Paul O’Leary

Brisbane resident, Paul O’Leary, is a big game aficionado known for his adventurous spirit and ability to land truly impressive catches.  Drawn to the sport by a chance encounter at a boat show, Paul abandoned his then dreams of jet ski ownership, and started his ascension to becoming one of Australia’s most respected kayak fisherman.  Paul, who has been on the water since the days shortly after his birth, has appeared in numerous kayak angling videos, and is a member of the Hobie Fishing Team.

What first drew you to this style of angling? When was that?

Though I had power boats when I was young, there was a period where I was restricted, for the most part, to beach fishing.  I would watch as massive boils erupted out the back of the breakers, just beyond casting distance. I investigated kite fishing, jet skis, ocean rowing shells and a number of other methods to get out the ’back’ but to be honest, never considered a kayak until I came across the Hobie stand at the Brisbane Boat Show in 2006. Instantly I knew this was for me.

My passion for human powered craft, obsession with fishing and the ocean, and my love of just being on the water, all seemed to come together while standing there at the Boat Show.

I wouldn’t dream of going back to power boats and on the odd occasion I do go out in one, the fishing always seems less rewarding, no matter how spectacular the catch.

Do you remember the first fish that you caught from a kayak?

Like it was yesterday. After a few practice runs in the creeks and estuaries, my first venture offshore was on the Sunshine Coast with a good mate Greg. When I bought the kayak, I made the conscious decision to switch from bait to artificials. After working the “Rock” for no reward, we headed out to the “blinker.”  First cast of the soft plastic was smashed by a modest snapper. I remember dropping the rod on the deck, raising both arms and shouting at the top of my lungs. He was closely followed by four of his larger mates into my bulging fishbag. To top it off, on the way home, a lure I’d had for over ten years without success, was engulfed by a 10kg Yellowfin Tuna.

On the drive home, I wondered if every day would be as good as this. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for days.

The internet is rife with associations between your name and the pursuit of large game fish such as marlin.  In your capacities as both angler and tandem pilot, have you ever felt a sense of danger or apprehension when angling for billed creatures weighing hundreds of pounds?

To be honest, I’m more concerned about the drive on the highway to and from the days fishing.

I think it’s always in the back of your mind, however, it’s all fuel to the fire and part of the rush that keeps us coming back. I’ve often heard it said, the tougher the opponent the sweeter the victory. I most enjoy the contests where the decision can go either way. Whether that’s sight casting OS longtail tuna on light gear, or doing your best to stop the yak from flipping as you hurtle along under the tow of a rampaging black marlin. Simply winching in fish holds little attraction for me.

Like any pursuit, you hone your skills as each fish comes along, generally learning more from the ones that get away than the ones that make it to the boat.

What food and/or music fuels your drive to the put-in?

It’s an hour’s run in the dark to the nearest ocean launch, generally after only a few hours sleep. An energy drink, the window down, and a bit of loud music on the way fires up the anticipation.

Who, specifically, is shaping the future of kayak angling?

In Australia, the kayak manufacturers are pretty much driving the direction at the moment. Listening to the anglers and bringing out new craft to suit our specific type of fishing is raising the profile and attracting more and more main stream boat anglers to the sport.

Tournament angling for kayaks is increasing in popularity, with Hobie staging successful national and now international in-shore fishing competitions that are attracting greater numbers of anglers every year.

A wider range of fishing gear specifically designed for kayak fisherman is also starting to appear on the market, though there are plenty of guys out there tinkering away in the back shed coming up with new ways to mount rods, anchors and troll your baits down deep.

From an offshore fishing perspective, there are a number of anglers around the country that are out there pushing the boundaries and reaping the rewards. I think the extent of knowledge sharing that occurs amongst the kayak fishing community is in stark contrast to the power boat community. My good mate, Grant Ashwell, on the mid NSW coast, has been at it for longer than mos,t and has more billfish captures to his credit than anyone I know – yet he is the first to offer advice or guidance to all whom ask.

Guys like Josh Holmes and the boys at push the boundaries and leave no stone unturned in getting the most out of their kayaks and equipment. These guys spend every free moment on the water and are responsible for bringing a lot of new products to the attention of the kayak fishing community. It’s comforting to know I am not alone in this addiction.

Unfortunately I believe government and the Green movement in this country are having one of the greatest influences on the sport, with the ever more frequent declaration of sanctuaries that result in the closure of a dwindling number of prime inshore fishing grounds available to the kayak angler.

With regard to kayak angling, what issues are important to you? What, if anything, can be done about them?

Safety on the water is something I take pretty seriously. Though not required by law, I always carry all the necessary lifelines to give myself the best chance of a safe return.

Proper preparation plays a big part in a safe return, also. I always check my equipment before each outing and carry the necessary tools and spares to survive most, if not all, likely scenarios.

Fitness is something I try to keep on top of. Often vying with other kayaks and stinkboats,  being first cast into a pelagic feeding boil means putting in the hard yards off the water too. Aging joints restrict me to low impact activities but swimming, surfing, cycling and sculling (rowing) seem to keep the necessary muscles moving enough to keep me in the hunt.

