Just beyond Australia's Great Barrier Reef, a scant 35 miles off the northern coast of Queensland, the biggest black marlin in the world swim in the warm tropic waters. No one can say exactly how big the fish are but the handful of anglers who have fished for them know with certainty that they are there. They know, too, that it is only a matter of time before the rest of the angling world discovers their secret: that these Australian waters are the finest big-game fishing grounds anywhere on the globe today.
Here are Pacific sailfish in numbers to make those off Baja California, Acapulco and Pi�as Bay seem insignificant. There are countless wahoo and yellow-tail, bonito and cobia, Allison and bluefin tuna, dolphin and trevally. great schools of king mackerel averaging 35 pounds and some running as large as 100. There are queenfish, among the most spectacular and acrobatic fighters in the sea. and giant turrum, which grow to more than 70 pounds and can hold an angler in the fighting chair for hours. There are barracuda, and an Australian potpourri of sharks—bronze whalers, makos, tigers and whitepointers.
But the fish that overshadows all others in this fish-filled pocket of the South Pacific is the black marlin. Fewer blacks have been caught than any other marlin—blue, white, or striped—and probably more have been lost of those hooked than any other species. Only the broad-bill swordfish is qualified in stamina and sagacity to rank in a class with the black, and ever since men began catching big fish they have argued as to which is the ultimate trophy. In size there is less room for debate. The largest fish ever taken on rod and reel, with the exception of sharks, is a 1,560-pound black marlin. It was taken in 1953 by Alfred Glassell off Cabo Blanco, Peru (SI, March 19, 1956) and. for a time, it seemed as if the biggest marlin anywhere were there. Since then anglers have probed every current off Cabo Blanco and farther south along the Chilean coast, off Ecuador and Panama, Bassaruba, Mozambique, Mauritius. Honolulu and New Zealand. But, for all their efforts, they have failed to find a bigger fish. In all those 14 years, in fact, only a few black marlin over 1,000 pounds have been caught anywhere.
Yet in less than one month this fall, three 1,000-pounders were taken from a single stretch of water, barely a three-hour boat ride from the city of Cairns. At least a dozen giant marlin estimated to be even bigger than these were hooked and lost in the same water. No one can guess how many more might have been taken had there been more anglers. There were only three boats fishing during that period, and they did not go out every day.
That any boats went out at all can be credited to a thin, blond American named George Bransford and to the vagaries of fate which landed him, during World War II, on the coast of northern Queensland. Long after he returned to the States and the neon and tinsel of Fort Lauderdale, where he worked first as a mate, then as captain of his own charter boat, Bransford dreamed of the white sand beaches and wet, green mountains of the Queensland coast. Season after season, as he fished the Atlantic from Miami to Palm Beach, his mind fished the bluer waters beyond the Great Barrier Reef. The promise of those faraway islands grew more insistent as the years went by. In 1963, Bransford returned to the place he could not forget.
For three months he explored the northern coast around Cairns, sometimes alone, sometimes with the commercial fishermen who spend their lives on the reefs. These men often saw big fish surfacing in the waters beyond the outer reef, they told him, but no one had fished for the monsters. With their small boats and inadequate tackle, they were neither equipped nor eager to catch such giants. Even the Japanese, they said, had given up fishing off the Great Barrier because too many of their nets had been mauled and destroyed by fish of monstrous size.
Bransford returned to Florida, sold his charter business, and with his wife and two young children moved to Cairns. It took the better part of a year to have the Cairns firm of H. Collis & Son build him a suitable boat—a 32-foot rough copy of a Florida sportsfisherman with a planing hull, an 11-foot beam, and a Perkins 135 single diesel. It took several months more to fit out the Sea Baby for the kind of fishing he planned to do.
Sailing out of Cairns, the major opening in the Barrier is known as the Grafton Passage. It runs past Green Island, a combination national park-tropical honky-tonk where workmen and their families come on Sundays to visit the aquarium, picnic in the park and hand-line from the party boats that do a brisk weekend trade.
Just beyond Green Island is Arlington Reef, almost 10 times as large but underwater at high tide. Arlington lies to the west of the Grafton Passage. To the east are Euston, which is marked by an unlighted beacon, and Flynn, both submerged but made discernible by breaking surf. These reefs lie near the edge of the continental shelf, which here does not fall off in one sharp dip but gradually, in a series of steps. A riptide flows across the edge of the shelf, and for most of the year the current runs from north to south.
What brought Bransford back day after day to this particular part of the outer reef was a three-mile-long, 100-yard-wide shoal called Jenny Louise, which lies within a mile of the continental drop-off. Between Jenny Louise and Flynn the waters average 25 fathoms, but the shoal itself is a bare six fathoms deep at its north end, only three fathoms deep at its south end. Beyond it, the shelf drops off to 45, then 96, then several hundred fathoms, and there is nothing all the way to the Solomon Islands but the vast expanse of the Coral Sea.