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Great Barrier Reef Charter

Mackay Mariner BerthThere are so many different charter boat operations working out of Mackay and the Great Barrier Reef at the moment that it is somewhat hard to choose a good one. It can seem like a lucky dip.

There’s nothing worse than paying all that money only to find out that the boat rolls like a barrel, the skipper has the personality of a prison warden and the fish are scarcer than good reviews for a Madonna movie.

I can personally vouch for the week long charter aboard the Elizabeth E II which does smashingly good long range luxury fishing cruises. Black Samurai is also a professional operation that I will happily endorse, if a few days of madcap pelagic and reef fishing are your thing. The question rests though – what about the day market? Well, after some careful searching I found Reefari Charters. Reefari is a full day fishing charter run by Greg Reynolds aboard his 35ft Cougar Cat, Raptor II.

The one day reef charter can be an uncertain sought of niche to exploit. Put simply, its high risk. The reef can shut down during some times of the year and with only one day to play with, a skipper literally only has limited chances of finding the fish.

Greg seems to have found a way around this issue by filling his GPS with a chain of marks that he systematically fishes until he finds some action. He also covers all bases by fishing the deep water in the shipping channel, the shallow reef edges and the top of the water column with floating baits. After a day out on Reefari, I’d be more than willing to recommend the operation. Here’s why…

Location: Leaving Mackay Marina
Time: 6.30am
There are ten of us on board, seven patrons, myself, Nathan the decky and Greg. I’d half expected it to be somewhat cramped but with the crew spread over two decks and the cabin, everyone is quite comfortable. The Cougar takes a pesky 15knot morning breeze in its stride and smashes its way through some choppy swells.

Half way out, the deckhand yells like a banshee and slams the boat to a sudden stop as one of the earth’s gentle giants breeches the surface directly in our path. The big whale puts on a show and then waves us on with a slap of its massive tail. The trip isn’t exactly a gondola ride but we feel safe, dry and no one’s launching a pre-emptive burley trail from the back deck so all in all, it’s a good run.

Location: Edge of the Shipping Channel
Time: 8.40am
Some fish are starting to come over the side. There’s a few quality Nannygai and Hussar but nothing to call home about. The skipper has dropped the plough anchor over a small bump of structure that came out of nowhere in deep water. Greg explains that the beauty of such spots is that few people fish them and those that do, guard their GSP marks like their first born daughter.

As we drift over the mark I find myself being victimized by a bite so soft that without braid I doubt I’d have noticed it. I throw it some line and CRUNCH; this thing turns into a maniac. All 24kg of T-Curve rod are bent to the max and the big Tekota 700 reel is actually losing line (the drag pressure on that reel is ‘pull you over the side’ amazing). I battle the demon with images of a big red fish swimming in my mind.

M Maori Sea BreamThen suddenly we see a hulking great silver shape materialize from the depths. I’m thinking Trevally, though Phil Gough who’s fishing beside me yells “Mother-in-Law fish”, and the deckhand yells “big Spangly” but, as it breaks the surface everyone exclaims “what the (expletive) is it?” Honestly, there is still some conjecture about what it is but we are calling it for a 72cm, 7kg Maori Sea Bream at this stage.

Location: Edge of the Shipping Channel
Time: 9.00am
Talk about mayhem! The boat just drifted over a small lump of structure and what Greg calls a ‘show” of fish. They ‘showed’ alright, as a cacophony of grunts and groans filled the back deck of the cougar cat. Everyone is pumping and winding, the deck hand is running back and forth like a chook with its head cut off and the skipper is calling out advice and encouragement as he tapes the mayhem on a video recorder.

The scene is chaotic to say the least but then the fish start breeching the surface. Several solid Nannygai and a cracker Grassy are hoisted aboard yet the biggest fight is beside me, as Phil fights a powerful deepwater demon with all the head shaking, back breaking, drag pulling characteristics of a big red.

This thing is making Phil fight for every inch of line and a small crowd is beginning to gather. Suspense hangs thickly in the air and as the camera settles on the grim battle everyone waits with baited breathe. Suddenly, we see some colour, then a shape and then, everyone lets out a collective groan of distaste as the mother of all Mother-in-Law fish comes to the surface. As you can imagine Phil isn’t exactly thrilled with his capture.

