Giants on the Great Barrier Reef
Article and Photography by Kelly Dalling Fallon (kelldallfall.shootproof.com)
During the months of October and November, anglers come from around the world to fish the 150-mile stretch of the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns north to Lizard Island in search of giant black marlin.
Simply put, if a grander black (that’s a marlin weighing over 1,000 pounds) is on your bucket list, fishing the Great Barrier Reef between mid-September and early December is your best chance of ticking this one off.
Fishing off the hard edge of the Great Barrier Reef (one of the seven natural wonders of the world) is unlike anywhere else in the world. Given the remote location of the fishing grounds, live aboard charters during the marlin season are the preferred option, although day trips are also available out of Cairns. A short 10-15 minute run from the anchorage gives you ample fishing time, and also gives you the opportunity to explore the reef with a snorkel or swim in the morning before fishing begins.
The Black Marlin Fishing Blog (BMFB) blackmarlinblog.com is the one-stop source for Australian marlin fishing reports, and the brainchild of author Kelly Dalling Fallon. She posts several times a week (and daily during the Cairns giant black marlin season happening right now) to keep you on the bite and on top of all things happening on the billfish front across Australia – her reports come straight from the water from skippers, anglers, game fishing clubs and observers Australia-wide. Working on board KEKOA with her husband Captain Luke Fallon, Kelly is now a veteran of 15 giant black marlin seasons.
Fishing the Reef
While often referred to by anglers as simply "the reef,” there are quite a few regions and locations that can hold the fish, depending on the conditions. Each of these locations have produced giant black marlin over the years, but knowing where to fish, and when, is key to having a successful trip on the reef.
Linden Bank / Opal Reef
Linden Bank is a series of underwater shoals that rise to within 10 meters (30 feet) of the surface with the outer edge dropping off to 200 meters (600 feet). It is a prime fishing ground and one of Cairns’ best marlin spots.
Linden Bank produces big fish year after year, and given it’s only 35 nautical miles from Cairns, it’s very fishable on a day trip from either Cairns or Port Douglas.
Opal Reef is a very secure (and therefore popular) anchorage in any weather condition - even during the dreaded north winds.
Tip: Be aware of the green zone behind South Opal where fishing while anchored is illegal!
The Ribbon Reefs are a series of ribbon-like reefs that run from east of the Daintree (the worlds oldest tropical rainforest) all the way up to Lizard Island. The Ribbon Reefs provide an almost continuous breaker wall with small openings no more than a mile wide separating them. These reefs are a favorite for boats doing extended live-aboard trips as the anchorages behind them are, without question, some of the best in the world.
The marlin fishing occurs on the outside edge of the reefs where the bottom drops off very sharply.
These reefs also offer some great sport fishing for species such as mackerel, grouper and trevally, as well as world-class snorkeling in the morning before heading out to chase the giants.
The fleet often uses Cooktown as a client and a crew change over and resupply location for a number of reasons, but mostly because of its proximity to the fishing grounds. Located due west of Ribbon Reefs 3 and 4, it’s an easy departure point to fish anywhere along the Ribbons from Number 10 in the north to Lena Reef in the south.
The saying is “fish where the fish are” and a departure from Cooktown is often the best bet to get you where the hot bite is at that moment.
Cooktown is only a 50-minute flight from Cairns, which offers two flights daily during weekdays. However, be aware that the airline takes every second weekend off.
For the keen angler, Lizard Island’s proximity to the giant black marlin grounds at the top of the Ribbon Reefs is unrivalled. In its heyday, hundreds of grander black marlin were weighed on the island’s marlin gantry.
Number 10 Ribbon Reef, which is the largest of all the Ribbon Reefs and often considered to be the most consistent for giant blacks is just 12 nautical miles from Lizard Island. With close to 18 miles of hard-edge reef, it does not suffer as much from fluctuations in water quality due to the tidal influence between the breaks in the shorter reefs. In foul weather, island guests also have the option of fishing at Day Reef to the north. Because it faces northwest, Day Reef has a natural weather break from southeast winds.
Charter Operations and Main Fishing Port
There are numerous options when it comes to booking a charter operator for fishing the reef for giant blacks. Australia's premier marina, Cairns Marlin Marina provides first-class facilities and customer service for a diverse fleet including some of the world's best black marlin fishing operators.
The state-of-the-art floating marina, in the heart of Cairns city, features 261 berths accommodating a variety of cruising vessels, including super yachts up to 140 meters. Cairns Marlin Marina is a short walk to the tropical swimming Lagoon, five-star hotels, shopping, dining, the casino and the city's vibrant nightlife. It is just 10 minutes from the Cairns International Airport and five minutes from the Cairns marine and super yacht refit precinct.
If you’re visiting the region for more than just fishing and have limited time, then day trips might be the best fit. Some of the better-known, world-class locations for marlin fishing are well within reach of port, such as Linden Bank or Jenny Louise Shoal. Several granders have been caught this way. Day trips leave from the marina approximately 8:30 am each morning and return about 5:30 pm each day. They can be sole charters or shared charters based on the operator. A sole charter is when you book the entire boat for a single day of marlin fishing departing from Cairns. Share charters can be organized if you are alone or in a small group and need other members to help pay for your trip.
A live-aboard charter allows your captain to keep you on the fish longer with no long runs to and from the fishing grounds. It also gives you the flexibility to be “fishing where the fish are” as they move up and down the reef. Live aboard charters give you the advantage of maximizing you fishing time because the boat is often anchored minutes from the fishing grounds. The added benefit is that you can also spend the morning snorkeling the reef or fishing for other species before heading out to chase the big blacks on the edge. Live-aboard marlin charters give anglers a real reef experience and allow you the best opportunity to see and explore the Great Barrier Reef!
A mothership is a larger boat which is used as the accommodation, while the accompanying smaller game boat is used for fishing.
The mothership operation is perfect for larger groups, or parties that include people not interested in fishing every day.
A mothership is often like a five-star luxury resort on the water. The mothership will have a dedicated crew including a professional chef at your service and will provide an extra level of comfort while you are staying at sea. Imagine enjoying sumptuous meals, the best wines and beers, all in comfortable air-conditioned sleeping berths – it’s just like a floating hotel!
Motherships on the Great Barrier Reef also offer facilities for scuba diving and snorkeling and can also offer other water sport activities such as stand up paddle boarding, wind and kite surfing as well as bottom fishing.
Booking a Charter
The Black Marlin Fishing Blog boat directory is a great resource for when you are planning your giant black marlin trip-of-a-lifetime. It provides a list of reputable and qualified operators currently fishing the reef who also contribute fishing reports to the blog.
About the Author
With a lifetime steeped in sport fishing and a photographer's eye for composition, Australian Kelly Dalling Fallon has added photography to her crew duties aboard the Cairns-based 56-foot O'Brien big-game boat KEKOA. She spends nearly 200 days each year on the water alongside her husband, Captain Luke Fallon, a part of that fishing for giant black marlin off the Great Barrier Reef. Visit her website at kelldallfall.shootproof.com.