Saltwater Spectaculars to End the Year

Growing up on the fringes of West London, coarse fishing was always going to shape my development as an angler and to this day it remains my first love. But following my retirement in 2010 after a quarter of a century serving as an elected politician in Reading, a very welcome 16 month ‘fishing sabbatical’ in Australia certainly opened my eyes to the wealth of other species and equally enjoyable fishing experiences that are to found in the marine environment. Prior to that my saltwater angling had been confined to the occasional excursion after mullet, bass and mackerel and single shark fishing trip to Cornwall.

These days more and more of my fishing adventures are taking place in the sea both at home and abroad. It helps having friends in the west coast of Ireland – although my trip there this year was unusually poor with just a few modest pollack to show for our efforts – as well as in more far flung places like Australia and New Zealand. However, it’s now not necessary to always travel a long way to experience reel screaming action as for the first time in 60 years big game fishing has returned to Britain with the revival of our very own Blue Fin Tuna fishery. These turbo charged giants of the ocean were regular visitors to U.K. waters until the 1950s when a combination of the reduction in the local herring populations and international commercial overfishing of tuna saw their numbers plummet and the species classified as endangered.

Worldwide conservation measures were adopted from 2007 and slowly but surely numbers began to recover. Atlantic Bluefin Tuna have now been in U.K. waters for the last seven years and the increase in abundance has seen their status downgraded from ‘endangered’ to one of ‘least concern’ by the International Conservation Union for Nature. Two years ago the UK was allocated a small tuna quota by International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) in its own right allowing us to join the 13 other ICCAT members, including Norway and Denmark, who operate recreational tuna fisheries. This needed to be done carefully with the highest possible conservation outcomes as the last thing we needed was for angling to be responsible for threatening the recovery of the species. So to begin with the Angling Trust together with our partners, Bluefin Tuna UK, pushed for a very limited, science based, CatcH and Release Tag (CHART) programme which has now run successfully for the last two years in the South West of England.

The first year of CHART saw over 700 fish successfully tagged and released, a mortality rate of less than 2% and a local economic benefit of over £800,000 to coastal communities. The programme of 2021 delivered outstanding results showing how properly licensed and managed recreational fishing could deliver economic benefits alongside minimal mortality. The figures for this year are even more impressive and we now have 25 professional and trained skippers who have kitted out their own vessels and successfully completed the CHART programme. The next stage is to further open up the tag and release fishery allowing new entrants to benefit from the scheme and to deliver more exciting fishing opportunities as well excellent economic and conservation outcomes.

Angling Trust CEO Jamie Cook (right) and friend Tim Harris getting a quick lesson in how to play big tuna from a harness

Having spent a lot of time on this issue as part of our work for the Angling Trust Jamie Cook and I were naturally keen to experience some of this world class game fishing for ourselves. We had a trip with skipper Rob Thompson cancelled last year due to bad weather so we tried again this October out of Plymouth. This time the fish gods smiled on us, and, after a wind delayed start, Rob was able to put us on fish within an hour of setting sail. Now I’ve caught tuna before on the other side of the world and witnessed those impressive ‘bust ups’ as these aggressive predators smash into the bait schools but I never expected to see such sights so close to home. At one stage, for 400 yards, the sea was simply boiling with tuna and hooking up seemed all but certain. And so it proved as we dropped the gear in the shape of four spreader bars carrying a selection of teasers ahead of a larger ‘muppet’ hiding a big, single stinger hook. The spreader bars are commonly used in the CHART programme as they help prevent the fish from diving deep and significantly reduce fight times. And I for one was glad of anything that lessens the pain that these beasts could inflict on my ageing body!

One of five big bluefin tuna landed on our boat as part of the successful 2022 CHART programme

There were three of us on board – Jamie, Tim and myself – along with Rob and his partner / deckie Viv Shears – better known for his carp breeding exploits. The trip was in part a belated wedding present for Tim (I’m sure his wife was suitably impressed!) so he was definitely going to be first up on the rods. Jamie was second and I made it clear that whilst I’d take the rod for the third strike, if it happened, I had zero interest in hanging on to some huge fish for hours on end and that they should be prepared to take over after half an hour should something big and horrid take hold. Within 20 minutes Tim was away followed by Jamie with a bigger one a short time later. Tim’s was manageable fish of a couple of hundred pounds or so and was brought alongside in good time. I was hoping for something similar on my turn but inevitably the ‘old guy’ found himself attached to something a little more substantial. Now I love catching decent fish but there’s a special type of horror triggered by watching the spool start to empty again after you’ve spent best part of 15 back breaking and arm wrenching minutes getting the bloody thing to the boat. After 25 minutes of pumping and grunting I was making progress but was also seriously considering handing the rod to one of my younger friends. A half hearted attempt by the fish at a third run was prevented and I decided to ‘man up’ and stay the course. All of a sudden it was all over and Viv grabbed the leader and Rob inserted the tag into 450lbs of steely blue Atlantic tuna some 32 minutes after hooking up. I was pleased but shattered and the sight of that great fish slipping back into the sea within sight of the Cornish coast will stay with me forever.

