Deranged dogtooth tuna and monstrous Maori wrasse are just some of the prey that lurk in the uncharted waters of remote eastern PNG.
By Al McGlashan
I couldn’t believe it – I had been fishing for just a few minutes when a billfish swiped at my popper. Normally this would have been a reason to celebrate, but I was in PNG to hunt more exotic tropical species. Having just experienced an awesome marlin season in NSW, the last thing I wanted was more of them.
The billfish was soon off the hook, leaving us to continue to an isolated little rocky island. Clad in green jungle, it rose up out of the sea with the current surging angrily against its limestone cliffs. With birds working furiously, the location screamed fish. Mick Felsovary, of Victoria’s Hooked On Bait and Tackle, wasted little time in firing a popper into the strike zone and promptly got demolished. I cast my lure into the same spot and the response was instantaneous – I got crunched by a solid giant trevally and then doubled it up with an even bigger fish on the next cast. Mick managed the next one, then I topped it off with my first-ever ‘doggie’ – dogtooth tuna – on a popper.
We were in the remote eastern part of PNG, having departed from the province of Milne Bay. If there’s something anglers dream about, it’s fishing in waters so remote they haven’t been charted yet and where the fish have never seen a lure. Here are the endless reefs and atolls – it’s the proverbial sportfishing paradise.
However, being so remote, it’s a logistical nightmare and nigh-on impossible to access. There are no facilities and the most common form of local transport is a dugout canoe. The only way to reach the area in comfort is by mothership – which is what forward-thinking local Jason Yip has done. A successful local businessman, Jason is a mad-keen angler and has set up what can only be described as PNG’s best live-aboard operation with his business, Sport Fishing PNG & Boat Charters.
The Perfect Set-Up
Originally operating in Australia’s Kimberley region, K2O is a 23m alloy catamaran set up as a long-range mothership. I love exploring new ground and Jason’s brief for the trip was simple: find new fishing hotspots around the remote Long Reef region. Our primary targets were dogtooth tuna and giant trevally (GTs) along with monster trout, wrasse and other pelagic fish.
Before we could start fishing, we met with the local tribal council on Wari Island to seek their permission. We were greeted by warriors dressed in full head gear and the effort they went to to welcome us was impressive. After the ceremony, we presented gifts of school equipment, medical supplies and food.
With not much detail on any of the navigation charts we quickly discovered that what information there was wasn’t overly accurate. There were channels and bommies everywhere … in fact, Google Earth proved to be more useful than the charts.
The region really is nothing short of spectacular, with reef edges dropping away into hundreds of metres of crystal-clear water. I spent as much time in the water as on it, swimming with a massive variety of fish from Napoleon wrasse to trevally, as well as heaps of manta rays, but surprisingly few sharks. Instead of trolling, the aim was primarily to cast poppers and stickbaits and to probe the deep channels with jigs. With no information to fish by, we devoted a lot of time to scouting and exploring as much ground as possible by branching out and covering the area extensively on our four tenders. At the end of each day, we convened on the mothership to compile our information and gradually build a picture of the area.
Casting proved absolutely deadly, but it wasn’t the GTs that dominated our catches – instead, it was red bass and massive coral trout. When I say ‘massive’ I mean it: the average trout weighed 8kg to 10kg and some were almost double that. At one stage Andy Smith, who runs Ebb Tide Adventures in Melbourne, had hooked up a decent red bass when a massive trout decided he wanted the lure, too, and tried to rip it off the bass, resulting in both becoming hooked. A wild place indeed.
I had a similar experience while fishing with the skipper. We had found a patch of fish stacked up so thick that we caught a fish per cast, and then I topped it off with two monster red bass – one on each set of hooks – and doubled up again on the next cast.
Hooking a Humphead
High on the team’s agenda was the coveted Maori wrasse. Also known as humphead wrasse, they are often exploited by green groups as part of their campaigns to ban fishing in marine parks. Ironically, they have always been perfectly safe with sport fishermen, who value the species and nearly always release them.
