Billfish on a budget

By Rory MacLeod


We always knew catching a sailfish from the 3.8m tinny we were dragging around Australia was ambitious, but if there was one place we stood a chance, Broome, Western Australia (WA), was it. Renowned for sailfish and marlin during the dry season (April – September) and home to some of the top tagging charter operators in the Indian Ocean, the shoals north of Broome are truly a world-class fishery.

With tides running up to nine metres, it’s easy to get caught out launching from the creeks and beaches. Getting it wrong, or staying that extra half an hour can mean a long wait until the next high tide, a swim back to shore in croc country, or even turning your car into a submarine. In our case, it meant our fishing window was limited to about two hours either side of the high tide. Four hours to catch a sailfish with man, woman and dog being pushed along by just enough horsepower to get us on the plane.

As far as the fishing goes, the plan was pretty straight forward. Jig up some fresh baits on the first bait ball, then troll swim-baits with a string of teasers and have a rod ready to pitch a live-bait if anything turned up in the spread. Twenty minutes in and everything was going to plan as the sounder lit up on a bait school and we quickly got a dozen fresh baits, some kept live and a few rigged up to troll. Two hours of trolling later; not a single bust-up, no bait showing on the sounder, no strikes, no fish raised and no birds working on the horizon to point us in the right direction. Things were looking bleak.

It was nearly time to head back in when some small patches of bait started showing on the sounder, albeit scattered and mostly on the bottom. A small mackerel hitting the swim-bait provided a couple of minutes fun before something took it, my reel screamed and the hook pulled. I assumed I’d been sharked. I was wrong.

Not more than 20 seconds later, a flared-up sail came charging in under the tinny, so close you could reach out and touch it (literally). In an instant, the other swim-bait was dropped on its head. This peaked its interest, but it wouldn’t take the fresh scad. A live-bait quickly followed, provoking an immediate reaction from the already fired-up fish. Being so close to the action, you could actually see the hungry sailfish take the bait as a flurry of scales erupted around its mouth. After counting out the longest five seconds of my life, and flipping the bail arm over to set the hook, we were on.

For anyone who’s experienced the chaos when a fish strikes on a game-fishing boat, imagine doing the same thing in a rocking bathtub and you’ll come close to the excitement of it all. Pulling the teasers in and clearing the lines turns into a drunken dance with two people and a dog in a dinghy. A calm head is needed and some prior thought to the setup really pays off. Having the teasers on large overhead outfits makes them quick and easy to retrieve and having everything non-essential stashed away is a must.

The fish really put on an acrobatic display, jumping several times over the 15-minute fight and making my Stradic 5000 scream at will. After the third good run, we manoeuvred the sail alongside, only to find it wasn’t done yet as it charged away, burst out and tail-walked less than 10 metres from the boat. A truly impressive sight, and just what was needed to get the upper hand on it. Soon we were able to manoeuvre alongside it again and with my rod free-spooled and leader the in one hand I was able to reach over and grab it by the bill. Game over.

Note: I wouldn’t normally condone bringing billfish on board for a photo as it drastically reduces their chance ofsuccessful release. Getting one in the dinghy was the first and only time I’ve done it, and it will definitely be the last. It took around 20 minutes of swimming it until it was kicking strongly and biting on my hand before release. Thankfully, this one swam off steadily to fight another day.

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