Location: Deep water somewhere…
Time: 11.00am
We’re drifting over a secret spot that Greg calls the Carnage Mark in honour of the absolute carnage that has erupted on several past trips as soon as the baits reached the bottom. Greg had sat the crew down on the trip out and pressed play on a video that showed this spot going off.

It had literally looked like the battle of Pearl Harbour; everyone was yelling franticly and every now and then there’d be splash beside the boat, followed by a flash of crimson, followed by still more yelling. The crimson of course was Nannygai, lots of big, mean Nannys, so we know what is in stall for us. The excitement in the air is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Carnage lives up to its name. There is a feeding frenzy going on and our lines just landed in the thick of it. Big Hussars are smashing the baits almost as soon as they hit the bottom. It becomes a simple matter of hoping that the bait lasts long enough for a Nanny to get in on the action. The sensation is something like – tap, tap, tap, nibble, nibble, thump, CRUNCH, groan. It’s literally carnage, with fish pulling drag and wrapping the lines of four fishermen together and then some of those anglers themselves hooking fish.

Lines are going every which way; some break under the strain while others emerge tangled like an octopus in a washing machine. It is brutal, especially when four metres of lean, mean hammerhead shark gets in on the action. Some Nannies are still making it to the surface though, so everyone is fired up with adrenalin and more than willing to re-rig and rejoin the ruckus. Out of nowhere the camera emerges in the Skipper’s hand so we know that someone must have hooked a ripper.

Red EmporerSure enough Stephen Harvey is in mid-battle with a steam train. Stephen’s rod wrenches downwards savagely, as whatever it is slams itself downwards with powerful headshakes. Greg calls it for a big Red Emperor and the boat waits with apprehension. Eventually, one of the crew yells “colour” as a broad shape appears under the boat and sure enough, it’s red!

Location: Credlin Reef
Time: 1.00pm
With a massive 10kg Red on board, everyone is stoked and after the obligatory back slapping and photo-taking it is time for lunch. The grub is a delectable array of salad, seafood and cold meats, which goes down a treat after a hard morning’s work. While lunch is on some of the punters decide to go for a dive and are able to frolic with a huge Cod and a Maori Wrasse but the die-hard fishermen keep at it and are rewarded with some small coral trout.

Location: Back at Carnage
Time: 3.00pm
After our first victory at the Carnage mark, Greg decides that it is worth a few more drifts after the change of tide. So with simmering anticipation the baits are dropped and we cling to our rods with white knuckled determination.

I can’t resist leaning back to look at the depth sounder from time to time, to check if anything is stirring amongst the depths. It’s about now that I should probably confess something; I have never-ever caught a legal Red Emperor. This fish is my unicorn, the mythical creature that I’ve never captured no matter how hard I’ve tried. I’ve been surrounded by people who are catching them and I’ve taken photos of people who have caught them, but never have I actually caught a legal specimen.

So, I look at the sounder and notice a multi-coloured smudge appear just off the bottom line and almost simultaneously the bites start hammering up my braid. These aren’t the machinegun-like bites of a smaller fish either; they’re the thump, thump, thumps of a quality fish. I take my time, I lower the rod tip and I strike…

The hook sinks home, the rod loads up with a bow like a rollercoaster loop-de-loop and the head shakes begin. The colossus of a fish has some serious weight and an anti-social attitude to boot. As I give everything I have other anglers begin to take notice of the fight which has all the same characteristics of Stephen’s big Red. Then disaster, as the line busts under the strain. I feel like a Melbourne Storm player at the full time of the grand final - cheated, bitter and ripped off!

As everyone nods and agrees that the escapee was definitely a “quality fish”, I mutter under my breath, re-rig and once more drop a bait over the side. This time I sink the hook into a hard fighting fish with real power (minus the head shakes and half the weight of the last hook up). After a short but thrilling battle I see a flash of red and my eyes are greeted with a sizable Nannygai. It might not be my unicorn but it’s a hell of a consolation prize.

Article by Lee Blake

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