It’s no secret that BlueWater has a bit of a soft spot for Vanuatu. This small island nation in the western Pacific has been the venue for several BlueWater editorial features over the years, which have resulted in some fond memories indeed.
Less than three hours flying time from Sydney or Brisbane, Vanuatu is easily accessed by Aussie anglers looking for that new frontier. The game fishing potential of Vanuatu is only just being revealed as more professional boats and switched-on anglers start to ply the picturesque waters more frequently. This is why Vanuatu is an obvious destination to run one of our popular BlueWater readers’ trips.
In October 2001 BlueWater ran its first readers’ trip to Vanuatu. Fishing around Santo and some of Vanuatu’s more northern islands, the trippers were treated to some spectacular fishing – particularly on big yellowfin tuna. We had barely touched down in Australia from that trip when we started talking to Ocean Blue Vanuatu about the next readers’ trip.
It was a while in the making but the BlueWater Vanuatu Mothershipping Adventure ’03 was eventually born. While the liveaboard trip in 2001 was good, it was decided that a mothership was required to really help make the next readers’ trip even better. It’s amazing how much more enjoyable a trip is when you can have a long, hot shower, a great feed and crawl into a comfy bed at the end of the day.
STRONG SILENT TYPE
So for the 2003 adventure we employed the services of Silent One, a 100ft steel mothership that is set up primarily for divers – but it did work quite well as a gamefishing motherboat too.
Our fishing platforms were the 40ft Black Watch Bolero, 34ft Black Watch Ymer and a new addition to Ocean Blue’s fleet, Little Weapon – a 23ft custom centre-console with a single MerCruiser diesel sterndrive.
The nine lucky BlueWater readers on this trip were Chris Scott, an Aussie expat living in Japan, New South Welshman Brad Carlin, Western Australian Michael Minshall, Queenslanders Kevin Cook and Heath Irvine, plus New Zealanders Tony Stollery, Alan Spiers, Barry Lethbridge and Neil Carter.
With five Aussies and four Kiwis on the trip, there was always going to be a bit of trans-Tasman rivalry. The four Kiwis were actually all mates that regularly fished together, so they made quite a formidable team. To add a little more interest to the trip, the Kiwis even brought a trophy with them, which would be awarded to the angler tagging the biggest marlin.
We fished four anglers on each gameboat with Little Weapon available for anyone that wanted to troll the reef edges for pelagics, throw poppers at GTs, or whatever else took their fancy.
The teams were alternated between Bolero and Ymer each day to make it fair on everyone. Although Bolero is the bigger boat, Ymer seemed to be the hot boat, so expectations were high when onboard the 34.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
The flip of the coin was won by the Aussies on Day One and they chose to fish aboard Ymer. I also jumped aboard Ymer on Day One, as it is a much better photography platform than the 40.
Day One saw us fishing the FADs west of Port Vila before trolling our way north along the Marlin Highway. I was sitting on the flybridge, camera in hand, when I thought I saw a dark shape materialise out of the corner of my eye. I was just about to dismiss the sighting as wishful thinking when the right flatline got crunched by an angry blue marlin. Unfortunately our first encounter for the trip with a Vanuatu blue was fairly brief. Despite pulling 60-odd pounds of drag off the 130-class reel, the hooks didn’t stick.
We continued our troll north and it was a couple of hours before our next bite. I saw this one before it bit and called him on the right rigger. This fish was hungry but didn’t quite know which lure he wanted to eat. He nailed every lure in the pattern and didn’t hook up on any of them!
I know hook-up rates on lures can be pretty ordinary at times, but I had a feeling something wasn’t quite right. After all, even thought it was the same fish, we theoretically had just missed four bites in a row.
SHARPEN THOSE HOOKS
I asked the crewman Johnny to bring in each line one at a time and give me a look at the hooks. I discovered that they had obviously done the right thing and bought all new hook rigs prior to our trip – only problem was that they forgot to sharpen them.
A little lesson in hook sharpening was provided and all of a sudden we felt a lot more confident about getting a hook-up.
It was all too late for Day One though, as we didn’t see another billfish that day. Bolero also lost a marlin and boated a nice wahoo on Day One, while Little Weapon tagged a couple of 20kg-plus wahoo.
