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Vanuatu – The Bonus Sale

Four years ago I was introduced to a friends mate by the name of Red-Eye (Chris Fowler) whilst launching my boat out off Portland. Since that day we have crossed paths each season, talked tuna tactics and communicated on the water many times, especially this past season hunting barrels at Apollo Bay.  Being a real estate agent, I received a call last September from Chris to help him sell his property.  The conversation soon turned to fishing during which a friendly bonus was mentioned; if you sell my place in a week I’ll take you fishing.  The challenge had been set and in a not so stable market I knew it would be hard task, 5 days later I called Red-Eye, advising him to start thinking about making plans as I had a strike, 48hrs later the bait had been set and buyer boated……lets go fishing!

The next couple of days were then spent researching destinations; Weipa, Cairns, Melville Island, we knew we wanted blue water but where?? Then Chris calls and says; “got a passport?” “Yep why?” “Well what ya think about Vanuatu?” Think, what did I think?, well I didn’t really have to it was a no-brainier. Two days later we were booked on a 6 day live aboard leaving in 10 days!!!  Also joining us on the trip would be Chris’s brother Andrew, who’s fishing experience to date had been limited to Port Phillip Bay so this was about to one special experience.

Over the next 10 days many a call were made discussing what gear to take and next thing I knew it was 8pm and I was sitting in Port Vila at the waterfront staring insatiably at the beast of a 40 foot vessel that would be home for the next week. Feeling wired by the thought of fishing for new exotic species I think my alcohol receptors had been switched off by the excitement.  Clearly I wasn’t the only one as we found ourselves hitting bed at 3am knowing we had to be on the boat at 4.30am, not a good move, it was going to be a long day.  The next 12 hours were spent at throttle heading out to the islands with any one off us sneaking off for a nap when able to.  

The first day saw us towing lures to Emae Island which was an 8 hour run resulting in some nice Wahoo taken on skirts and x-raps, it was then time to start popping the pristine reefs around the island. Now I have seen some nice water in my travels but this blew me away, apparently the water visibility is around 25 meters on a bad day and up to 200 on a good one.

Some nice blue fin trevally were soon enticed and made for some great action prior to again setting some divers and hard bodies for our last hour run to the bay where we would anchor for the night. This is where we got our first real taste of what was to come.  Suddenly the 37kg jig stick screamed off, Red-Eye was locked on and some 40 secs later gone, straight to the reef, possible doggie?, GT?  The anticipation levels had now reached a new level!!

Settling into the first of many stunning lagoons we would come across during the trip, we tied up to the mooring which then gave me my first opportunity for a quick dive, one which would turn out to be quite memorable. The captain asked me to check the mooring line which was rope and chain wrapped around a large piece of reef, he also mentioned the potential of crays, so the hunt was on, that was until I put my face into a hole and found myself very quickly back peddling as a 2 meter moray eel decided to come and say hi.  Apparently morays in this area are not to keen on interaction and I was advised not to go back down with the GoPro, being the first day I thought that was a good call.

Day 2 would take us to Epi Island, with a 4.30am wake up/start which would be the trend for each day, (but what about breakfast asked the skipper), pfftt we will eat on the troll was the consensus, lets get lines in the water, and so it was by 4.45am each morning we had a spread set.  First strike of the day had Red-Eye strapped in and about to pop his cherry on a black marlin estimated at 90kgs, that was it, game on now – the boys were well pumped and it was still early morning.  The rest of the day resulted in more fantastic Wahoo and a great session bait collecting, for the following day and what a day that would be.  Whilst bait collecting there was a massive bust ups of striped tuna or as the locals call them “skippys”, Johnny quickly deployed a couple of hand lines out with a similar rubber occy set-up we would use for salmon in Port Phillip Bay. Hand lining 2 kilo + stripeys was neither my style nor Red-Eye’s, and this was seen as an opportunity to have some fun! Within a couple of minutes the 3 of us had 3kilo flick sticks with pink Gulp jerk shads in the water, it was well and truly action aplenty not like the finicky fish being taken locally the past couple of years, these fish were absolutely smashing the plastics….light tackle mayhem!

With the day coming to an end it was time to anchor up and head ashore for a local meal and my first Kava experience, soon to be my last! I had pre requested ingredients to make Ceviche which the crew sourced for the trip and was lucky enough to be allowed to use the local kitchen to prepare a tuna/wahoo mix.  Now so they say, you drink the karva before you eat, it gives you an appetite and then you feel sleepy, ok then better do the right thing, sounds good, the Ceviche needs time to rest so bring it on………….. let’s just say Andy was the smart one, 20mins after my first cup I was looking at Red-Eye and without words I knew it, yes we were both gone, gone into that happy place or was it? actually felt quite good for the first 40mins just about the time dinner was ready. Dinner, hunger, no thanks, whilst I did manage a small bowl of local broth and some Ceviche it was far from what I was expecting. So now I was expecting sleep, wrong…… both myself and Red-Eye were buzzing all night, this meant another long day ahead!

Day 3 would prove to be the most action packed explosive fishing I have yet encountered.  Once again the spread was set prior to 5am. In route to Malakula Island there was good potential of another marlin and within 25mins I was on. This was it the Bonus Sail, a new personal best, a stunning big sailfish of 40-45kg’s. From this point on the day just kept getting better!

