Words & Images: Mark Gerkovich
For anglers who don’t fish offshore, mulloway are perhaps the pinnacle of saltwater species for people fishing their local rivers, estuaries or beaches. But despite this, due to their elusive habits, they seem an unachievable myth to most. Here are a few ideas to help you on your journey to debunking the myths and improving your chances of hooking a mulloway.
Get Good at Bait
Mulloway have always been seen as an elusive fish that is a live, or super-fresh, bait proposition. The acquiring of this quality bait usually takes a great deal of time, and often is what separates consistent mulloway anglers from the rest. Sourcing the bait, then presenting it well on the numerous occasions it can take before even one fish is caught, requires a dedication that many anglers are simply unable to manage. Probably the best two baits for mulloway are mullet (live) and squid (dead/cut). When the mulloway are on, it can often be difficult to catch live mullet, and when you get a sneaky word they are on you often have to move fast. For that reason I like to keep a saltwater tank operating with a few mullet ready to go. I have kept them for weeks at a time, feeding them on fish food flakes until the time comes to make a trip. I haven’t fished a tournament for years, but wouldn’t be without my large live-well. Now, instead of keeping bream for weigh-ins it is perfect for housing plenty of live baits and keeping them well aerated and healthy. Squid? Well, if I could only stop eating them and using them for kingie or surf baits… Fresh is always best but carefully, well looked after frozen squid is still a very good option and the best frozen option. The more squid ink dripping off, the better. Having a good supply stocked up in the freezer is worth its weight in gold.
With their large swim bladders, mulloway show up well on the sounder screen. On the standard sonar screen they show up as elongated arches when travelling slowly over the school. On the side imaging screen they show up as short dashes, as opposed to the dots that signify bream and EP. Down imaging will see fish appear like sausages if the school is below the boat. Even though they show up well on the sounder, getting them to bite is often a different matter. The positive, though, is that you can usually rule out unproductive areas – if you can’t see them, you can be confident they aren’t there, particularly if you have faith in your sounder and know what to look for when they show up.
Usually if they are tight to the bottom the fish can be shut down, but if they are a little higher in the water column it can be game on. Some trips I’ve noticed fish that were holding tight to the bottom suddenly move up slightly and soon the first rod goes off.
Sting in the Tail
You’ve been trolling for well over an hour now and nothing has happened. The calm morning is becoming brighter as the sun begins to rise in the sky. Prime time is passing and your angling instincts are telling you it’s looking like a slow morning. You know that any strike now may be the only chance you get to make the session worthwhile. The electric motor continues to cut silently through the water when finally it happens. Your line tightens, the rod bows over as the fish you’ve been looking for all morning has your baitfish in its mouth. This used to be quite a stressful time as you fed out line and decided when would be the right time to strike. You are hoping everything comes together and you don’t end up with a dead, scaled livey and no fish. However if your livey is rigged with a stinger rig things may turn out differently. You can set the hook immediately, safe in the knowledge that if the fish has the bait in its mouth, there is a high chance everything’s going to come up tight.
With two normal suicide hooks there is the chance, when a fish strikes, of one or both of the hooks turning in and hooking into the bait. This can greatly reduce chances of an effective hook-up. With one barb of the treble secure in the bait fish, the other two points are free to do their job and make solid contact with the intended prey.
The stinger rig basically involves attaching a treble to the end of a short trace coming off a standard suicide-style hook. The best way to attach the suicide hook to the main line is to snell it on, ensuring enough tag end is left over to attach the treble on the end. The suicide hook is the tow point and placed through the harder part of the jaw, above the lips, of the bait fish. One point of the treble is placed into the body of the bait fish. Attacks on the head bring the front hook into play, the treble provides two barbs ready for attacks from the rear. The length of tag and the size of the two hooks depend on the size of the bait being used.
It is often good to have multiple rigs tied up. The first reason is that you can match them to the size of the live bait you are using if they vary in size. Secondly, it’s not the sort of rig that’s best tied when the fish are on. It can take a little time and the fewer knots you need to tie when your mate is hooked up next to you, the better. Tie up a few rigs beforehand and store them in zip lock bags ready for when you need them. Fine gauge, yet strong, chemically sharpened hooks are best for this type of rig. Heavy hooks take more force to penetrate the target fish’s mouth and provide more inconvenience to the natural movement of the live bait. A lightweight hook is less of a burden for the livey to carry and the longer your bait remains fit and healthy, the more attractive it’s going to be for your target species
Elephants eat Peanuts
As the mulloway is the biggest fish you are likely to come across in a Southern estuary, you might think this style of fishing is all about big baits, big lures and heavy tackle. Well, often that is not the case. Incidental mulloway captures often occur when using small active fishing techniques such as soft plastic luring for bream and EP. It is a good feeling when fishing for something else, such as bream, to have a slight anticipation in the back of your mind that a mulloway might just be on the cards. And it can happen anywhere! I’ve seen fish taken in a variety of locations from deeper, more traditional mulloway holes to fish that have taken soft plastic offerings in less than 1.5m of water. When that ‘bream’ takes off at a fantastic rate, and the mental gears start to process what you’ve really hooked, you’ve experienced a fantastic piece of angling adrenaline.