We anchored in the lee of Nguna Island for the night.
An early start and a big breakfast had everyone enthusiastic about the fishing on Day Two. I jumped aboard Ymer again, this time with the Kiwis.
We headed for a seamount between Matasso and Emae Islands and on arrival it looked very fishy indeed. There were plenty of birds and skipjack tuna about and it didn’t take long to get our first marlin bite.
A little blue marlin about 120lb ate a green Pakula Animal on the short corner and put on a spirited display on the heavy tackle. Unfortunately the hooks pulled on the leader before the tag went in, but at least we got some to finally stick on hook-up.
There seemed to be plenty of juvenile blue marlin in the area as Bolero also had four bites on small blues in the space of an hour without managing to tag any.
CHANGE OF TACTIC
It was decided that a change in tactics was required aboard Ymer, so a couple of live skipjack were caught and duly despatched wearing 12/0 hooks on their noses.
It didn’t take long for the livies to get the attention of a blue marlin. Only trouble was that the greedy little bugger ate both baits before the second one could be cleared. The 150lb fish was fought on one rod and swam off wearing a tag for his troubles.
Bolero and Little Weapon spent the afternoon closer to Cook’s Reef and had a ball catching XOS wahoo, mahi mahi and dogtooth tuna. Tony also got a nice wahoo on Ymer on the way into the anchorage behind Emae Island.
The trend of early starts and big breakfasts continued and as we came further off the moon, confidence was high that the fishing was going to improve.
I joined the Aussies again on Ymer for Day Three and we put the throttles down for the 30-odd mile run to the De Chauliac Bank – a seamount with a good reputation for producing quality blue and black marlin.
I rigged up some teasers and pitchbaits during the run to the seamount and convinced the guys to try a bit of switchbaiting. Once at the Bank, the teasers were deployed and it took a whole five minutes to get our first bite from a 250lb blue marlin.
It was the classic switch. The fish ate the teaser all the way to the boat, the pitchbait was deployed at just the right time, the marlin ate the bait with gusto, the reel was freespooled perfectly, the drag was pushed up, the boat went ahead and… err… nothing. Bugger! Well, almost the classic switch.
I could see our skipper Joanic was having difficulty with the fact the we had lures out there with no hooks in them, so the switchbaiting was canned without really giving it a fair go.
The lures were deployed once more and it wasn’t long before we hooked up on a really nice blue around 400lb. Chris was in the chair and he was doing a super job for someone that hadn’t fished heavy tackle before. Everything was going beautifully: the fish had finished all its jumps, the line was tight, the rest was academic – until the hooks pulled, that is. You wouldn’t @#$%ing read about it!
There were plenty of skipjack schools around, so I convinced Joanic to try another livie. This one lasted about an hour and I could feel the stares of our captain burning a hole in the back of my neck as I held on to the livie. Hmm… time to pull another trick out of the hat.
“Johnny, grab that Alvey deckwinch and a couple of the biggest sinkers you’ve got thanks mate,” I exclaimed. As I rigged up a makeshift downrigger, the stares from around the boat got more intense. “Trust me guys,” is all I could say.
The tuna was on the downrigger for about two minutes when it pulled from the clip. I thought it was probably a false alarm so I grabbed the drop back to see what was going on. As the line flicked through my fingers, I knew this was no false alarm. “You’re getting bit Chris, get ready.”
Chris gave the fish a bit of freespool then locked it up. It was a beautiful thing seeing that rod load up under 60lb of drag. When the fish first cleared the water, there was no mistaking this was a black marlin. Estimated at around 250lb, the fish provided a spectacular aerial display around the boat, which made for great photography in the calm conditions.
We put the lures back in the water while in search of more skipjack schools but didn’t get far before another spirited black marlin jumped on – this time a 200lber, which was successfully tagged for Brad.
The day was finished off with a nice wahoo on the way in for Kevin. We anchored behind Epi and heard the bad luck stories from the Kiwis -although Michael had had a good day on Little Weapon, trying out his new jig rod on doggies and other reef dwellers.
On Day Four I jumped ship and joined the Aussies aboard Bolero. As we departed the anchorage it was hard to discern where the sea finished and the sky started – it was that calm! Not a breath of wind rippled the surface as we made our way back to the De Chauliac Bank.
