Before sadly losing his battle with cancer on August 19, Barry Alty was busy writing articles for Bush ‘n Beach. With the consent of his son Brett, we will be publishing Barry’s final articles over the next few months.
THERE is a photo of me at about age four sitting in my father’s lap with both of us holding a rod and me appearing to be doing the winding.
I don’t remember it but photos don’t lie. I lived in Dunedin, New Zealand during my early years. I have vivid memories of buying thruppence worth of cat food and sitting on the Dunedin wharves all day. On a good day I would be thrilled to catch a small trevally or a leatherjacket.
How times changed. From the ages of 10 to 15 I lived in a small town called Reefton at the western foot of the NZ Southern Alps. It was so named because of the discovery of alluvial and quartz reef gold in the late 1800s. It even had the first hydro-electric power station in the southern hemisphere.
When I lived there, gold mining had ceased and the town had a population of 2000 and seven hotels no less. Reefton was 80km inland from the somewhat inhospitable seas off Greymouth, which were never fished in those days, except by commercial boats. I lived about 100m from the Inangahua River, which ran through the town.
This river was well stocked with brown trout, as were others nearby. So guess what my next fishing experience was? Luckily, the biggest and best hole with the most trout was at my back door. I fished with either overhead casting gear or wet or dry flies, whichever was most appropriate. I would habitually lead the Acclimatisation District with around 300 takeable trout per season.
My biggest were 6lb on the baitcaster and 9lb on fly. I learnt a number of lessons that would later be of great benefit to me when I started fishing for marlin. I often fished with a friend who was a bit of a wanderer. He would have 20-25 casts in a pool, and if he hadn’t caught anything move upstream, repeating the process in the many deep pools on the river.
I inevitably stayed in the one pool with the most and biggest trout. When the fish got active I was in the right place, so I almost always outfished my friend. Lesson: spend your time where most of the fish are or are expected to be. I noticed that when it was reported to be raining in the headwaters of the river the trout became very active. They could somehow sense a flood was coming and that it would be very hard to feed during it.
When flooding, the river would turn a muddy brown from dirt and the stains of native beech leaves, making feeding near impossible. Later in life, I also found marlin would get more active when barometric pressure dropped ahead of a storm, and similarly after the storm had passed. When the river was in the early stages of flooding, live worms and frogs were the best baits because they were being washed off the banks as the river rose. Lesson: if possible, fish with whatever bait is present.
Thus, during clear water days and the high sun I fished with minnows because the trout were eating small fish. In the evening when insects were falling in the water it was wet flies.
When fishing with minnows, the two most productive colour combos were red/black/gold and green/gold. Coincidently, these are two very good colour combos for marlin. The cockabullys, the main bait species in the river, were grey/white with a little black. The river was named afte Inanga, which is the Maori word for what we know as whitebait. This river was apparently full of them before the gold miners started emptying their cyanide tanks into the river. However, a few hardy ones were still there and when they were running white was the most productive colour. Always match the hatch. My next fishing experience began after I had moved to Auckland. My fiancé and I with another couple visited Russell in the Bay of Islands for a holiday in 1965.
We usually had drinks and dinner at the famous Duke of Marlborough Hotel. Its main bar featured numerous pictures of marlin, which at that stage I barely knew existed. They looked exciting and big. In those days the Bay of Islands Swordfish Club had a gantry on the wharf and would post on a blackboard what was being weighed that afternoon, which boat and ETA. We would go down to the wharf and watch the weigh-ins.
I thought this looked pretty exciting, so we chartered a game boat for a day. We didn’t see any marlin but caught a number of mid-sized kingfish on lures. That was all a terrible mistake because I was hooked. And now I’m writing this 54 years and millions of dollars later! Every year a group of four of us would charter a boat and spend five to seven days living aboard and cruising around the areas from the Poor Knights Islands out of Tutukaka to Cape Karikari in the north.
We fished famous areas like Taheke Reef, Ruahine Reef, the Ninepin, Bird Rock and the Cavalli Islands with legendary captains like Jack (Father) Brittain whose son Chris I fished with in later years, Snooks Fuller, Curly Lynch and Willie Oliver. We were spectacularly unsuccessful on these various trips. I think we caught one striped marlin, one mako shark and one hammerhead shark between us. But we always had a great time with the camaraderie and the expectation of catching something.
Then in 1984 I moved to Bougainville Island; administratively part of Papua New Guinea, but geographically part of the Solomon Islands. It is five degrees south of the equator, so is hot every day and technically in the doldrums, so not much wind except for during frequent afternoon thunderstorms. This place was a true boater’s paradise, with crystal-clear waters and numerous offshore islands. The island features lush jungle down to the water, calm bays and beaches fringed with palm trees and coral reefs. There was a very active gamefish club with about 40 trailer boat owners among its membership.
There was no marina on the island and I had a MerCruiser-powered Haines Hunter 600C. The principal species targeted were sailfish and it was impractical to bait fish because of the prevalence of sharks. So we all fished light tackle for sailfish as our prime species and spanish mackerel as the food species. We became quite adept at catching them on 4-6kg tackle using lures in a time when Gamakatsu SL12 hooks weren’t yet available, so we were using a less efficient hook setup.