Making our way to a bommie rising from 100mtrs up to 30mtrs approximately 8kms from the island we switched baits and ran the stripies as skip baits and deep divers below. This was Doggie & GT territory, within minutes we were on, 3 way hook ups of doggies up to 15kgs was a nice warm up then………Bang while Chris and myself were fighting doggies a sinking skip bait went off…. big time, Andy was on and this was the biggest fish by a mile he had ever encountered, 25mins later the grey shadow started to appear and Andy was about to land the fish of his life a GT of approximately 30kgs, (and to think this fish just swallowed a whole stripie?) from a guy who’s best fish to date was a bay snapper of a few kilo’s, he was blown away, his smile said it all, this is what fishing is all about.

Up and running again there wasn’t time to relax as Red-Eyes rod buckled over, this would prove to be in my opinion the best catch of the trip. Using your own gear and testing your own skills in rigging and lure selection was welcomed by the skipper and adopted by us, Red-Eyes skills proved up to it on the day. Following a 40min battle on spin gear, being run from side to side of the boat the silhouette of the Dog Tooth Tuna emerged, traced, gaffed and hauled through the transom. And there it was 50kgs + of pure muscle, anger and fighting power!  Chris was pumped to say the least and adds another notch in his belt of well earned tuna captures.

Hang on its only 9am and we have caught what??? Other species added to the numerous captures of doggies and the absolute smashing of reef sharks on x-raps and several jobfish which make a very good account of themselves. The evening would ultimately set the scene to top off to such an amazing days fishing.

Being local’s to Malakula the captain and deckie Rudy & Johnny had phoned their relatives ahead of time to prepare an unbelievable roast, traditional island style; dig the pit make the fire then layer volcanic rock, wrap the sucking pig and vegetables in leaves, place more volcanic rock and cover in leaves. Heaven is the only way to describe this meal, simple, flavorful, amazing!  The smoke hint to the pork was to die for. Served with local fresh fruit salads, succulent avocado and oh the mud crab, this was a feast to behold!  I must confess that I was quite uncomfortable at first as the locals would not sit down to eat until we had finished but custom being custom we did what we were told! 

Day 4 we headed to Lieleppa Island, where we would base ourselves for the final marlin mission, within minutes of leaving the mooring it was station doggie again with 3 & 4 way strikes nonstop, mixed in with another onslaught of reef sharks and job fish we started making tracks into deeper waters.   A fish for many years that I have been wanting to not only catch but just see caught is the mahi mahi or mi mi as the locals call it, the catch has intrigued me but to see the color palate of the fish has scratched my itch for many a year, until now.  I was on, it’s amazing how Johnny could call a fish coming up time after time and we would be staring out asking where? where?, where I didn’t care, it was a mahi and my first so I was wrapped and not a bad one at that. Little did I know what it tasted like! Three hours later I did and I will honestly go as far as saying that this is my number one white flesh fish to eat.  The rest of the day was spent with more captures of wahoo to keep us entertained along with the spectacular scenery trolling amongst the many islands the scene was set for the last few days. I was also amazed how time and time again I found myself being completely mesmerized by the flying-fish, staring out across the water and tracking their glide they kept me entertained for hours each day.

Day 5 & 6 The marlin highway was our destination and this would be our last shot.  The crew knew it would be hard going with average seas and a lack of bait fish present but we were still optimistic.  Soon enough Chris was on, bang another cherry popped with a blue marlin estimated 100kgs soon tagged and released soon followed by Andy taking his first mi mi.

With the last morning coming upon us all the mojo and spiritual karma was being called upon, please let us all leave with our marlin cherry popped. It was not to be, whilst we managed to raise 4 fish for the day, dropped a blue estimated 150kg and didn’t get strikes from the others, that’s fishing. What else is fishing is making new friendships, experiencing new cultures and learning, learning you can never stop.  Fishing, weather it be a sport, hobby, passion, means to an ends, or casual past time with the family, a lot can be taken in and it’s not just about the fishing!  Then again the bragging rights of coming back to port on a game boat with the flying of the flags, did feel pretty damn good, yeah baby, we did well.

Massive thanks to the crew from Escapade, a better couple of guys you could not meet, their knowledge and willingness to take the time out to share it, from knot tying to reading charts, they gave all. The boat was equipped with the best selection of game gear available, from jigging and popping spin gear to the 15, 24 and 37kg Tiagra outfits and vast choice of lures. Second to none was also their hospitality and cooking aboard the boat, from day one the guys felt like we had fished with them before, the kind of good mates you would be taking away for a few days, the friendship only grew from there.  After checking into the hotel we decided we may as well have our last drink and meal at the waterfront sitting by Escapade. This was to make for one of the funniest moments of the trip. The waiter approached us with the menu’s and then proceeded to announce the specials; we have fresh caught wahoo & mi mi today, hmm this sounds interesting I though as the 3 of us looked at each other blankly, then Andy asks, “was it one of these boats”?, “yes this one here” came back the waiter, they just came in with the fish, well the 3 of us howled in laughter and even more so when Andy ordered the mi mi as he couldn’t resist eating the very fish he caught.  What more could one ask for, great company, kick ass boat, cultural experience, awesome fishing and within a 3hr flight of Melbourne.

Bring on the next sale!

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