Indian Ocean Magic

If bluewater action is your thing there’s few more productive or magical places that the Indian Ocean. I’ve written before about trips to Kenya after sailfish, to the Seychelles chasing bonefish and last year’s getaway to the Maldives where I managed to squeeze in a few days chasing Giant Trevally into a family holiday. Now GTs are particularly brutal opponents and I was keen to get back to the Maldives for a proper go at them on a boys own fishing trip. My wife Natalie and I were due out in Australia in December to catch up with friends and family so it seemed sensible to organise the Maldives expedition the week before and then to hook up with Nat in Dubai to complete the journey Down Under.

Reel screaming action aboard MAC-STRIKE III in the Maldives

The plan was to fish again with the impressive MAC-STRIKE operation owned by big game enthusiast Maarten de Roeper and operated by his local captain Atho Ayathulla. In 2021 I fished for a few days out of Laamu Atoll with Nat and I staying in the all inclusive Rahaa Resort. But this time the guys were keen to explore the more southerly atoll of Gaafu Alifu and the accommodation was to be in a local guesthouse on the tiny island of Kolamaafushi. This large atoll has minimal sport fishing pressure and also contained dozens of small uninhabited islands that gave us the opportunity for some light tackle shore fishing as a break from hurling big poppers and stick baits into the reef.

I put out feelers for fishing partners and was pleased to hear back from long standing fishing friends Malcolm Morris and Adrian Palmer who were keen to try their luck. I needed a fourth angler for the boat and we were eventually joined by the angling author and compiler Mike Cutler with whom I’d fished in India for Mahseer back in the 90s. Obviously the tackle required for GTs is a bit different to anything most people are likely to use in the U.K. but I was able to borrow some high quality popping and jigging rods and reels for the guys from my tuna fishing mates and to get hold of a decent supply of jigs and poppers from another mate who was selling his collection. Finally we were all set and, after a long flight, four very excited anglers met up at Male airport to await our domestic flight to our unexplored atoll.

The GT action was a bit patchy this year but we managed a few decent fish with the best this 50lbs + bruiser (top) caught by Mike Cutler

Unfortunately, whilst the weather was warm and sunny as the wet season came to an end, the wind remained brisk and on a couple of occasions it was simply too uncomfortable to cast safely from a pitching deck. The GTs can be caught in the calmer water inside the atoll but the most productive areas tend to be on the ocean side of surrounding reefs. We caught fish every day including some fine snapper and coral trout and some lovely bluefin trevally. The GTs made the occasional appearance, I had a couple of modest fish to 20lbs as did Adrian. Mike landed a 50lbs plus beauty and sadly, when Malcolm finally hooked his brute of a GT and got it close to the boat, it made one final dive and severed the 130lbs leader on the rocks. He was not the only one to lose fish but that’s GT fishing. Hours of exertion in the blazing sun and moments of madness and mayhem followed by agony or ecstasy. I reckon I’ve a couple more of these trips left in me but after that my gear will be on eBay as these fish are probably best left alone once you hit the wrong side of 70.

We enjoyed some good action with other species in tbe Maldives including, from top to bottom – yellowfin tuna (Adrian), red snapper (Adrian), Bluefin Trevally (Martin) and Coral Trout (Mike).

We found the yellowfin tuna on occasion either by trolling or casting at bust ups but they didn’t seem to be about in numbers. We brought fly rods and light soft plastic outfits to try for bonefish and other smaller species from the shore and although we had great fun casting from a couple of idyllic tropical islands we caught everything except bones. Typically, on the final day we got a better sense of the potential of this wonderful atoll. All the rods were packed away and we had an hour to kill before the boat came to take us across to the domestic airport for the onward flight back to Male. Adrian, Malcolm myself went exploring and at the far end of the island we found a gorgeous flat with the tide running in from the open ocean beyond. If anywhere had to hold bonefish this was it. And sure enough, within five minutes, we spotted some large pods of ‘grey ghosts’ patrolling the skinny water in search of a meal. Catching them would have been pretty straight forward as these were unpressured fish. If only we hadn’t run out of time. Worse was to follow as on the 45 minute boat ride back across the atoll we were twice within touching distance of two of the biggest tuna bust ups I have ever seen. The sky was black with birds as the yellowfin created carnage smashing into what must have been huge shoals of bait fish. All we could do is look wistfully at the rods resting uselessly in their tubes and think about a return trip to do the place justice.

