Black Marlin Fishing

When you think of black marlin fishing you probably think of Ernest Hemingway and the Straits of Florida where Santiago (in The Old Man and the Sea) battled with his monster fish for three days and two nights. 


Best place in the world to catch a Grander

Up until 1966 Cairns was just a sleepy town in the tropics surrounded by fields of sugar cane. Then, on the 25th of September 1966 Richard Obach, an American working on a Cairns game boat, caught the first 1000 lb marlin from Cairns.


Richard Obach (right) in 1966 with his black marlin weighing 1,064 lbs (photo courtesy of The Cairns Post).


It was a world record and hundreds of big game fishermen from all over the world descended on Cairns including Hollywood celebrities such as Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and Bob Hope.


Movie star Lee Marvin and the crew of Tropic Queen with a 1218 lb (560 kg) black marlin that he caught off Cairns on 13 November 1974. Lee Marvin was a frequent visitor to Cairns and helped put the far northern city on the tourist map (photo courtesy of The Cairns Post).


A 250 kilometre stretch of the Great Barrier Reef from Lizard Island in the north to Cairns in the south is recognized as the best black marlin fishing grounds in the world.



Australian TV celebrities Bob and Molly Dyer with a 738 lb (340 kg) black marlin caught off Cairns in the early 1970s (photo courtesy of The Cairns Post).


Every year more black marlin are caught on the Great Barrier Reef than in the rest of world combined (i.e. Kona, Brazil, Madeira, the Azores and Mauritius). According to the records of the International Game Fishing Association, in any given year 70% of all ‘granders’ (black marlin over 1000 lbs) are caught off the Great Barrier Reef between Lizard Island and Cairns.


The Cairns Marlin Season

The season starts in early September, when female black marlin from the Pacific Ocean arrive at the Great Barrier Reefto spawn, and lasts until late December.


Photo courtesy of Moana Fishing Charters

A number of professional marlin skippers are based in Cairns and take out small groups of big game fishers on day trips or on charters of 2 to 5 days duration.

The Cairns game boats catch their black marlin mostly by trolling live baits such as scad, tuna, and mackerel across the surface of the sea.


Black Marlin Fishing Conservation Ethic

The Cairns black marlin fishery has a strong conservation ethic.

Circle hooks (which hook the fish on the corner of the mouth) are used instead of the old ‘J’ hook.

You’ll rarely see a Cairns black marlin hoisted up at a weighing station á la Ernest Hemingway – the majority are tagged and released.

Since the annual Lizard Island Black Marlin Classic began in 1986 over 3,800 black marlin have been caught but only 23 have been taken to the weigh station – the remainder (99.5 %) were released.


Day Trips and Liveaboard Trips

There are basically three options for black marlin fishing out of Cairns:

  • day trips
  • 2 to 5 day ‘live aboard’ trips
  • ‘mothershipping’

Day trips are the cheapest option. A share-charter for a day’s marlin fishing can be anywhere from $400 per person to $650 while a sole-charter will be upwards of $1900 per day.

Day boats usually take no more than 4 anglers and leave Cairns at about 7.30 am, returning by about 6.00 pm.

A 2 to 5 day ‘live aboard’ trip will give you more chance of hooking a marlin and like day trips, ‘live aboards’ can be share-charter or sole-charter. The number of anglers is usually restricted to about 4 per boat.

‘Live aboard’ trips have the advantage over day trips that the entire day can be spent fishing (on day trips the late afternoon will be spent steaming back to Cairns). This is important because many skippers believe the best marlin fishing occurs in the afternoon, from 2 pm onwards.


Photo courtesy of Calypso Fishing Adventures

With ‘Mothershipping’ your game boat returns each evening to a ‘mother ship’ (usually 60 to 100 feet in length) where you sleep and eat.

This gives you the flexibility of ‘live aboard charters’ – you can follow the marlin wherever they are along the 250 kilometres between Lizard Island and Cairns.

But it offers a much higher standard of comfort (qualified chef, good wines and beers, comfortable air-conditioned sleeping berths, TV and video, and CD players).

‘Live aboard’ and ‘mothershipping’ definitely give you more chance of hooking a big marlin but don’t be put off by day trips – a black marlin weighing 1,218 lb was recently caught by someone on a shared day-charter out of Cairns.

Going back to Hemingway again – here’s a little known fact: in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ the monster black marlin that Santiago fought with for three days was a ‘he’. But in actual fact it would have to have been a ‘she’ because male black marlin never reach more than 300 lbs.



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