It seems everyone was eager to catch a humphead except me. Yes, they’re a cool fish, but to me they’re still just a wrasse. Well, they were until my lure vanished in a massive boil. I was fishing with GT guru Jason Jeffery and gun guide Moli when I got clobbered on the edge of a shallow bit of reef. The force of the strike was incredible and I was instantly confused by the weird fight. Somehow, I managed to extract it from the coral and then, when a brilliant green lump of a fish appeared, I was mesmerised. We carefully unhooked it, snapped a few photos, and set it free. Quite a few of these fish were caught on the trip, both on the poppers and jigs, so this is definitely the place to go if this species is on your bucket list.
As the days ticked by we fished hard, exploring new waters and steadily tallying up the numbers. What was really interesting was that while the gutters were full of life, there was a noticeable lack of pelagics offshore. Yellowfin tuna should have been stacked up in the entrances, yet I didn’t see any. But, being so remote with no targeted local fishing, maybe they were just out of season.
Day of the Dog
While the yellowfin may have been quiet, dogtooth tuna were everywhere. Despite only two of the tenders having fishfinders, we still found doggies at just about every channel entrance and reef point we fished. Drop a jig and it was game on.
Our hottest session occurred midway through a trip just outside a channel mouth. On the nautical charts, the channel looked nondescript, but the fact that it was actually marked warranted further investigation. Sure enough, we arrived to find a channel with edges that dropped away into a bottomless blue. The current boiled up against the sheer walls, creating eddies. If there was ever a place for big doggies, this was it.
Sadly, I drew the short straw and was on a boat that didn’t have a fishfinder, so we worked the edge with poppers. I was just in the process of casting my trusty old Roosta when there was a massive commotion from one of the other boats. Looking over, we could see the boys were in all sorts of trouble. Gus Donald was the first to hook up, then, as they tried to drive away from the reef’s edge, Jason Jeffery’s jig got nailed. Mick Felsovary was the only one not hooked up so he tried to get his jig out of the way and got hammered as well. It was a sight to behold as all three were bent over the rails desperately trying to stay attached and not end up in the drink. It was so chaotic that the guys in the nearest boat had to jump on and assist.
In typical doggie style, the fights were brutal but brief. When the smoke cleared, three monster doggies were on the deck with the biggest two cracking 71kg and 80kg. Jason had snapped his favourite rod but there was no way you could get the smile off his dial.
Soon there were shouts from the other boat as they hooked up as well. It was surreal – here we were in a remote channel that most likely had never been fished, thousands of miles from civilisation, hooking into some of the best doggie fishing ever. That is what I love most about frontier fishing: you certainly work hard, but that’s part of the adventure and when it all comes together, it’s as good as it gets.
On our best day, we fished several spots and scored 16 doggies. We caught more fish than we could eat so we took the leftovers to the locals, who were thrilled – I had the impression that many of them had never seen such big dogtooth tuna.
Fishing with heavy braid and hardcore tackle is not easy and whether you’re casting poppers or jigging, gloves are mandatory … as I discovered the hard way. While making a cast, a loose loop of braid came off the spool oddly and somehow managed to pin the end of my finger. In a split second it sliced through the tip. It was a bit of a mess, but we managed to gaffer tape a bit of it back on.
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of using gloves for this style of fishing. Braid can potentially be deadly and a good set of gloves would have prevented this mishap. If you’re keen on this style of fishing, then get some gloves … otherwise you might end up like me with the nickname ‘9.5’ …
For years, PNG has lacked a proper mothership-type operation to simplify the logistics of fishing remote regions. Few vessels come better equipped than K2O and, with so much country to explore, the team at Sport Fishing PNG has barely even scratched the surface. And it’s not just offshore fishing they’re offering, either – Jason and the guys are also mad-keen on black bass fishing and are exploring rivers that have never been fished.
There are exciting times ahead for anglers who have a strong spirit of adventure and who are keen to wrestle some seriously big fish. For more information, go to: www.sportfishingPNG.net