In the oily-calm conditions our first marlin bite for the day was explosive to say the least. In typical blue marlin fashion, the magnificent fish tore the surface to shreds as Michael made a valiant attempt to keep pressure on the line.
Somehow the hooks managed to stay in and it wasn’t too long before Michael had released his first marlin. A blue about 280lb, it was a nice fish to open his account with.
We only saw one other billfish for the day aboard Bolero – a small fish that had a swipe at everything but was never really committed to anything.
Meanwhile the Kiwis on Ymer were having an absolute ball. They went 3-3-3 for the day with two blues – 300 and 400lb and a 300lb black. It was Alan’s first black marlin too. The Kiwis rated that day as the best fishing they have had anywhere in the world.
WHEN YOU’RE HOT YOU’RE HOT
On day five I stuck with the Aussies as Ymer was obviously red-hot. Heath and Kevin were the only trippers not to catch a marlin on the trip so far, but everyone was confident that today was the day.
A light breeze came up from the west and the morning was a little quiet. We caught a couple more skipjack, but because they were inhaling the lures, we were having trouble keeping them alive. I showed the boys how to rig up a skipping tuna and we soon had a couple of nice skipjack splashing off the riggers.
As Joanic made a turn, the baits sank and we had a false alarm on the short bait when the clip released. At the same time, the long bait pulled from the clip and I was just in the process of telling the guys not to worry – it’s only another false alarm – when a 200lb black marlin came rocketing out of the water with the skipjack hanging out of the corner of its mouth. Oops, sorry guys – no false alarm!
Heath jumped in the chair and looked like he had been doing it all his life. It was a lively fish on the heavy tackle and was tagged and released in extremely healthy condition. This was Heath’s first marlin also. To say he was stoked is indeed an understatement.
It was Kevin’s turn in the chair and we were all on edge when we raised the next fish on lures but couldn’t get it to eat. After locating another skipjack school, a fresh livie was caught and deployed immediately.
The bait lasted longer than we all expected, but just as Kevin was winding up the bait to check it, it got nailed. Kev quickly knocked the reel back to freespool and let the fish eat the bait. He came tight and a little blue marlin came to the surface for a dance.
When the tag went in, it was cheers all round as every BlueWater reader on the trip had now caught a marlin. Awesome stuff!
Bolero had caught a few nice yellowfin during the day but hadn’t seen a marlin. It wasn’t until late in the day when Remy had the bow pointed for the anchorage when a real nice one climbed on. Barry jumped in the chair, and although the fish didn’t jump at all, Remy assured the Kiwis they were attached to a nice marlin. They finally tagged the fish in the twilight and estimated that at 450lb, it was the biggest fish of the trip so far.
By Day Six it was time to leave the De Chauliac Bank and start working our way south again. The wind started to puff a bit and the Kiwis and I aboard Ymer decided to run down to the consistent grounds off Hat Island. In hindsight it was probably the wrong decision, as we only had the one hook-up on a small blue that managed to throw the hooks. Bolero, on the other hand, decided to swing past Cook’s Reef on the way through and almost got eaten out of the boat. They caught five wahoo to 30kg and had three bites on marlin – two of them over 400lb.
We spent our last night on the mothership in beautiful Havannah Harbour and celebrated the fantastic week it had been. Who would have thought that every tripper would come away with a marlin under their belt?
On our final day we fished our way back to Port Vila and apart from a nice mahi mahi to Heath, it was relatively non eventful. We all decided an early finish was in order and it was back to the mothership for a hot shower, a few cleansing ales and the awards ceremony before heading ashore. Congratulations to Barry for catching the biggest marlin – a 450lb blue. It did hurt a little to present the Kiwis with their own trophy, but heck – they had to win something eventually. Well done guys, you fished very well.
We had the customary farewell dinner at the Waterfront Bar and Grill before checking out a bit of Port Vila’s nightlife.
I think I can safely say that once again BlueWater, with the assistance of Ocean Blue Vanuatu, put on a great readers’ trip, as there were nothing but smiling faces among those who attended.
Will there be a third readers’ trip to Vanuatu? Absolutely! So if you’re interested, speak up – I know I’m ready to go again.