The fishing tale of the one that didn’t get away!! 1938

In 1938 Mrs Jess Sams (nee Millard) of Ulladulla was one of the 580 Australian anglers in an angling competition, embracing both salt and freshwater species.  Her catch of a 330lb striped marlin, which remains today unbeaten and secured her the principal trophy for the heaviest gamefish. Mrs Sams received an avalanche of attention and publicity with her capture, particularly for her triumph in what was, at the time, an almost exclusively male sport. The fish was also an Australian record which still stands today, on 60kg line class.

Jess Sams was born at Milton in 1897, daughter of Dan and Mary Ann Millard. The Millard family were pioneers of Ulladulla region. Growing up in Milton, as a young lady moved to Sydney where she working as a seamstress and milliner, in 1926 she married Captain Archie Sams. She was a tireless worker for local charities especially the Ulladulla Ambulance Service, as well as a member of the CWA and Hospital Ladies ancillary. But Jess is also remember for catching that fish!!

Is was 27 February 27 1938, a 30Ft double-ended carvel fishing launch slipped quietly out of Ulladulla Boat Harbour at 0700 hours aboard the Tory with the two Puglisi brothers, Michael and Salvatore, and 41 year old woman angler Jess Sams. In the stern of the launch young Michael Puglisi steered unerringly south east in the calm seas towards the reef strewn waters, north of Brush Island, while brother Salvatore, fussed around the engine and assisted Jess Sams with the bait rigging and fishing preparations.  Money was not exactly plentiful in those days either and with fuel both expensive and scarce, the costs of the trip were to be offset by their share of the 500 pound trophy they stood to win should their quest be successful. It was a tall order, but the brothers were determined to ensure Mrs. Sams had (at least) a fair chance against the dozens of male anglers fishing right around Australia, all trying hard to secure the trophies and a piece of Australia angling history.

The Puglisi brothers had no satellites to beam down photographs where their instincts took them. Just after 0900 hrs, their intuition was reward with a spectacular form a striped marlin that would subsequently weigh in at 330 lb. But as the small crew desperately struggled to contain this mighty fish, such thoughts were a long way from their minds. Using an underhand reel, on a stout split cane rod, Jess Sams hung on grimly, carefully monitoring the meagre 300 yards of 130 lb linen line she had wrapped on the reel – severely restricting her ability to let the fish run as it wanted to and to 330 lbs of angry striped marlin, 300 yards is nothing.  But for Jess Sams her battle was not yet over. Indeed, it has only just begun. When they returned to the wharf at Ulladulla later that day having drifted far out to sea during the battle, there was great consternation as it was discovered that there was no provision in the rules for women anglers to win the national competition’s major trophy. It seems that such a possibility didn’t even warrant a mention.

Frantic phone calls from Ulladulla later that day to the organizing committee in Sydney soon laid that fear to rest. The officials shrewdly realized that the entire populace of Ulladulla would have taken Sydney by storm had her claim not been allowed, it was revealed that the fish would probably be disqualified anyway, as it had not been weighed on the official scales further up the coast. But these calls were overheard by Jess’s niece on the party line at the telephone exchange. Early the next morning, with her husband Archie and a team of supporters rallying around, Jess Sams and her fish were driven to Jervis Bay, arriving at 4am the next day the mighty fish strapped on top of the car for the occasion. As the road at that point was unsealed, one can only imagine the conversation that ensued, all crammed into the small car, with this ruddy great marlin strapped down to the roof. Thus when the fish was finally weighed it turned the scales at 330 lbs.

Jess Sams who was a staunch supporter of the sport of Game Fishing, sought for the formation of a Fishing Museum in the Ulladulla – Bermagui region, it was her intention to donate her trophy to the museum. However in 1981 she donated her 1938 trophy to the Australian Fishing Museum, and today is held in trust in a bank vault in Sydney. Ulladulla Game Fishing Club holds the annual February Jess Sam’s Game Fishing Tournament in her honour.

© Cathy Dunn, published 19 Jan 2024