My eldest son Brett was 12 when we moved there and he became very interested in fishing. We had a few remarkable experiences… One day we had a quintuple hook-up of sails with just the two of us on the boat. There were at least 10 jumping and we had no idea which ones were on which lines. The result: two cut off and three fell off.
On another occasion we had a double hook-up of 85kg yellowfin on 15kg line, again with only the two of us on the boat. Brett pulled his hook after about an hour and I fought mine for roughly an hour and 45 minutes. It was getting late, there were no beacons on the reef entrances and we couldn’t raise anyone on the radio. So I put the reel drag to ‘sunset’ with the intention of getting the fish or breaking it off. Well I couldn’t break the line from the rod tip. All I did was loosen most of the roller guide bindings on the rod.
I was using a simple braid rod bucket and with the pressure on it the rod kept twisting sideways, hence wrecking the bindings. In the end I broke the line by hand with a glove on. Man it’s hard to break even 15kg because of the stretch in mono. Another thing I still remember vividly was when we were hit by lightning. It initially hit the radio aerial, which disintegrated and then it flashed to the aluminium windscreen surround, burning a hole in it and exploding the glass.
Unfortunately, it also flashed to my head. I was blown out of the helm chair and wound up on the cockpit floor next to the engine box. I was unconscious initially and bleeding like a stuck pig from lacerations where the fibreglass from the aerial and glass from the windscreen had hit my head. I also had two badly ruptured eardrums and had lost my middle ear balance, so when I tried to stand, I promptly fell down.
Nevertheless, my family was on board, so my wife took over driving and Brett used a fire extinguisher to put out the wiring that was burning. We were now outside the main reef in a thunderstorm with about 70m visibility, a radio that had melted and a compass that had been depolarised/demagnetised or whatever. Luckily the main engine kept going and as luck would have it we stumbled across another boat, which was coincidently owned by the chief financial officer of the company I was running.
No less than Paul Wells, now of Wellsys Tackle. On sighting his boat, the main engine cut out, so he towed us in. However, when we got to the ramp no one knew how to operate the manual release valve to get the stern drive leg up, so I jumped in the water and did the job. My wife then drove the rig home but couldn’t back it into the boat port on the big tandem-axle trailer, so it was left to me again. The damage to the boat was quite extensive.
In addition to what’s already mentioned: the ammeter was blown out of the dashboard, the bilge pumps were blown, the electric fridge was blown, the electric-start paraffin stove was blown, a push/pull anchor light switch was blown completely out of the dashboard (taking a chunk out of my leg on the way to taking a chunk out of the inside of the transom), the stator was burnt out, two fuses on the engine were blown and the wiring between the ignition switch and batteries was burnt out.
Within half an hour of the boat arriving home, the mechanics from my company were there. They had heard through the grapevine and “couldn’t leave the boss’s boat with salt water in it”. Somehow they hotwired it and flushed the engine and leg. A week later they had the engine going again without the benefit of any MerCruiser parts. They just adapted things and rewired the stator.
Following this I was off to the medical clinic to have the glass and fibreglass removed from my face and around 40 stiches inserted. I was then attending the clinic every two days for six months so my ears could be cleaned. There was concern about infection, particularly in the middle ear, so I was on big doses of ampicillin, to which I am now immune.
There were some interesting aspects to life on Bougainville; principally self-reliance. The game fish club had its own tackle shop with a full range of Yo-Zuri skirts, line, hooks and lures. It was open every Tuesday evening. Because many of the members were new to fishing, the club would have regular ‘show and tell nights. The topic might for example be rigging lures.
Members would be encouraged to bring their rigged lures and one of the more proficient members would show everyone how to do it properly. This was something missing in clubs I joined since. There are few dealers for anything on Bougainville, so if something was wrong with an engine or its components, my mechanics couldn’t just pop down to the dealer and buy a new one.
They fixed it. For example, I once did an oil seal on the universal shaft and it scoured the shaft. My mechanics just lathed a new one. Their only question was what the best material was to use.
In the end they ‘borrowed’ what they wanted from Morgan Equipment who were servicing the Komatsu R180 haul trucks. On another occasion, my carburettor, a Rochester 4MV Quadrajet, was flooding and stalling. I was told just bring the carby and intake manifold in and the guys would fix it. One week later “put this back on the engine boss and she will be OK”. I was amazed it worked fine.
I asked Leo my chief mechanic how they had done it because they didn’t have time to get a repair kit (gaskets, springs and so on). Leo said: “We get specs from Rochester by telex, pulled the carby to bits and put it back together by the specs with new bits. A good job for the apprentice. He learnt how to make springs and gaskets.”
I was stunned. We used sliced-face straight-running lures on Bougainville when fishing light tackle. There was little wind, so they stayed in the water. Off the Gold Coast where there is quite a lot of wind we mostly use pushers or chuggers because they stay in the water better.
Though we do use some weighted SFSR. Another interesting thing was my mechanics worked out my 4.2-litre four cylinder alloy block MerCruiser engine was actually half a GM truck engine. So they ordered GM parts and couldn’t understand why the same part from Mercury Marine was so much more expensive. It was during this period on Bougainville Island that we started travelling to Kona, Hawaii to fish. A real learning experience to be continued next month…