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November 06, 2006

North of Heaven

Remote Coral Sea Reefs Provide Endless Action

But even as Thornton struggled, I returned my focus to the huge, purple Yo-Zuri Surface Bull GT popper that I had started working back to the skiff in time to see a deep-red shadow at the surface behind it. (The water's clarity makes it feasible to ID one's fish far from the boat.) I'd already learned that the color marked it as a red bass, the common name for the aggressive snapper that frequent reef tops as well as deeper slopes.

Now it was my turn to shout with excitement, and I did. But, in fact, no one was listening.

On the other side of the skiff, another Bull GT (this one sporting peacock-blue and yellow colors) had attracted the attention of a real prize: a Maori wrasse. Though this fish was a mere baby of no more than 20 pounds, Wesley Keys of Bamaga wanted badly to keep it from reefing him, especially after he'd lost a larger one that morning when it powered its way into a deep coral crevice.

This time he held on as Edwards extricated Thornton's 15-pound coral trout (a species of grouper) from the net. Before I could get in the net queue, the red bass I'd hooked came unbuttoned halfway to the boat, and I dove for the camera. After I snapped photos of the two prizes, we all paused to catch our breath.

Indeed, the pace here can be breathless. Quite simply, predators lurk in wait all over this endless series of reefs and, with competition keen, sometimes shoulder each other out of the way to nail a plug. It's the sort of sight not soon forgotten.

A day drifting and casting the reef top from one of the three or four skiffs the Tropic Paradise tows with it or carries aboard provides plenty of unforgettable moments. For me, one enduring memory involves seeing a Maori wrasse the size of a large farm animal suddenly materialize behind a lure to smash it and, with as little regard for 80-pound braid as a water buffalo might accord a BB gun, disappear down a deep channel in the coral.