By Dave Ferrell
Grander marlin popped up like ants at a summer picnic this past November on the Great Barrier Reef, providing lucky anglers and crews with some of the best black marlin fishing they’ve seen here for some time. According to Granderwatch.com, boats took or released 15 fish over 1,000 pounds this year, with two weighing over 1,200 and one topping 1,400! (And the way they routinely let go of 900-pluses on the Reef, you can rest assured crews caught plenty more). The 1,431-pounder, caught on the Too Easy II on November 29 with Capt. Russel Gage at the helm, narrowly missed Capt. Peter Wright’s Australian-record fish weighing 1,442-pounds caught way back in 1973!
Not only do you get to use the heaviest tackle and the biggest baits to catch the biggest fish, you get to leader those fish on .040 wire or 600-pound-plus mono…and use the gaffs when they are big enough! It’s a learning experience that you really can’t get anywhere else in the world. So yeah, everybody who wants to pull on a big fish wants to work on the Reef for at least a season…and if you are serious about fishing as your profession, you should. But it’s not all “Granders every day and rum all night” either…a season on the Reef means long, hard days with barely any time off. You cook, clean and fish nonstop for 60-plus days, almost 24 hours a day. You do pay a price for every big girl you get to pull on…but it’s worth every penny.
Not a Regular Gig
Nicholas “Nick” Bovell gets around. A good fisherman with a tremendous work ethic, Bovell hails from Trinidad, but has fished all over the world with some of the best crews in the business – including stints on Gray Ingram’s Big Oh. He’s seen a lot of big fish on the leader and he knows how to get them in the boat – a skill that’s become increasingly rare since most sportfishing crews let the vast majority of their fish go unless they are in a big-fish, big-money tournament.
Those skills with a gaff make him a prized team member for crews looking to take big fish…That’s precisely how he wound up on the Adventum with Capt. Darren “Biggles” Haydon in 2018 for his third season on the Great Barrier Reef.
Bovell came to fish on the brand new Adventum thanks to Haydon’s relationship with the boat’s proud new owner, Kevin Hodgson, from South Africa. Hodgson hosted Captain Haydon on a trip to Cape Verde to fish his big boat. It was in Cape Verde that Haydon talked to the new owner and his captain, Dean Comberbach, about a possible first mate for the boat’s first season on the reef. Comberbach, who would be coming along for the boat’s maiden season as the second mate, brought up Bovell’s name.
“I was looking for the right job and was grateful for the chance to come back here. There are a finite number of boats and spots each season, especially good ones,” says Bovell. “The fish on the Reef are the biggest in the world and they test everything,” says Bovell. “And it all starts with the bait fishing in the morning…everything has to be perfect. There’s no Baitmasters out there, so you have to catch and process all of your own bait.”
You go through a lot of bait when you are black marlin fishing on the reef, even if you are only pulling two or three at time. Everything in Australia sports a nasty set of teeth and chop-offs can come fast and furious. “The sheer volume of everything is a lot more than I expected,” said Comberbach, “Catching and processing a lot more bait than I’m used to was a big adjustment. Instead of having ten baits rigged and ready, you need 20 here. Looking after your baits is such a critical element to this fishery. The boats are mainly set up for taking care of bait; with good brine boxes, freezers, storage…everything. The attention to detail in every aspect was startling. The weather is a big factor too… It can blow like hell for an entire month…20 knots…which just makes everything a bit harder.”
“You certainly don’t have to rig scad like you do here anywhere else in the world,” says Bovell. “Bait rigging here is an art form, and I’ve learned from some of the best guys. This place can humble anyone really quick. The mates here are really good fisherman who have worked with some of the best captains, who, in turn, were some of the best mates. And they all catch the biggest fish in the world. I’m so grateful the for local mates that have taught me. They have been very welcoming. If you’re not cocky and a dick they are very welcoming. Dave Cassar helped me out a lot; and Jay and Rhys [Reese] on the Askari and Dean Ford. I’m very grateful that they let me come and enjoy their fishery. They all have a lot of knowledge and have seen a lot of big fish…you can learn if you listen.” “You just can’t buy a boat and come here and do this shit!” says Comberbach. “Just listen and learn. Put your ego aside. If you are not hitting the bed entirely wore out every night, you’re doing it wrong.”