The Maldives offers an amazing variety of angling opportunities and locations from uninhabited islands, ocean facing reefs and sandy shores from which Malcolm was targeting small Trevally on the fly

Australian Adventure

We arrived in Sydney towards the end of November and I enjoyed catching up with my Aussie mates for a bit of gentle if unspectacular fishing on the harbour. It’s a sad fact of life that in order to experience world class fishing you usually have to get far away from the main centres of population. And so plans were hatched for a trip north with my good mate Phil Bolton and former Fishing World editor Jim Harnwell to hopefully repeat the red letter day we all enjoyed back in 2017. This was the last time we all fished together and you can read about it here – https://fightingforfishing.anglingtrust.net/2017/12/17/why-we-fish/

South West Rocks in northern New South Wales is great fishing location

On this occasion the venue was South West Rocks on the stunning New South Wales Mid-North Coast. We booked out a few days with the father and son team of Vic and Zane Levett from Oceanhunter Sportsfishing – an operation I can’t recommend too highly. Unfortunately pressure of work and a timing switch to catch the best of the weather meant that Jim couldn’t join us which was a shame. Particularly as he he missed out on some stella sport with a whole variety of species.

Vic and Zane Levett run Oceanhunter Sportsfishing

I was keen to catch my first jewfish, an Australian species that is well recognised as suffering from excessive fishing pressure, and to get into the kingfish, dolphin fish (dollies) and snapper for which South West Rocks is justifiably famous. As a fishing venue this place really has it all. Plenty of headlands, islands and rocky reefs as well as the highly productive Macleay River estuary. At the right time of year the East Australian Current brings down the marlin and Spanish mackerel, the reefs hold snapper, kingies and cobia, there are dollies galore out wide on the FADS and the estuary offers quality fishing for jewies, bream, flathead and some trophy sized mangrove jacks. What’s not to like?!

Dolphin fish galore for both Phil and Martin

I guess the only hitch is traversing the bar at the river mouth which can be a challenge in a heavy swell. Luckily Vic was able to be flexible with our booking and we arrived in time for two and half days days fishing in pretty optimal conditions. An early start saw us targeting snapper on soft plastics before the sun climbed too high in the sky. Although I failed to connect with anything other than a few smallish kingies Phil landed a couple of half decent reds before we headed further offshore to see what was happening out on the Fish Aggregation Devices (FADS). I had happily purchased my temporary NSW fishing licence on arrival and it was good to see the money being well spent on providing what was a veritable haven for both dollies and kingies. As we pulled up to the FAD we could see the dollies jumping and almost every cast with a 125mm Halco Slidog stick bait saw the reels screaming as either dollies or small kingies smashed into the lures. On Zane’s recommendation we changed to free lined livies and immediately started getting into the bigger dollies including several fine fish of over a metre. We headed back into the river and enjoyed some good sport bouncing livies down the current close to the rock wall. I got my first jewie and a personal best flathead of 90 cms whilst Phil had several jewie before getting comprehensively smoked by an angry mangrove jack which left him with a bleeding finger and broken leader.

Martin’s first jewfish caught in the estuary of the productive Macleay River

We only had a few hours to fish on the final morning and wanted to target the big kingfish for which the area is renowned. So we headed out to kingy grounds stopping to pick up some livies on the way. Interestingly the Southerly wind from the previous afternoon had turned over the water inshore which was now cobalt blue rather than green in colour. The bait grounds out front were suddenly full of slimies as well as the usual yakkas. Vic was pleased to see this, even more so when he marked a decent fish on the sounder hanging off the bait, and announced we would be returning later.

Plenty of small kingies were once again in evidence but at no point did we spot any of the bigger fish homing in on our stickbaits. Inevitably a couple of spear fisherman showed up and I can’t help thinking that there just might be a correlation between the shortage of trophy kingies and the propensity these guys have to target the largest fish in the shoal.

