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Mandurah Estuary Mulloway


By Gary Wotherspoon

The black water lapped ever higher up the bank with the rising tide.

Within it, mullet swam lazily in twos or threes, confident that no predators chased them here.


The angler stood, eyes craning the starlit surface for a splash or the tell tale ripple of cruising fish.

There!

Hips and shoulders swivelled quickly, and the cast-net landed pancake flat.

The throb of the rope told him he’d scored and seconds later, three herring sized mullet were lapping the white bucket as the little aerator buzzed.

Later that night, the sound of a small outboard came floating across the estuary. Closer now, a dinghy came toward the pools of light at the base of the great bridge.

The angler stopped the little motor and silently played out anchor rope, stopping only when the boat reached the edge of the light.

The tide was stronger here, much stronger he mused, as he watched the water hump and whirl around the pylons that stood in defiance.

A lone garfish skirted the whirlpool and flicked away as the angler lowered his lip-hooked mullet into the current.

The mullet kicked strongly, pulling the line steadily from the freespooling reel until the angler stopped him, just short of the pressure wave.

“How long tonight?” thought the angler.  Could be minutes, hours even, or as he well knew, not at all. But all the time he could feel his mullet kicking and tugging strongly, he knew he was in with a chance.

Near the pylon, the mullet swam confusedly, head into the current but restrained by a strange weight on his mouth. The pressure wave from the pylon provided a welcome respite from the relentless current, and many other small fish rested there, facing downriver.

But suddenly, he was alone, and though he could see no predators, his sensitive lateral line told him of danger.

He darted forward a metre, then another. Too slow! A yellow mouth , the size of a small bucket, opened quickly, sucking the mullet and two gallons of water down in the blink of an eye. Then gills flared, discharging the water and sending the hapless baitfish headfirst into the throat mounted crushers.

In the dinghy, the taut vibrating line went suddenly slack. Sensing the change, the angler spun the handles, trying to find touch again.

Three, four turns then thump! The rod came alive in his hands, bumping and knocking, as the big fish rattled his head in the beginnings of panic.

Then the tip dived and line crackled off into the dark.

For an awful second the angler felt the line scraping along the pylon, then the fish swerved left and headed upstream into clear water. The angler flicked the anchor rope, with float attached, over the side, and drifted after the fish.  The first run was a long one,  and as the line sped away, he backed the drag off a tad, unsure of the damage to the line.

He knew it was a big mulloway, possibly the biggest he’d hooked, and to have it in clean water now was a blessing. Too often the fish would dart straight round the pylon or the anchor rope and end the encounter.

“Just be patient” he coached himself and began the first of several long pump-and-wind sessions.

Gradually, the runs shortened and after 15 minutes the fish was very close, the line angling toward the surface. With a faint splash the huge fish popped to the top and floated into the beam of his headlamp.  It lay there beaten, a row of silver portholes lighting the length of its broad bronze flank.

The angler hesitated for a moment, stunned at the size and beauty of the fish, then with adrenaline charged muscles, he hauled the fish swiftly over the side and onto the rubber matted floor.

The fish I’ve described, at 26.5kg cleaned, was the biggest I’ve taken from Mandurah.

Like many mulloway fishermen, I’m always struck with a tinge of sadness when a big mulloway lies croaking in the boat, straight from the water.  But this is tempered by the thought of the many hours of effort and dedication that have culminated in it’s capture, and the thought of lightly crumbed fillets sizzling in hot olive oil and butter!

Every summer, the Mandurah estuary gives up reasonable numbers of mulloway to a small band of dedicated anglers. Most of these fish come from a relatively small area bordered by the ocean entrance east of Robert Pt through to the Peel Harvey Inlet upstream of the new bridge. Within this area, there are numerous opportunities to take mulloway from both boat and shore

The main channel is subject to strong tidal flow and therefore fish will be found either cruising along with the tide, or in areas that offer relief from the current.