Barring money or logistics, what is your dream kayak angling trip?

Pretty much anywhere with warm water, big fish close to shore, and somewhere I can drag my kayak from my front door (or tent) to the beach in under a minute. Being able to watch the conditions all day and hit the water at the drop of a hat, really puts you in the thick of the action.

I’ve often marveled at the variety of speedsters the boys in Hawaii have at their fingertips, but I’d probably have to say somewhere in the South Pacific like Samoa or Vanuatu. It would take a bit of research to find the right location. The downside of remote locations is, of course, getting your kayak there.

I’m lucky to have Fraser Island at my doorstep and make at least one trip there every year to sample some of the hot fishing the place has to offer.

I’ve also had the opportunity to kayak fish a couple of out of the way locations in Aus over the last few years. A week on Dirk Hartog Island on the west coast of Australia was a mammoth exercise for fifteen like-minded yakfishers. The fishing was awesome, including one really hot session at Cape Inscription on the northern tip of the island. As the mothership anchored up to let us off into a heaving sea, a 3m tiger shark hit a baitfish on the surface beside the boat, completing a full mid-air somersault, before crashing back into the sea. For the next two hours I got smashed by a multitude of pelagic species with only three of the twenty-five odd hook-ups making it past the taxman to the yak.

When writing up a trip report or offering video narration, you often do so in a way that overlays the humanistic attributes of the outing atop the details of fish size or technical approach.  This style really draws the audience into your adventure, and makes for a more exciting and involved read or viewing.  From where do you attribute your ability to craft a well honed fish tale?

I’m not really sure; I was hopeless at English in high school and a career in Engineering and IT hasn’t exposed me to a great deal of the arts.

I guess it’s just a passion for the subject I’m writing about. Good days on the water and the high from vanquishing a rampaging quarry, stay with me for days. Writing about it prolongs that feeling, and reliving the highs and lows of the battle tends to come out in the way I write. I guess I try and put the reader in the seat with me in the hope they can feel some of the raw emotion associated with the battle. After all, that’s what keeps us going back time and again.

What’s in your milk crate?

Though I don’t favor the traditional crate, I keep everything I need to process a fish or need in a hurry in the tray of the kayak behind me. Safety gear, gaff, lipgrips, fishbat and a fishbag full of ice pretty much fill the tray. If I’m live baiting, then the downrigger fits in behind me too.

I try to keep things fairly simple and uncluttered on the decks. Less to tangle with should the big strike come along.

Tell us about your best day on the water.

I’ve had many a hot bite whilst out on the water. Many whilst I was fishing alone, too. For mine, the best days on the water are with mates. Especially mates that don’t get the opportunity to wet a line that often.

On our annual pilgrimage to Fraser Island in 2009, I was the only one that managed to get out on day one and was rewarded with a nice little tuna for dinner. This fired the others up for the next day’s outing.

Though my mate Steve bought his kayak at the same time as I did a few years back, three kids have only seen him on the water a half dozen times. Only two of those were good enough to get offshore, and both times we scored donuts. Although he has caught small fish from the yak, I still don’t think he knew what to expect when confronted with more than 10kgs of cranky fish.

I offered him yesterday’s successful lure and we hit the water. First pass over the corner of the reef, I was in a dream and totally unprepared for the rod to go off. The fish smashed me and I tightened the drag, but not enough and was soon reefed. I tied another lure on and set off on the troll, having only traveled a few hundred metres when I heard the frantic shouts from Steve of, “I’m on, I’m on. WTF do I do now?”

“Hang on and enjoy the ride,” I shouted back with a chuckle, and cranked in my lures and turned to make chase with the video camera. When I finally managed to catch him, I noted the angle of the rod and guessed this fish to be a good bit bigger than yesterday’s one, and given its fury at the strike, most likely another longtail. I also noted the speed at which he was hurtling along. I offered a few words of advice and as he turned the rudder and brought the kayak side on to the fish, his pace began to slow. Next Steve tightened the drag a little and the fish slowed even more.

Twenty minutes and now Steve was able to stem the pace of the fish to stationery for short periods and had managed to turn its head out to sea and away from the shallow water. As the stationery periods increased in frequency and duration, he now took the fight to the fish by turning the kayak into the current and pedaling, bringing the fish up higher in the water column in an attempt to tire it out quicker than just letting it swim with the current. The first few minutes were a dogged battle, with the fish actually pulling Steve backwards a half a metre for every metre he gained. Awesome to watch!!

Thirty minutes in, and it’s gone into a decreasing circling pattern but still showing plenty of power. Not used to the battle, Steve is complaining of his forearms locking up. This comes from the lactic acid build up in the muscles and usually from white knuckling it on the rod, instead of taking a relaxed, controlled grip. Something that only comes with experience I guess, no matter what the pursuit. I get him to hold the weight of the fish with one hand and take each hand off the rod, one at a time, allowing him to work some feeling back into each. With the circles decreasing and the fish at the end of its fight, I moved in closer to watch. As it came to the surface, we both whooped in excitement when we saw the size of the beast. Holding it by the tail, after forty minutes of heated battle, Steve didn’t have the energy or the room to pull the behemoth from the water. I maneuvered in close, jumped out onto the trampoline, and grabbing it by the tail, hauled it onto the trampoline of the AI.

