The Cruel Sea

The text from Paul carries that air of restrained excitement experienced anglers will be familiar with. Paul lives down on the Bellarine Peninsula and in the forecast, he’s spotted a break in the run of incessant south-easterlies – and the swell looks okay too. Monday might finally be the day for a crack at salmon, kingfish and southern bluefin tuna on fly. “Won’t make any promises”, he says, “But it could be good.”

The Sunday night before our dawn departure doesn’t begin well. Instead of trending down as forecast, the swell suddenly jumps up to 2 metres on the remote wave buoy we’re following. Paul is disappointed but he’s the skipper and he’s adamant: it needs to be less than 1.5 metres to give us a decent chance; more, and we’re not going.

We can’t understand the discrepancy between forecast and reality. “Maybe a big tanker just went past the buoy?” half jokes Mark, who’s planning to join us.

It’s a restless night, not helped by the infuriating whine of a mosquito I’m unable to swat. Every couple of hours I check the wave buoy and I’m sure Mark and Paul do too: 2.07m, 2.10 m, 2.01m. At 5am, the time Mark and I planned to depart for the 90 minute drive to meet Paul, his text comes through with a sad face. ‘1.97m is too big, sorry.’

I saw that coming, but I’m still unreasonably disappointed. Bloody sea fishing, I rant to myself. Give me nice, simple trout. Then, in desperation, Paul, Mark and I agree on a plan B: review at 7am; that would still give us a few hours fishing before the early arvo south-easterly is due to kick in.

At 7am, a glimmer of hope – the swell has dropped to 1.56m. Still too high, but the trend is promising, so we roll the dice. Mark and I get our gear together, grab a coffee, and jump in the car.

At 9am, we meet Paul at the ramp. The cruel sea is relenting: the wind has dropped to nothing, and the swell is 1.4m. We throw the gear in Paul’s reassuringly large boat, including my single 10 weight and Mark’s 8, 10 and 12 weights (he’s the bluewater fly expert), and head out.

The first hour is uneventful. We’re only interested in sight-fishing, so at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, we need to find fish to cast to. (If you think blind fishing a lake can sometimes feel futile, trying doing it in the open ocean!) We’re looking for the distant white flashes as fish attack schools of bait, or excited-looking seabirds, or both. The kilometres of open sea off the Surf Coast seems like a very big canvas, but Paul is unperturbed. My contribution is to joke that on any trip, finding fish too soon can be a bad omen. (Again, if you think trout fishing is fertile ground for omens and signs, sea fishing takes it to the next level.)

At last, Paul spots something, powers the boat over, and suddenly we’re surrounded by slashing, crashing fish. They look like salmon through my polaroids, and good ones. A leisurely cruise is transformed into frantic action – Paul expertly positioning and repositioning the boat, while Mark and I do our best to reward his efforts with decent casts at the fast-moving shapes.

Salmon come tearing after our small Clousers (approximations of the anchovies being hunted). There are swipes, bumps and then… Yep! I’m on. I love salmon. There’s an unspoken sense on this outing that salmon are third rung, but as a 2kg fish leaps and dives and carries on like a mini-mako, there’s no sense of anything other than being hooked up to a prime sportfish.

Not even a little disappointed!

After a while, the action dies down and we’re having a cruise again. On a humid, hazy morning, seals loll on the surface with fins in the air, while fairy penguins pop up inquisitively and dive down again. There are gulls, gannets, shearwaters, terns… To a trouty like me, the ocean down south can seem like a desert at times, but right now it’s an aquatic Serengeti.

The next few hours continue in much the same way. We’re cruising and looking, then Mark or Paul spot something, we zoom over and it’s on again. The stakes rise when larger fish are possibly sighted amongst the areas of baitfish carnage. Chasing one such school, Mark lets his fly settle beneath what appear to be the surface salmon, strips, and hooks a submarine. The invisible fish takes off, and for the next 10 minutes, the butt of Mark’s 10 weight barely rises above horizontal as he battles either a big kingie or a tuna. Mark’s drag is brutally tight, but even so, the line is coming off in agonised bursts.

Mark into either a big kingfish or tuna.

Thirty metres of fly-line and about 30 metres of backing is incongruously headed almost straight down from the rod tip (we’re only in 40 metres of water), when Mark finally manages to crank a few turns his way. Over the years, he’s landed GTs to 20kg and even a cobia, and for the first time since hook-up, I start to believe he might land this thing. And then it’s gone. Slack line. Mark winds in to find the perfectly-intact Clouser still attached. Not even a bent hook. The fly has simply pulled out. Did I mention the sea can be cruel?

Back in the saddle, so to speak, we charge off again after the next bust-up. Over the following hour, there are more chances, some hook-ups, misses and follows. So-called ‘rat’ kingfish are well and truly part of the surface attack now, although this trouty can’t manage to think of a 60-70cm missile as a ‘rat’.  And there is definitely the odd tuna mixed in too; not many, but enough to be on guard.

And then the south-easterly starts to pick up. Almost immediately, there are white-caps and the sea surface is messier. We lose a crucial advantage, with a distant white flash now as likely to be a breaking wave top as a fish. With the extra ‘noise’ as the wind strengthens, we reluctantly contemplate heading in. We go the long way though, hoping there might be a final chance.

Consolation kingie.

And there is. Right by the boat, a school of tuna bust-up. There’s no mistaking the big dark shapes and I try to stay cool while throwing my Clouser towards them. First cast, the fly falls short; second cast and I think I’ve covered them, but no obvious response. Third cast, stripping back, and almost at the boat a subsurface jetfighter hurls after my fly. Do I lift the Clouser out too quickly or does the tuna not actually want it? Paul sees the whole thing too and the sense of a massive chance missed is palpable.

That’s the last opportunity. and our focus turns from finding more fish, to making a safe return to the ramp. On the way back, we wonder about that tuna – was it a miss, or a refusal? They say you can’t pull a fly fast enough that a tuna can’t catch it, and yet I have picture seared in my mind of a big, dark blue shape, pectoral fins extended like wings, inches from my Clouser. I’m still playing ‘what ifs?’ as we winch the boat on to the trailer. The sea can be cruel, but I concede, kind as well.