Traditionally, the old traffic bridge has been the scene of some monster Mulloway captures and many more big bust-offs. The large number of pylons offers food and shelter to all sorts of fish, but also makes stopping big fish very difficult. In addition, it’s popularity as a platform for crabbing, prawning and other family fun adds to the confusion when a big “kingie” screams off with your livebait.

For this reason, I prefer to fish upstream, at the new bridge. The pylons here are fewer and larger and only half are accessible by foot. The others are easily fished by boat. Though I haven’t tried it, the Dawesville bridge should also fish well at the right time.

The whole exercise revolves around preparedness. Unless you regularly fish with a mate, the boat needs to be easily managed by one person.  Because I like to use the tide to fish back into structure, the majority of fish I hook will run with the current.  Some fish will seemingly deliberately brick you, whereas others will run straight past obstructions, into cleaner water. For this reason, I like a dan-buoy arrangement on the anchor rope. It’s then a fairly a simple matter to untie the rope, and flick it out,  float–and-all over the side one-handed, for recovery later.

Hal Harvey has made a compelling case for boat noise as an attractant in some circumstances, but in an estuary situation, my gut instinct is to keep boat noise to a minimum.  Covering the floor with something like marine carpet or rubber matting will help a lot, as will taking extra care not to drop sinkers, rods or thermos’s!

Tackle needs to be strong yet simple. I favour an ABU 7000 with 10kg line on a shortish rod with a light tip and powerful butt section.  I tie a short double to 2 metres of 20 kg nylon trace, with a single chemically sharpened 7/0 snooded to the end of that. The livebait is hooked from below through the lips and is lowered or gently cast back toward the pylon.

I prefer to fish the bait unweighted, but on nights of really strong current flow, you may have to use weight. I prefer large bean sinkers running free on the main line, with a small plastic bead between sinker and swivel. To the swivel I tie a longish 1.5 metre trace of 20kg nylon, which gives the bait some chance of avoiding the crabs on the bottom.

Old timers enjoyed success with heavy handlines, and there’s no doubt they are the best medicine for turning a really determined fish, but they are not my cup of tea.

I believe that the mulloway will often take up station either directly behind large current-beating obstructions such as bridge pylons, or directly in front of them, riding the pressure wave.

In this fashion, the fish can move across current for the length of the bridge, using a minimum of effort in between successive shelter stations and picking off feeding opportunities as they present.

On truly large bridges where the pylons are few and widely spaced, it’s worth moving from one to another if no action is forthcoming after 10 minutes or so.  Like holes on a beach, some pylons are barren whilst others may hold a school. On a good sounder, it may be possible to see the fish if you can get your transducer close enough. Knowing the fish are there is a huge confidence builder, but even so, they may not be feeding.

Slack water, either at the top or bottom of the tide, presents a different situation. Travelling fish may arrive and begin feeding on the baitfish that typically gather around lights and structure. In addition, fish that were resting up but not feeding may also come out of the structure to join in.

Swan River regulars tell of impressive scenes of big fish carving through bony-herring schools at the Narrows, and I have seen big fish slurping king-prawns at the old bridge in Mandurah.

Clearly slack water is the time to fish, but predicting it’s arrival can be extremely difficult, especially as you travel further upstream.  Prevailing weather conditions, particularly air pressure and wind strength, can have a big influence on the tides.

On a typical summer evening with a high tide around 9pm and a sea breeze swinging light easterly soon after dark, I’d anticipate slack water in the estuary to be around midnight. That leaves plenty of time for having dinner, packing the boat and catching the live-bait.

This is a time consuming but necessary part of most of my mulloway trips. I consider the very best livebait in the estuary to be mullet, which are also the trickiest to catch! Rarely easy to take on bait, mullet are however easily caught in a cast net. Although the canals and marina developments are often loaded with them, they are out of bounds to cast netters, who must only operate upstream of Creery Island in the Peel-Harvey Inlet. (see Fisheries WA for more details)

Alternatively, tailor, herring, tarwhine or yellowtail will suffice, and can all be line-caught at various spots around the estuary.  Tailor in particular often hang round the well lit sections of the new bridge at night and are easily caught on an unweighted whitebait. But watch the minimum legal length though, as many are just undersize.

