Category: High Risk
MULLOWAY are without doubt one of the most enigmatic species sought by recreational anglers in Western Australia. Whether you are a Swan River mulloway buff or you chase them on the beaches, catching mulloway consistently is a feat achieved by few and aspired to by many – me included. Most of my beach fishing, little as that has been, has been in the pursuit of a big mulloway. I used to thoroughly enjoy the trip across the river and the walk out to Frustration at Kalbarri during the years that this became an annual pilgrimage. The fishing was hard, often doused in salt spray before the sun had set, the company and chatter was great and the mulloway, well they were just sensational. Why I even made the cover of Western Angler with a mulloway taken one damp evening off the rocks.
I still remember fishing there one night, striking at a slack line bite and being oh so ready for the next one. When it came I had five turns on my overhead reel in a flash, the line came tight and I struck hard over my right shoulder. I was on! The fish probably didn’t put up the fight its reputation had suggested but it was a mulloway, and a damn good one too. Seeing it surge over the rock ledge on a big swell was a sight I’ll never forget.
Mulloway have several colloquial names and in the past have often been called river kingies, but this is becoming less common. No doubt “river kingie” came from the fact that the majority of West Australian anglers encounter these wonderful fish in our southern estuaries and rivers. Juvenile mulloway are referred to as soapies after the taste of small fish under about 1.5 kilos (rule of thumb: any mulloway under 50cm is not worth eating). Another name for smallish fish between 2kg and 5kg is “school” mulloway. A common mulloway habit is grunting or croaking, which earns them yet another colloquial name, croakers. Now this can be confusing as croakers are actually a group of fish confined to our northern waters. Those anglers who fish for mulloway from boats in estuaries can testify to the strange grunting noises that emanate from these fish. Some anglers even say that if you can hear them you won’t catch them, but that’s only what they say – it’s not necessarily fact. The sound, of course, is from their swim bladder. We suggest a mulloway is a mulloway!
In our southern waters identification is relatively straightforward as mulloway are pretty hard to confuse with any other species. In the north, though, it is a different story with the distribution of both mulloway and their northern cousin, the black jew (Protonibia diacanthus). Subtle variations in colour don’t help much and probably the easiest way to tell the difference is that the black jew has a thinner tail wrist and a rounder caudal (tail) fin than the mulloway.
Sea Fishes of Southern Australia (Hutchins and Swainston) lists the largest mulloway caught in Australia as 42.5 kilos. That’s a giant of its kind and extremely rare, and WA anglers are most unlikely to encounter fish anywhere near that huge size. In fact a 25kg mulloway is considered big in our waters and the majority of fish caught off our beaches and reefs range from three to 15 kilos, with schoolies of around four kilos probably the most common size. Some of our biggest mulloway come from the lower reaches of the Swan River and remote beaches along the far South Coast.
Mulloway have a vast range in West Australian waters – from Exmouth right around to the South Australian border. Though they are occasionally found well offshore in depths down to150m, their most common habitat is surf beaches, reefs and rocky headlands. Sometimes they congregate in river mouths and estuaries when rivers are in flood. The Murchison River estuary is a good example – it’s the place to be when dirty water comes pouring down as a result of heavy rainfall way back in the catchment area up around Meekatharra. Mulloway often feed around the current line defining the mix of dirty flood water and clean salt water pushing up against it on an incoming tide.
Breeding and migration
Very little is known about the life history of mulloway, which no doubt helps maintain the mystery that surrounds them. They are thought to congregate in the surf zone on our beaches in spring-summer where they breed and tiny juveniles move into the estuaries when 15-16cm long. Depending on the abundance of suitable food sources, mulloway reach 35cm in length during a year in the estuary after which they return to the ocean. After six years they reach sexual maturity at 70-80cm. Mulloway are long-lived with some fish reaching 30 years or more and growing to two metres. In September/October some big mulloway move back into the Swan River to build up energy for spawning and return after spawning in December/January.
Interestingly, preliminary stock identification indicates that there are two sub-populations of mulloway in WA waters with the break point at Mandurah. Adult fish often hunt and feed alone, or in just twos and threes. Studies on the east coast of Australia have shown that mulloway can migrate over distances of several hundred kilometres north and south.
Because mulloway take a relatively long time to mature they are vulnerable to any heavy fishing pressure, but so far as we know there are no locations where this is a danger in WA. The most likely threat to mulloway, though undocumented, is likely to be the water quality of rivers and estuaries which are a critical habitat for at least part of their life cycle. These eco-systems are complex and obviously vulnerable to the activities of man.
Tackle and bait
Estuary and river fishing from a boat doesn’t normally require any big gun outfits and a threadline, overhead or sidecaster outfit loaded with 8kg mono or 10kg braid is just fine. I suggest that 8-10kg line fished from a surf rod is about right from the beach, reefs and rocks. As for terminal tackle suitable when boat fishing in the river, a dropper rig using a three-way swivel to avoid line twist in the tidal flow is ideal. A running sinker is generally preferable in the surf.
There’s no need for wire – go with a nylon trace of around 25kg b/s. Small mulloway will take most baits but bigger specimens are sometimes more selective. One of the most productive baits is a fresh fillet of tailor or mullet on either a gang of hooks or a pair of snelled hooks, which is my preference. But don’t discount mulies – they attract mulloway right across the range from schoolies to giants. I suspect that cut crab baits aren’t fished much by beach anglers but logic suggests that they should work at the right time and in the right place, given that they feature on a mulloway’s diet.
For me mulloway fishing has two distinct forms: fishing the Swan River in a boat during the evening – or even during the day on the right tide and moon – or fishing at night from the beach during summer. The new moon is an excellent phase to have a shot at a big mulloway, but any rising tide is worth fishing, especially at dawn or dusk. Keep in mind that mulloway are predators and opportunistic feeders, and persistent anglers who fish often and for hours at a time are much more likely to succeed than those who go out very occasionally with hope in their heart.
Remember, too, that mulloway fishing is not a casting competition. Many big fish are caught just behind the first line of breakers, or cruising 30 metres out from an onshore reef, or right under the boat at the source of your berley trail! If you do hook a big mulloway, don’t under-estimate the power of the fish. A locked-up drag and heavy hands will surely lead to grief – give the croaker its head on the initial run and then slip into a pump-and-wind routine until the fish is safely on the beach or at boatside. And be careful gaffing, especially in the surf. It’s mostly better to grab the trace and ease the fish up on to the sand. Flailing gaff shots can be disastrous!
References: Kailola, Williams, Stewart, Reichelt, McNee and Grieve Australian Fisheries Resources 1993. Hutchins and Swainston Sea Fishes of Southern Australia 1986. Fishing the Wild West by Ross Cusack and Mike Roennfeldt. Compiled with the assistance of Bryn Farmer, Murdoch University.
Text: Ian Stagles
Art: Roger Swainston