff and promptly forgot about the mission, filing it away as something to look forward to later in the year.
To be honest, I didn’t really set the bar high for this trip. It was more a fun break from the madness of work. It turned out to be one of the best quality operations I’ve ever fished with and I had a great time.
We arrived in Port Vila to be picked up by the Ocean Blue crew. It was 20 years since I’d seen Angele. The last time I saw her she was just finishing school at St Hilda’s on the Gold Coast. We fished with her dad Remy Frouin, a gifted Vanuatuan angler, aboard Ymer, one of the original Black Watches made by Dave Stephens.
Anthony and Angele Pisano now operate Ocean Blue Vanuatu, and on our trip we were fishing out of a pair of 32-foot Edgewater centre consoles with twin 250hp Yamaha four-strokes and living on a 65-foot catamaran, Rendezvous.
It was a very slick operation, and the sailing cat makes an ideal mothership as it has stacks of space to eat, sleep and socialise on. The cat was about twice as wide as a comparable mono hull, giving great stability at rest for comfortable sleeping.
Each day we took off in the fast Edgewaters to our fishing destination, and in the background we’d watch the cat sail to our next overnight anchorage where we would meet it after sunset.
We started the trip trolling for blue marlin but the boys on board weren’t that keen on spending hours waiting for the big bite. Vanuatu has some outstanding marlin fishing. The phenomenal drop offs and large bait schools attract a lot of billfish – quite a few 1000lb blues have turned up there over the years. After a couple of quiet hours on the troll we moved up to Cooks Reef, a spot I remember well from many years before.
On the north-west face of the reef we cast for GTs using poppers and stickbaits but again it was quiet. While a lot of anglers love GTs, they aren’t a fish I have a lot of passion for. They have a great bite but a boring fight, in my opinion. But each to his own! In my view, big GTs are just too tough. The fight is like a wrestling match and at the end of it you just get sore arms and a big ugly trevally snarling at you demanding you pull the popper from its gob so it can go back and swim around its rocks and coral again.
Along the way we caught a few small striped tuna, and Eric started to hatch the dogtooth plan. We trolled deep diving minnows and caught our first dogtooth of the trip, smaller fish around 10 to 20 kilos in weight. These oversized bonito have huge teeth and big eyes and are a fearsome predator, even at these relatively modest sizes. After catching a few smaller ones on the troll we did a long drift on the deeper face of the reef and began jigging. This produced similar fish as well as sharks, cod and coronation trout.
We also had the first of many bust offs when the unstoppable’s arrived.
Eric rigged the tunas and we started a slow troll with 2-3 kilo stripies trolled at 20m from the downrigger off 80lb stand up game gear. It didn’t take long to find some action. I was on strike when the release clip pulled. A big fish had eaten the whole tuna like a lolly. This one went hard and deep on heavy gear, and I was rewarded with a nice dogtooth around 35 kilos. These tuna pull really hard. While I’ve fished a lot of 80lb stand-up game gear on marlin, you aren’t usually focused on keeping a marlin out of the rocks. In a more vertical fight it is pretty challenging to keep the fish away from the bottom. I was pretty excited with my first decent doggy in 20 years, but it looked like a puppy when Phil’s tuna got eaten on the next troll. As the sun set low on the horizon over the volcanic spires of distant islands, Phil was hooked up to a really solid fish. This turned out to be our first genuine 100 pounder of the trip. It was a ferocious looking animal. We headed back to the mothership. The boys in the other boat had enjoyed similar success with medium dogtooth and a few yellowfin as well, and the mood on board the catarmaran was bubbling with the anticipation of more action in coming days.
At the mooring we fished a bit before dinner. On strip baits we caught small dogtooth, green job fish, red bass and trevally as well as several reel screamers that busted us up on distant coral ledges. If you go on this trip make sure you pack plenty of hooks and ball sinkers and take a smaller outfit for mucking around with at night on anchor.
The food and ambience of the operation was excellent. We ate a lot of local produce and swapped fish for bananas, sweet potatoes, coconut, yams, lemons, limes and grapefruit.
Interestingly, most of these exchanges were arranged on mobile phone by Eric, quite amazing considering that the only boats in most island communities were dugout canoes and there was no electricity, engines or other technology apart from the seemingly ubiquitous mobiles! Over the next few days we enjoyed very memorable sessions. Part of the appeal is that you fish in the shadow of volcanoes, some active, and the landscape is totally different to fishing, say, the Great Barrier Reef.
Interestingly, a lot of the better fishing for dogtooth tuna is on the lee side of the islands where it is calm.
We were fortunate to have great weather on our trip, with a few days of 15 to 20 knots, but mostly it was calm. My first monumental wipe out occurred at dusk on the second day. We’d caught a few nice fish, but on a jig I hooked a huge doggie that nearly spooled me on the first run. We chased it for a bit but it was uncontrollable. The drag on the 20000 Stella was about 12 kilos. When it busted me, and I lost a lot of line on that one, Eric gave me strict instructions. Screw the drag knob up until you can’t screw it up any more! I thought a softer drag mightn’t make the fish so angry, but that is complete rubbish. You just lose more line! Dogtooth tuna hunt in packs. Where there is one there will be more, and if one eats your jig the chances are high that your mate’s jig will get chomped as well. If you do screw the drag up, and the fish hits you on the drop when your rod is low, it’s hard to get the rod back up to the horizontal. One remarkable thing that happened was that Blue Phillips managed to sail through the whole dogtooth carnage sessions with absolutely minimal lure loss. Phil, Mark and myself all got slaughtered (I know, by weighing my bag at the airport, that I lost 4.4 kilos of jigs!) but Blue’s tackle survived, and he caught plenty. I’m stuffed if I know how he did that; it is unexplainable. Mark blamed Blue’s Scottish heritage.
Each day we travelled further north, and in the more remote locations, close to cliffs where bats and birds circled overhead, we found dogtooth in bigger and bigger numbers. We caught them on jigs, soft plastics and stickbaits.
I caught a nice one around 25 kilos on a soft plastic on my 15kg spin outfit. We fished a spot where the women’s world record fish on eight-kilo tackle was caught, a big doggy over 60 kilos. To get that fish they must have hooked a hundred that got away, I reckon!
I highly recommend the whole Ocean Blue operation. I went as a full paying punter. I’ve been fortunate to go on lots of trips over a lot of years, which gives me the ability to compare it to other operations.
This whole package is excellent, highly professional and every variable that the Ocean Blue team can control is controlled and well done. It is a class act.
I’ve read plenty of articles where a fishing writer gets a free trip and writes nice things. I’d rather pay. If you’ve got a few mates and want to do something different, this trip is a beauty. Visit www.oceanbluefishing.com for more info.
I also thought this trip was extremely good value for money. We took our own jigging and popper gear but the tackle available on board was excellent and in good supply. Dogtooth tunas need to be on every serious fisho’s bucket list. They pull harder on the first run than any other fish I’ve encountered (with the exception of big marlin). On a jig rod they will test you to the extreme.