Typically, I’ll catch 4 or 5 good-sized baits and keep them alive in a 20 litre white drum with a screw lid (to stop water loss while travelling) with a little aerator attached. Even with a good supply of oxygen to the water, it’s a good idea to decant the top 10 litres or so and refill with fresh sea-water every half hour or so. Strong, healthy baits send out real “eat me” signals that are not lost on any nearby mulloway.

There are other spots, out of the main flow, where the fish feed for longer periods. The best known of these was the old marina, just upstream from the old traffic bridge. Many mulloway in the 2 – 6kg class came from here, but unfortunately it was reclaimed and transformed into a canal development a few years ago.

The fish came to chase the whitebait schools which sheltered at night in the shallow water amongst the moorings and boat pens

The largest concentrations of whitebait seemed to occur around the full moon, from November through March, but peaking in December and January.

On hot still nights, the whitebait would shower the surface at regular intervals for hours at a time, under the steady and repeated assault of school sized mulloway.

A lot of people used to fish mulies on a bottom rig amongst this action, and they caught fish, but constant attack from crabs and small pickers must have been a pain.

I preferred to baitcast mulies on a 4 x gang rig, and retrieve very slowly. It was very important to have your mulie swim without spinning and some adjustment was often required to make this happen. In addition, I would cut off the tail to let out a slow berley trail and whilst it is unpopular now, I would replace the bottom hook with a small sharp treble which made the hookup a lot more certain. Due to the infrequency of tailor captures, I think it’s still a valid way to fish for mulloway, as all my fish were lip hooked or hooked outside the mouth.

Learning to stop a marauding mulloway on tackle light enough to cast for hours, was a real introduction to sportfishing.

As time went on I began experimenting a bit, and in 1986 I got a 5 kg fish on a large Rapala minnow lure, but decided there was too much casting between fish!

One devastating method, particularly on the bigger fish, was a small 120-150mm live mullet, suspended about a metre below a float. The downfall of this method though was keeping the livebait from swimming around every mooring line and pylon in sight.

For sheer thrills though, it was hard to beat the crashing strike on a baitcast mulie!

Although the old marina is now long gone, there are still many quiet water spots still worth trying.

In fact with the maze of marinas appearing , there are more than ever before.

The prerequisites are firstly, access (not always possible, given the current trend for private ownership of land right to the waterline), and secondly, lots of baitfish.

Mary St lagoon and the waters inside Mandurah Quays are two spots that spring to mind. Ideal tackle is probably a spinning outfit of 2 - 2.4metres with a quality reel and 10kg line, which is light enough for baitcasting yet strong enough to turn most fish. A double-handed baitcaster is fun too, and makes for accurate casting amongst the pens. A headlamp makes gaffing fish alone a whole heap easier too.

Slowly thaw your mulies before use and then put them on carefully ensuring the hooks lay straight and the bait doesn’t spin.  Make your first cast a real short one and watch your bait as you wind in, adjusting the retrieve speed to keep the bait about 30cms deep and as lifelike as possible.

Fan each cast into new water, exploring likely looking ambush spots such as deep shadows, the edges of lit sections and under the hulls of moored boats. If a school of baitfish suddenly shower’s about, get your bait over there quick!

When the strike comes, keep winding but resist the urge to belt the fish. If your hooks are sharp, 90% of the fish will hook themselves. Once hooked – hang on!

Every summer some lucky fisherman will snag a nice mulloway in a crab net, in the middle of the day. But by far the majority of fish fall to persistent anglers who actively hunt their quarry.

I suggest sticking to moving  baits wherever possible, as an anchored deadbait anywhere in the estuary is going to be pounced on by either crabs or stingrays.

Good luck!

Gary Wotherspoon


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