Chasing mulloway in South Australia
With snapper off the eligible species list in South Australia, Shane Mensforth has dedicated more time to chasing one of the most highly regarded species in the country: the mighty mulloway.
Regardless of where you fish, how experienced you are or how good your tackle is, chasing big mulloway will always be an exercise in persistence and dedication. I'll admit to slackening off a bit in recent times, but back in the days when catching mulloway was my major angling focus, I put in countless hours in dozens of locations to achieve results. Generally speaking, I was well rewarded for effort, and probably deserved what I caught out of sheer will and determination.
Most of the guys I shared the beach or boat with had a similar passion for what is truly a magnificent inshore fish. Chasing big mulloway can easily become an obsession, drawing you in, pushing you to the limit on occasion, and flatly refusing to let go. Landing a 50 pounder on a wild surf beach or pinning a big one on a soft plastic within the confines of a shallow estuary system are angling experiences rarely forgotten.
Chasing mulloway around Adelaide
I'm fortunate to live about ten minutes from some of the best capital city mulloway fishing in the country. Adelaide's Port River continues to produce trophy-sized fish year-round, and although the action isn't now as hectic as it was 20 years ago, there are still some really big ones available for those who put in the time. The same applies to many of our surf beaches, and particularly those along the Coorong, on lower Yorke Peninsula and on the Far West Coast beyond Ceduna.
Most Adelaide-based mulloway enthusiasts tend to begin their apprenticeship chasing the school-sized fish that are often in good supply around town.
Suburban venues like West Lakes, Port Adelaide and the Onkaparinga River regularly produce schoolies in the 4-6kg class, and catching them on both lures and live baits isn't too difficult for those who know a bit about it. You generally don't need a boat to join the game, but a small tinny will definitely increase your chances in the Port River.
Aiming a little higher, most mulloway 'apprentices' will eventually broaden their horizons and think about travelling away from town. It's a three-hour drive from Adelaide to the Coorong surf beaches, about the same to Lower Yorke Peninsula and, for those up to the challenge, a ten-hour drive westward to access the magnificent beaches fronting the Great Australian Bight. I've undertaken many trips to all three areas, hooking some truly amazing mulloway that made all the time and effort worthwhile.
I'm not sure if I prefer chasing mulloway from the beach or in the estuary. Both demand very different tackle and techniques and, generally speaking, the estuary option is far less taxing in terms of time and physical effort.
One of my most memorable catches came a few years back, when I had a very limited fishing window and desperately needed a big mulloway for the front cover of my magazine, South Australian Angler. This was a milestone issue, our 200th, and it demanded a special fish for the front page. South Aussies love reading about big mulloway, particularly those caught in metro waters, so I decided to head out and pin a 50 pounder specifically for the occasion.
Now, as most mulloway specialists will know, you don't simply head out to catch a fish of this size, get the job done and then head home for a beer - particularly during the daytime in a busy port with only a few hours to fish. My son Brett and I launched the boat at the local ramp just after lunch on a sunny day in March, and within half an hour of leaving home were anchored just off the edge of the Port River shipping channel. There had been no time to catch live bait, so we opted to cast soft plastics around the Pelican Point power station hot water outlet - a location that had been pretty kind to us over the previous two months.
The tide had just bottomed out as I delivered my second cast and, quite unbelievably, the flick bait was stopped in its tracks after just three or four twitches of the rod tip. Brett and I looked at each other in absolute disbelief as line began pouring from my reel, and without saying a word, the young bloke quickly pulled the pick to give chase.
About 20 minutes later he slipped the big landing net under a no-risk 50 pounder - precisely the fish required for the cover job. It took a further ten minutes to shoot the necessary pictures, revive and release the big golden mulloway and be on our way back to the ramp - mission completed.
It should be noted, however, that we tried the same location four times over the ensuing week for not another sniff, so the fishing gods were definitely on my side that afternoon when I absolutely needed them to be!
Surf fishing for mulloway
The surf fishing mulloway option is close to the ultimate land based challenge. Regardless of which area you choose to try, it's far removed from the relative ease and comfort of the estuary, generally requiring more planning, more time and a whole lot more effort.
Without doubt, SA's very best surf mulloway action comes from the remote beaches of the Far West Coast (FWC) - an area that, for decades, saw relatively few anglers. These days, however, you've got to book a camping area well in advance or you'll miss out on a decent fishing spot!
Because the most productive beaches along this stretch of coast are situated on traditional Aboriginal land, securing the appropriate permit is mandatory. Designated campsites are limited, and are allocated on a first in, best dressed basis. As this whole area is remote and can be quite hostile in summer weather, visiting anglers need to be impeccably prepared.
