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Marlin Tag & Release

Marlin-Tag-&-ReleaseWhat would be your response if a stranger called and said, “Think of your dream trip – and let your imagination run wild. I want to come to New Zealand and film one of your adventures for our TV show. And we will pay for it.”?

Well, I can imagine most of you would be thinking, ‘Which of my mates is pulling my leg?’ but fortunately, this was more or less the call I got from the producer of the National Geographic show Hooked. He had just seen the 20/20 documentary about my bluefin tuna spear-fishing trip on youtube, and wanted something with a similar amount of action for his show.

So immediately I started going through the possibilities, including what I might target, where I would like to go, and, most importantly, what kind of budget might I need to pay for this dream trip. I also needed to consider what would be the most fun, but also make great TV. It didn’t take much thinking to write off spearing a marlin or a bluefin tuna, as I’ve speared both before. But what other gamefish do we have in New Zealand that look spectacular on a world scale? Unfortunately, our yellowfin fishery has been decimated, so the chances of getting one were slim – and besides, ours were only babies compared to the horse yellowfin found in Central America. Yeah, our kingies are the largest in the world, but I would hardly call them my dream target, and apart from the Californians, they wouldn’t be that exciting for most foreign viewers.

My mind kept coming back to marlin. There is something about these creatures that, no matter how many times I see them in the water, the more I want to see them again – and New Zealand definitely has the largest striped marlin in the world! The only thing was, when you put a spear into a fish, you are committed to keeping it. Don’t get me wrong: I love spearfishing with a passion, but wouldn’t it be cool to have the option of being in the water, enjoying all the fun and action of connecting up to a large gamefish, but then tagging and releasing it at the end instead?


So a plan was hatched, and after a quick talk with legendary gamefishing skipper, Bruce Martin, I was pretty confident I could pull it off – as long as we could find a marlin to try it on! Before I knew it, a couple of months of preparation and planning had flown by, and I was heading out to the Three Kings with my cousin Dean (who holds the Pacific bluefin spearfishing world record), along with the Hooked film crew, aboard the catamaran Reel Passion. This is a fantastic boat to dive from, and the untiring crew really shine when placed under very intense pressure.

We had plans that were probably more ambitious than most, especially as we had just five days to do it all in. First, Dean was to spear a satellite tag into a marlin. This has been done before, but not on video, and unfortunately that tag didn’t return any data.

Then it would be my turn. I have loved chasing large fish with a speargun, but my favourite part has always been swimming with these apex predators in their natural environment. As this can take place well out from the coast and in very deep water, this is not everyone’s cup of tea – especially in the sharky waters of the King Bank, where we were heading – but nothing else gives me such a buzz.

The plan involved the usual strategy of attracting a marlin to the boat using hookless lures. This may sound easy, but it is amazing how scarce marlin seem when towing tiny pieces of plastic in a very large, mostly empty ocean, especially when you haven’t seen a fish for a few days. And all the while, you’re sitting at the back of the boat in a black wetsuit with all your snorkelling gear, in the intense summer heat, so you can get into the water at a split-second’s notice.

Then, when a marlin bill finally begins slashing at a lure, I needed to quickly slip into the water with my spearfishing bungees and floats – but instead of a gun in hand there would be a nylon leader with a hooked livebait attached. The aim was to hook a marlin while in the water, and then fight the fish as any spearo would while getting dragged along on the surface. But at the end of this battle I would have the choice of tagging and releasing the fish if I wanted. Well, that was the plan, anyway!

The week before we went up there it was going off, with heaps of marlin being caught, but unfortunately the action calmed down for our trip. Despite this handicap though, we started ticking a few boxes: incredibly, Dean achieved the impossible, tagging a marlin with his first shot – and we also landed a mako and two marlin on the rod and reel. So things were looking really good, but just under two days remained.

Now it was my turn. So with a marlin swimming around in the gear, I closely followed my live bait into the water, holding onto the bungee cord with both hands in anticipation of getting dragged off towards the horizon at warp speed. Sure enough, as soon as my mask went below the surface I was faced with the magnificent sight of a large, hungry and illuminated marlin swimming right in front of me, looking for something to eat. “Yee-haa, this is going to work!” I thought.

But just as quickly my elation turned to despair, as I watched the live bait slowly roll upside down and die right in front of the marlin. I don’t know what happened as it had been lively a couple of seconds ago; maybe it had a heart attack at the sight of this massive beast? Frantically, I tried everything I could think of to bring the skipjack tuna back to life, including giving the leader a number of quick yanks, but nope, that bait sure was dead.

Then, realising the marlin was quickly losing interest and about to swim away, I screamed out to the guys on the boat – now drifting away from me in the slight breeze – to toss in a couple of free-swimming live baits to keep the marlin interested while we rigged another live bait on my hook. As asked, a couple of baits landed expertly just where I’d directed, joining me and my mate, the dead skippy, in the now seemingly empty ocean.

“Bugger, that marlin has well and truly disappeared,” I thought, watching in frustration as the two little jack mackerel nervously swam towards the ocean depths. But just as they were about to disappear from view, a lit-up marlin suddenly appeared from below me, its pectoral fins outstretched, doing fast and graceful turns, seemingly turning on a coin at will. It was obviously slashing at the baits and trying to eat them, and just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, a second marlin joined in the melee, with both lit up brightly like a couple of Christmas
trees, showing off their spectacular iridescent blues and purples. Then, just as quickly as it started, both fish disappeared into the dark blue depths, before we had the opportunity to present another bait to them.

“Arggggh!” It’s hard to describe the pleasure and the pain of seeing and enjoying something so incredible, but falling way short of the end goal! Then, with just over one day left, things went really quiet, the glassy ocean surface seemingly devoid of life, and even the skippies were hard to catch. But even on a quiet day on the King Bank, as long as you have a line in the water there is always hope, and late on the last afternoon we had one last shot when a nice marlin started smacking a lure around.

Instantly the team kicked into gear, and the lure was quickly replaced by the skipjack. Mark, the skipper, was steering from up on the flybridge and had the best view of what was unfolding, so gave us running commentary, saying the marlin was on the bait and trying to swallow it.
“Let out more bungee! Let out more bungee! Don’t let it feel any resistance!” he directed.
Quickly sliding into the water, I was again holding onto the bungee firmly, when all of a sudden I found myself getting dragged across the surface. Yeehaaaaa! It was finally ‘game on’!

As the marlin was staying just under the surface and heading for the horizon in a hurry, I had to really hold on – but not even the speed and force of the water rushing past could wipe the smile off my face! Then, after enjoying the ride for a while, I decided to go on the offensive, and even at such a speed, I found it surprisingly easy to pull myself up along the bungee towards the escaping fish. It seemed to only take a minute or so before the marlin was in full view, and not much longer before I reached the end of the bungee, enabling me to hold onto the leader – at which point the marlin suddenly began jumping right next to me. Wow!


Watching this happen while in the water was incredible, especially as I could lift my head clear of the water and watch as it leapt through the air, then follow it down as it splashed back under the surface. The plan was always to hand the leader up to the boat so they could tag and release the fish, allowing me to stay safely out of reach of the thrashing bill – and with such a lively fish, this proved to be the best and safest option!

Finally, with a tag cleanly placed just below the dorsal fin of around 120kg of lively marlin, it was mission accomplished – and it sure felt good to see it swimming off into the blue to fight another day.

Courtesy of New Zealand Fishing News 
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