One unique aspect of the Great Barrier Reef fishery presents one of the biggest challenges for any crewman who wants to spend a season on the reef – the live aboard charter. A fishing trip to Australia takes a lot of time, money and commitment. Charters here usually run five days or more, with an average charter lasting ten days. Most of these are done without the benefit of a mothership – with the charter and crew sharing close quarters for the duration of the trip. Most of the charter boats here are 50-feet or less. This means that cooking three squares a day (plus snacks), doing laundry, washing tons of dishes and trying to make sure you guests have a great trip…no matter what kind of fishing or weather you might encounter – is all done in close quarters. It’s a 24/7 job that you never get to leave. There are no trips home until the season is over.
“It’s not that hard, it’s just different. Not going home or getting off the boat each day, a lot of guys have a hard time with that aspect. A lot of the guys from North Carolina make it; not so much the sailfish guys from south Florida,” says Bovell with a grin. With everything going on at once, Bovell likes to establish a routine and stick to it. “Since you are essentially a floating hotel and restaurant, getting into a good routine ensures that you don’t forget to do something. We can’t control the fishing, but we can control what you eat and how much fun you have. I’m not the guy who likes to stay up late and entertain, I get up early and clean all the heads. I tap out early and let Dean stay up late…hangovers are the worst!”
“You certainly provide a lot more than just the fishing,” agrees Comberbach. “You have to provide entertainment above and beyond. You are still on when the sun goes down.” Although he agrees that a routine keeps things humming, Comberbach also realizes the need to know when to make adjustments to fit each client. “You really get to know your clients when you are with them 24 hours a day. You can start to anticipate what they are going to need or want. If a guy is going through a ton a of beer a day, you have to make sure to make time to get those beers into the cooler so you don’t run out of cold ones!” With just a short 60- or 70-day window to the big fish season, crews scramble to come into port with one charter and leave the next day with another. After a five or 10-day trip there’s a whole host of cleaning and provisioning chores that need to be executed in a very short amount of time.
“You have to pull all the sheets and get all the laundry done and then you have to make the boat look like it’s the first day of the season. I like a clean boat. Th e clients appreciate it and it makes things easy for us as well…less hassle,” says Bovell. “Team work makes the dream work…and it takes a really good team to go 60 or 70 days straight here.” “We spent 30 days with one charter, the owner Kevin Hodgson, and we had one half day in Cooktown,” says Comberbach. “We were on this brand-new boat and we were working a few things out…fortunately nothing major occurred and we never missed a day of fi shing. You just have to build some trust with each other and do a good job. It helps if you have a great captain like Biggles. Capt. Haydon is amazing. He makes the hard stuff look easy…his program is sick.”
Aussies still frequently use a lot of words that American English speakers have largely abandoned – with “feral,” meaning “wild,” an obvious favorite of mine. (Ferrell-feral … get it?) “Keen” is another example. Keen pretty much translates as “eager” or “hungry” to do something. According to local Aussie mate, Rhys Younan-Wise (pronounced Reese Uniwize), on the Askari, “keenness” for fishing is the most important thing a mate can bring to Great Barrier Reef when looking for a job. “They can expect hard work and long days…you need to be keen. You need to be a very keen fisherman to be able to handle it and do it for the whole season. Lots of rookies show up…and lots of rookies do really well. But to perform consistently for the entire season you really have to want it. It’s a long slog, but good fun!” he says. “It’s all worth it when you finally get here and catch the big one,” says Jay Househan, Askari’s second mate. In addition to being keen, that Younan-Wise suggests making sure you have a job lined up before you get there. “
These days, with all the Facebook and other social media, it’s a smart move to get in contact with a lot of people and let them know that you are wanting to come. Get your name out there among the captains and mates. It shouldn’t be too hard to get a bit of work. And once you’ve done it, your name gets around pretty quick. It’s not hard after that if you do a good job. Just make sure you get your name out there before you turn up. If you turn up without a job…just keep walking the docks. Keep talking to people and making friends. Keep asking all the captains…somebody is going to go down during the season.” “You don’t do it for the money either,” says Bovell. “You get paid, but it’s not a whole lot.” It’s the experience that keeps you coming back. “The wildness of this place, out on the reef at night, with all the jacks in the lights it’s just indescribable,” says Comberbach. Comberbach got a real treat during his first season when the Adventum caught a big fish for the owner.
“We wanted to take a big one for Kevin. He’s always wanted a big one and we were working hard towards doing it. To get it done you have to have a plan.” The plan came together on October 29th and Dean was on the gaff. Dean made a perfect shot in the dark under the lights and the team got the 1,260-pounder into the boat. It was Capt. Haydon’s biggest fish in his 31 years on the reef. Can you imagine? Your first year on the reef, sticking a 1,260 in the dark? Gives me a horn just thinking about it.