With shouts of joy we pedaled away, each little swell washed under the tramps and over the fish, keeping it cool over the 2km pedal back to shore. I couldn’t stop looking at it. Mine (yesterday) was a baby compared to this thing. Looks like tuna for dinner again tonight.

I think Steve was in a state of shock. He just kept shaking his head and saying “I never thought I’d see a fish that big…let alone catch one from a bloody kayak.”

As reality and afternoon beers sunk in, Steve relived the fight and we all had a good chuckle.

What an awesome day.

What is the kayak fishing lifestyle?

For those of us trapped in a 9-5, it’s the constant scouring of the various weather sites to identify the hot fishing days and hoping they fall on weekends. Scheming kayak fishing adventures to far off places also occupies my mind on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, my job means work in big cities is still on the cards for a few years to come. Eventually I’d like to make the move up the coast and telecommute as much as possible. A few have managed to graft a living out of fishing, but our population base doesn’t provide a lot of opportunity.

Tell us a story, any story.

In May 2010, four of us shipped our Hobie Adventure Island kayaks to Lord Howe Island about 700km off the New South Wales Coast. Though it was outside billfish season, the fishing was hot with Yellowtail Kingfish being the prime target.

Four days in and we were yet to find the fish in size or numbers. Day five and I decided to work along Middle Beach, around the Clear Place and all the way down to Blinkey’s Beach. Not a touch. After a bite to eat, I radioed Grant and said I would meet him out wider. The plan was to look for the ridge the locals speak of about 1.5kms out running north-south. About half way to Grant my reel gave a squeal and stopped. I picked up the rod and set the hook and it took a short powerful run again and appeared to stop. Bugga…. another shark. Running heavy leader on 50lb braid, I decided to make the battle short and sharp or break the line trying. I wasn’t getting my big lure back anyway.

I radioed Grant to tell him I was delayed on another f@#%ing shark and would still be a few moments. He pedaled towards me, and for the next 10 min, or so I had a ding dong battle with whatever was on the end of my line. I had my little overhead reel locked up on max drag (14lb) on a 24kg stick and this thing was still making powerful runs even if fairly short ones. I’ve never fished that much drag on a yak before!!

I’ve checked the screen on the sounder and I’m in 80ft of water with a relatively sandy bottom.
Grant was circling me when I look down to see colour, and blow me if it isn’t a kingy… a big one. He seemed spent when I slipped the gaff through his bottom lip but I gave him a don’t-argue or two for good measure before pulling this behemoth into my lap. It was so big and slippery I couldn’t even roll it over to get a shot of it in my lap so up I stood. You have to love the stability of the AI.

The island itself is an amazing place and really hot fishing aside, well worth the visit. I’m already planning my return when the billfish are running.

Your style of angling involves a seamless and well integrated marriage of kayak pedaling and rod handling skills.  This is most exemplified once you have a fish on the line.  The two actions really work together in an efficient way, and, in terms of aesthetic appeal, call to mind the symbiosis of man and watercraft often reserved for surfing or surfski racing.  How did you come to develop your technique, and what advice can you offer anglers hoping to better the use of their pedal drive kayaks as a means to play their fish?

I hadn’t actually given it a great deal of thought, but perhaps it comes from a lifetime of still water rowing, where you really do need to ‘be a part of the boat’ or you end up in the water.

The kayak is a valuable part of your arsenal when it comes to subduing a large fish. The ability to maneuver the kayak throughout the fight, using the Hobie Mirage drive, allows you to dictate terms to the fish rather than simply being towed in whatever direction the fish chooses to swim.

Last season I was out with a few friends with two of us boating a metre plus tuna. In a paddle kayak, Ray’s fish towed him over 3kms out to sea whilst I managed to fight mine in a 200m square playing field.

Using the pedals provides the opportunity to regain line and keep the fish on your preferred side. The ability to keep presenting the kayak side on to the force of the fish increases the drag factor on the fish, and confuses it as you constantly change direction.

What does the future hold for you?

Hopefully one that’s filled with lots of big fish. My new work contract makes it a little more difficult to just go fishing as I have done in the past.

I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the Hobie Fishing Team here in Aus. The guys at Hobie are really passionate about their kayaks, and committed to their fishing. In fact, it was that passion I saw in Hobie Australia CEO, Steve Fields at the Brisbane Boat Show, all those years ago, that convinced me kayak fishing was the thing for me.

Season has just begun here. Last year the fish were here in numbers in April so I’ll be planning a couple of weeks at my local, hopefully staying 50m from the launch. Other than that, I’ll make the annual trek to Fraser Island in October and hopefully to South West Rocks in Feb to catch up with all the other crazy bastards that live and breathe this stuff. Situated on the central NSW coast, the warm currents flow right in close to shore bringing the billfish into striking distance. I’m also planning another extended trip. Most likely somewhere in North Queensland on the Barrier Reef.


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