The take of a mulloway on soft plastics is quite unusual for a fish that is probably the major predator swimming around the area. Usually it is like an interruption in the retrieve; a lure that isn’t sinking back to the bottom as it should be, the line moving across the surface in a direction it shouldn’t be. As most regular soft plastic anglers know, these are the times to strike. A simple lifting of the rod tip then usually results in a few head shakes followed by the run beginning. This is the most exhilarating time as the relatively small reel you are using begins singing at a rate most other fish can’t achieve. Sometimes the fish can start this run slowly before moving up the gears. Other times they click into overdrive from a standing (or should that be floating) start. It is now that another advantage of soft plastic fishing occurs; the ability to chase. Most of the time if you are fishing soft plastics you are doing it from a mobile boat rather than at anchor. This gives you the opportunity to instantly give chase should the need arise. This is easy to do in a boat with a bow-mounted electric motor. Keeping the least amount of line between you and the fish can be crucial. Mulloway may not be as smart or devious as a big EP or bream, which will purposefully try to stitch you up on a nearby snag; however, by keeping the least amount of line between you and the fish, there is less chance of that fine connection coming into contact with something, like an unseen underwater rock, that is going to end your association with the fish. From then on it’s a matter of patiently absorbing the runs and then slowly working the fish back towards the boat
Mix it Up
The phrase, “Oh so you like fishing… you must be patient”, is one I have often heard uttered to me, usually by someone who isn’t an angler. In fact it probably couldn’t be further from the truth, as I find I like active forms of angling rather than the sedentary, patient styles. However, unlike some fishermen who like to stick to one style of angling, I’ll happily pursue the style that I think might best produce on that given day or circumstance, particularly in targeting mulloway.
I often find myself using a combination of lures and live bait to attract the fish, making best use of today’s open-style electric-powered boat. The electric motor allows you to move slowly, silently and steadily through the water and giving you a good, stable platform in which to effectively practise a wide variety of techniques. The basic premise is to fish more conventional lure techniques while having the option of fishing a live bait out the back of the boat. This gives you the chance to cover plenty of ground in your search for the fish, as well as being able to present multiple techniques/offerings to work out what the fish want on that particular day. Trolling live mullet is a popular way of targeting mulloway locally. Over the past few years, anglers have discovered the thrill of capturing mulloway casting artificial lures, be they hard-bodied, soft plastics or vibes. There are often days when one technique works and another won’t, but this way you can cover the options to see which one is working. Fishing by yourself using one technique can leave you second-guessing, something you don’t need when pursuing species such as mulloway that need some dedication and patience.
The mullet trolling equation is not as simple as hanging a mullet out the back. The bait needs constant monitoring to make sure it hasn’t picked up weed. A mullet covered in weed is not only probably unattractive to the mulloway but likely to die quicker. The rod is best placed in a horizontal-style rod holder with the rod tip close to the water. Snap-lock rod holders work well as the rod can be quickly released without giving the fish any slack line to throw the hook. Using the treble stinger hook set-up described earlier, the mulloway will usually hook itself on the first run, even if the rod remains in the holder. One of the major advantages is that the stability and control of the electric-powered boat allows you to hold over sounded fish, drop livies back into a hole or quickly return over an area where a fish was encountered. With one angler working the trolling rods, the other angler can lure cast out the front. Varying the offering is important here, too, as some days they want vibes and other days plastics. It is amazing, though, that you will pick up fish on the lures some days but they won’t touch the livies passing straight over the top of them. This happens quite frequently and if you were just sticking to one technique you would have had a fishless day.
You Know That Downrigger You Use For Trout…
Trolling hard-bodied lures or swim/glidebaits is another way anglers target mulloway but you need to work these at a faster, steadier pace than a livey to get the action out of the lure. This extra pace makes it difficult to lure cast effectively out the front of the boat as described previously. The good thing about this technique is that you are covering ground more quickly, thus hopefully locating fish. Of course, another benefit is not having to source, keep and transport live bait. I usually prefer this technique in the cooler months, when rainfall can make the top section of the water column quite fresh. Mulloway, of course, will seek out the more saline water further down in the water column where, as we said earlier, they can often be easily seen on the sounder beneath the easily spotted line of fresh water. Getting trolled lures down to these fish can be problematic, but I’ve found using a downrigger works well in these situations. Have the bomb running just above where the fish are holding and do the maths to allow the particular lure’s running depth to take it to where the fish are. Trolling quietly along on the electric, you can often hear the clip ping off a millisecond before the rod doubles over and the reel starts screaming.
For all the talk of how elusive and hard to catch these things are, there are times when everything aligns and you find yourself in a hot bite with multiple fish on offer. Being involved in mulloway tagging for some years now, it is scary how many fish get recaptured, suggesting not a great biomass of fish in some areas. There’s nothing wrong with taking a fish for a feed but the bag limit of five per person is quite generous, and something that probably shouldn’t be aimed for. It is also very satisfying to watch a big silver slab slip off back to the depths after a quick photo.