Casting as the sun comes up over South West Rocks

We tried stick baiting several marks and whilst I love catching kingies of an any size our target fish still eluded us. With time ticking by we moved on and dropped down a livie. I’m pleased to say that mine was snaffled by a cobia which was another Australian species I could add to the list. As promised Vic took us back to the bait grounds out front and sure enough the sounder lit up with a couple of big arches. We freelined a livie out the back and put another down on a sinker in anticipation. The minutes ticked by and Vic and Zane cast in the bait jigs to top up the livebait tank while Phil and I waited for a take. All of a sudden, as Vic was winding up a string of slimies, a marlin appeared under the boat. He yelled to Phil to crank up his livie on the sinker rod and within seconds it hooped over and the reel screamed as an angry black marlin got airborne. Phil did well to get the fish boat side in half an hour on spin gear and 50lbs braid. Vic and Zane were understandably stoked and getting the first marlin of the season at South West Rocks but I was surprised at the lengths Zane went to in order to ensure that the fish was properly tagged. Never before have I seen someone leap into the water to tag a marlin, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it myself, but I had been warned that Zane was probably the keenest fisho on the East Coast so perhaps his aerobatics shouldn’t have come as such a surprise!

Phil’s marlin was a perfect way to end our trip to South West Rocks

Phil’s marlin, conservatively estimated at 50kgs, was safely released and provided a wonderful finale to a fabulous fishing trip in the company of two very fine anglers. If you want to experience the very best that South West Rocks can offer Oceanhunter Sportsfishing can be found at https://www.oceansportsfishing.com.au/ or on Facebook.

My final trip was up to the Gold Coast to visit some of my wife’s family so it seemed an ideal opportunity to hook up with my mate Ben Diggles and that other icon of Fishing World, David Green. Luckily Greenie had space for Ben and I on his boat Gemma 111 and word was that the small black marlin were present in numbers. However, that particular morning they weren’t really on the munch and most boats were reporting not much more than the odd missed strike. 8 hours trolling, in highly enjoyable company, saw us get five strikes and the sum total of a single, small striped tuna to me and a modest dolly for Ben. A small black marlin spat the hook almost immediately and the other two hits failed to hook up. Clearly not our day. By contrast Greenie texted us the next morning to say that he had just landed two marlin in three hours with first coming a whole three minutes after first dropping his lures in the water!

Back home and back to my roots on a favourite Thames tributary

And so another trip in the sun came to an end and Nat I were greeted by temperatures of minus 6C as we landed back at Heathrow. It took a while to get over the jet lag, trust me it gets worse with age, but it wasn’t long before the thaw arrived and I was back doing what I know best. Standing in a little Thames tributary catching roach, dace and chub on lightly shotted stick float. It doesn’t matter how many big fish I catch from how many exotic locations – there will always be a river somewhere calling me back home

4 thoughts on “Saltwater Spectaculars to End the Year

  1. Thoroughly enjoy reading about your exploits Martin.

    Not sure it’s relevant, but the Defra press release in 2006 that announced anglers were banned from ‘targeting’ bluefin was justified as part of the EU’s obligation to ICCAT’s 15 year recovery plan. Now that the species has very obviously recovered what is the justification for maintaining this ban on UK anglers? We had a ‘right’ taken away from us but what is the justification for not restoring that (historical) right now that the recovery plan has succeeded?

    Anglers fishing for threshers and swordfish will experience an inordinately large number of bluefin as bycatch, so Defra’s apparent intransigence is not the end of the world…

    Another issue worth considering is whether ICES’ modelling for quota species in the English Channel and elsewhere will be effectively projecting the impact of tens of thousands of the oceans’ most efficient apex predators. I suspect the models they’ve been using for the past 50 years are now completely inadequate (science may have proved bluefin are present in UK waters but not their astounding numbers) and that the consequences for commercial fishing could well be devastating.

    After otters were absent for decades their immediate impact on naive fish (which had never seen an otter) was devastating, and the knock on effect on angling (especially for barbel) equally so. Is there any reason to assume that the tunas’ impact on localised fish stocks in the English Channel after their 50 year absence will be any less devastating? I mentioned this to Cefas years ago and I’m not even sure they understood what I was warning them about.

    Thanks and best regards,

    Greg Whitehead

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Hi Greg

    I think the quickest way for us to lose this fishery would be for unlicensed and unregulated anglers to start killing fish that were recently on the endangered list. What on Earth would the average sea anglers do with, say, a thousand pounds of tuna flesh besides selling it?

    However, I do agree with you on the impact of the return of apex predators in such numbers.

    Cheers
    Martin

  3. Hello Martin, That was a great read!
    I am very keen to get on some foreign fishing adventures myself over the next year or two so this blog was some top inspiration as to what opportunities are out there for the travelling angler!
    Have you ever fished in/around the New Zealand south island before?

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