Vital components of a Far West Coast adventure include a capable four wheel drive vehicle, a quad bike, full camping equipment, plenty of food and water and, of course, the right fishing tackle for the job. The nearest settlement might be as much as three hours away from the nominated fishing/camping area, so being totally self-sufficient is essential.
Mulloway bait & tackle
Surf fishing along the FWC beaches is exclusively a bait fishing exercise. Most anglers will take in a good supply of frozen bait like squid heads, fish fillets or small whole fish, which can be supplemented with some of the salmon that often roam the inshore surf line. My favourite bait is a slab of freshly-caught salmon about 20cm long and 2cm thick, presented on twin 8/0 hooks. Trace material can be nylon or fluorocarbon of between 60-80 pound, and you'll need a surf sinker of at least 180g to get the rig out into the strike zone and hold it there.
Alvey sidecasts and 4-4.5m rods were once the combination of choice for most surf fishers, but just lately 8000-10,000 size spinning reels and shorter rods seem to have taken over. I've always enjoyed using overhead tackle when the wind is down, but these days I'll pack a decent spinning outfit in case I have to throw bulky baits into a stiff onshore breeze.
As far as average fish size is concerned, our Far West Coast beaches have no par. I'm yet to catch a mulloway over 70lb, but just about all of the guys I fish with have landed several each, including a few in the 80s and a couple of genuine 90 pounders. These are the mulloway of a lifetime that make all the driving, money and time worthwhile - and the fish that keep us coming back, year after year.
Tides & timing
This is a spring/summer fishery that is extremely dependent on tides and weather. As the beaches are open to the wrath of the Southern Ocean, choosing the right conditions is absolutely essential. I like to fish the bigger tides around the full or new moon, and if you can time your arrival to coincide with the tail end of a southerly blow, chances of good fishing are excellent.
I've been lucky on the FWC beaches over many years of fishing, rarely copping unfavourable conditions and nearly always catching a decent mulloway or two. And while I've never landed one of the true 70-plus giants, my record with 50-60 pounders is pretty impressive. These are great fish to hook and fight in heavy surf, often making long, powerful runs and regularly taking 15 minutes or longer to subdue.
It's a 24-hour fishery, providing consistent action both day and night. The two-hour period around high tide has always been the most reliable time to expect a bite, as the inshore gutters are full and baitfish activity is at its peak. Mullet and salmon are the most common inshore prey items for big marauding mulloway, and if you can manage to catch one of appropriate size and send it out as a live bait, chances of a hook up increase dramatically.
By far my most memorable session on the FWC beaches involved good mates, Tom Tierney and Richard Webb. Conditions were perfect for our three-day expedition and we had our favourite stretch of beach to ourselves, so everything pointed to happiness. The late morning high tide period on day one produced four mulloway to 60lb, then Richard landed a 75 pounder mid-afternoon. Anything from that point onward would be a definite bonus.
The next high water period was due at around 11 o'clock that evening, so we opted to have a break for a few hours after a barbecue tea and resume fishing at 10pm.
My first bait of the night session lasted all of a minute, and from that moment onward it was multiple hook-ups and virtually no waiting time between bites. I'd expected the action to slow down after 1 am as our inshore gutter drained, but the mulloway were still on the job at three o'clock as we pulled the pin through sheer exhaustion.
We had landed over a dozen 30-50 pounders between us, all of which were unhooked and released in good condition. Never, nor since, have any of us experienced a mulloway bite as hectic as this one.
There's nearly always a fair amount of by-catch when targeting mulloway on the FWC beaches. Gummy, school and whaler sharks can be a regular nuisance, and then there's the inevitable squadron of rays that destroy tackle and waste fishing time during the peak bite periods. On the positive side of the by-catch ledger, big snapper often grab mulloway baits, although of course they now have to go back under SA's new fishing regulations.
The beaches of Lower Yorke Peninsula and the Coorong are far more accessible than those out west and also turn on some first-class mulloway action at times, but not with the same consistency. These are convenient weekend surf fishing locations that can be fished comfortably without the logistical issues of a FWC expedition, and for this reason they remain very popular.
So, with snapper fishing off the agenda in SA until the end of 2023, I guess many of us will be turning our attention to the surf and estuaries for a big fish fix. In fact, the snapper issue just might be the catalyst needed to get me back out there again in the hunt for Australia's biggest mulloway. Now, will it be beach or estuary first?