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March 12, 2010

A Week on the Nomad

This Coral Sea mothership tests the skill of anglers and the strength of tackle

As I walked somewhat sleepily out of the salon aboard the anchored mothership Odyssey, sipping a cup of steaming coffee, I heard Capt. Damon Olsen say, "Well then, let's see how this one swims."

Olsen had picked up a large Sebile Koolie Minnow, one of hundreds of plugs brought along by lure designer Patrick Sebile. Olsen tied it onto the business end of a Shimano Stella filled with 50-pound braid and tossed the big plug casually off the wide stern of the beamy 80-foot cat.

While chatting with an angler, Olsen began reeling back the minnow in the early morning light. The lure hadn't gone more than a few cranks when, in the blink of any eye, it was suddenly 15 feet above the water - locked in the jaws of a big narrow-barred Spanish mackerel that the boat's crew, between shouts of holy this-and-that, guessed would approach 50 pounds.

What might have been a fair fight from a center-console was, from the back of the anchored boat with fishing boats along each side and skiffs tethered out behind, advantage mackerel all the way. Five chaotic minutes later, it was over.

As Olsen reeled in the mono leader, bitten through by the wahoo-like choppers, he shook his head. "That," he laughed, "was insane."
The northern, outer fringes of the Great Barrier Reef offer a true wonderland for anglers where anything can happen at any given moment. Such day-to-day unpredictability helps someone like Olsen, who spends the better part of his life out here, maintain the sense of wonder he showed that morning.

Insanity All Over Again
That incident would prove to be the precursor to another equally breathtaking "mackerel moment" later that morning.

It was day three of 6½ scheduled fishing days on the Odyssey. A freshening breeze had come up, and the stiff beam chop made for a wet run from the anchored mothership to Jewell Reef in the 25-foot tinny (aluminum) center-console.

Sebile had brought enough inventory (stock and prototypes) to supply a tackle store, recognizing the Great Barrier Reef as one of the world's ultimate proving grounds for testing lures. He started this day fishing a jointed 734-inch Magic Swimmer with the latest trial arrangement of single hooks (versus two trebles). I tied on a 6¼-inch blue-and-chrome sinking Stick Shadd as our skipper, Glanville Heydenrych, positioned us upwind of one of countless bommies, the big clusters of coral heads that rise close to the surface from the impossibly blue, clear waters behind (within) the massive outer reef.

The action began straightaway, with cast after cast bringing followers, missed strikes or hookups from red bass (an abundant and aggressive Indo-Pacific reef snapper), coral trout (elongate, colorful grouper), giant trevally, bluefin trevally, Maori wrasse, jobfish (another member of the snapper family), narrow-barred Spanish mackerel and many more species.

The Stick Shadd proved to be ideal for my preferred style of fishing - retrieves with pauses and jerks hard enough to reveal the flash of the subsurface lure's sides 150 feet away - and allow me to see every hit and miss from various coral-prowling predators.

About midmorning, Sebile had switched to a large Sebile Splasher - a popper that kicks up plenty of fuss. And any sort of surface fuss in this country doesn't go unnoticed for long. A narrow-barred Spanish mackerel put on the afterburners and smashed the lure, putting Sebile's grip on the rod to the test.

Like all their relatives, these long, sleek mackerel are fast. But suddenly, mid-run, this one seemed to find the strength of three fish and took off like no tomorrow. It came out of the water - or more accurately, the front half did, thrown completely clear. The body ended around the dorsal fin where it had been severed. Around it, in a huge shower of red spray, the water erupted and that half disappeared also, leaving three slack-jawed gapers in the boat too stunned to speak. I broke the momentary silence, echoing Olsen a few hours earlier as I yelled, "That was insane!"