The mulloway will always hold pride of place in the minds of southern fishers. The art of catching them has come a long way in the last few years – or at least more people are spilling their secrets. Once the realm of nocturnal bait fishers; mulloway madness has crept into the broader fishing psyche and more and more anglers are pinning them during the day, on lures. Soft plastics are leading the coastal assault.
While they’ve never been an easy fish to cross paths with; they aren’t an impossibility either. On the east coast most are found in our larger estuaries and rivers, but there is plenty of sea front real estate that’s home to the mighty mulloway.
Lure fishing the east coast beaches for jewies isn’t simple or a sure thing – but the fish are there. They’ve been caught from beaches using baits for as long as people have cast from the sand. Most of us are still on a learning curve in this approach – I definitely am – but I’ve caught multiple fish under similar circumstances and can share a few ideas.
Mulloway are mostly ambush predators. I say mostly because they don’t just find a camp and set up waiting for stuff to stray too close. They move about depending on the conditions of the water. They use depth, structure and current as part of their hunting strategy. These fish are long lived so they likely remember and patrol the same hunting grounds within their home range.
So, we’re looking at a big fish that mooches about regularly visited areas, hiding and hunting in deeper water; around bottom structure; and in areas where current messes up prey. They will work shallow waters where these factors are close by; and when food is available there.
Younger fish (soapies) get about in packs – not only for protection but to work as a team in flushing out prey, and to learn valuable life skills. The biggest fish are loners. These are seasoned hunters – the top dogs – that have learned to tackle big fish and the tricks of working solo. These are the ghosts that set up to intercept the autumn mullet run, and that harry the tailor schools when they themselves get excited and careless.
There’s a consensus that mulloway feed in tide-change windows – the slowing tidal movement leading up to and away from tide changes as well as the half hour or so of slack water in the middle. It makes sense perhaps not because of the freedom of movement granted to themselves (mulloway are big, strong fish) but more so the increased movement of smaller species that take advantage of the varied foraging window. The biggest tides leading up to and away from new and full moons are said to be prime.
I can’t say my personal experiences on the beach correlate, with most of my captures around the middle of the tidal run (most often rising), and at least half of them in the middle of the moon phase with limited tidal variation. BUT, that is related to the fishability of the beach with light tackle – as you’ve got to take it as it comes and get out when you can work the water; not when the tides are promising.
With a bit of knowledge of the fish we can apply smart thinking to the beach. Firstly, though, it’s important to cover some beach fishing basics.
Deep water can be found beyond the back break, in gutters, and in holes. The back break is the area where shallow surf drops away to deeper water. Gutters can form between the breaks (sand banks) and shore. Even though current mightn’t be observable in a gutter itself, there will be an exit where water is sucked back out to sea (a rip). Holes are usually smaller and turn up now and again depending on water and sand movement.
Holes and gutters (with practice) are visible as darker hued patches of water, generally without waves breaking in them. They can be spotted by watching wave formation. Waves are created when the circulating surface currents (observable as swell) get compressed by the rising seafloor. This makes the current change shape and ‘lift’ into the crest of a wave – ultimately rolling over its face and breaking.
When a wave travels into a gutter, the sea floor drops away again and the wave ‘sinks’. So, if you see waves building as they travel into shore, before sinking away and then building again to crash; the area that they sank in is deeper water – a gutter.
Gutters and holes move as currents push sand around, so don’t just fish a spot because it was a gutter once. Beach fishing can involve a lot of searching to find the right places. Also, different gutters become active at different stages of the tide. For species like bream and whiting, water levels that are ‘just right’ stir up the bottom exposing food. Too deep and there isn’t enough movement; too shallow and there’s too much. As high tide gutters become shallower with a falling tide, fish will leave to find deeper water; similarly, fish will leave low tide gutters as they become too deep.
For a hunter like the mulloway, these movements are opportunities to set up ambush. On a dynamic beach, with fish moving in and out of feeding areas, a mulloway can position in these travel routes or make forays into the feeding areas themselves. Some say that jewies will sit on near shore reef structure and/or rocky headlands waiting for tidal stages to be right to invade the beach.
Here’s a hypothetical tidal feeding pattern: a big mulloway is resting on a rocky reef out beyond the breakers. As the tidal run slows on a falling tide, things feel right to look for a feed. The fish moves over to the fall out of a big rip that’s draining the beach. Here, a school of tailor has already moved off the beach and is on the prowl. Our fish sets up off the drop of the last sand bank. When a few smaller fish start to trickle out the tailor get excited. Some slashed and dying fish flutter down and the mulloway snaps them up.
Above, the silver slabs of teeth are having a great time and paying less attention to their surroundings. The smell of panic clouds their senses and the mixing currents seem disorienting. Suddenly, the mirror flash of big scales is amongst them and the snap of jaws signals a terrible threat. The mulloway sinks back to the depths with scales drifting from its gills.
This is repeated until the run slows to a halt. The odd tailor gets chomped along with bottom-hugging whiting. Everything seems peaceful as the sea rests, before the next big push. The mulloway thinks it can do better; and cruises leisurely along the back break – the highway. As the growing tide floods into low tide gutters, so too do whiting, bream, dart and flathead. The mulloway follows. It cruises gutters from the inflow to the outflow; a commanding presence that doesn’t linger but pounces on anything fleeing before it. Thus the entire beach can be explored.
Finally (and on rare occurrences) the high tide beckons the fish to a certain spot. Sometimes part of a gutter, sometimes a hole excavated by the churning surf, a reef and boulder pile has become accessible just off shore. Here, all manner of prey coalesce on the little haven eking out its existence in the stark surrounds. Here the fish can rest in the lee of the rocks while hapless victims have to come to get out of the pummelling surf. Not many beaches have a feature like this, and that is why the mulloway will always visit when it can. And so the cycle is reversed on the falling tide.
Tackle for beach lure fishing can take many forms. Mulloway can grow to be very big fish and the dedicated angler should consider this. BUT, heavy tackle sometimes just isn’t fun to use. Large rods, reels and lures all take their toll when casting for extended periods, and from my experience aren’t as sensitive in the surf. So, while the rock and breakwall fishers 9-10’ rod running 40-50lb line is workable; it’s not the only choice. It goes against normal beach fishing practice, and limits the conditions you can effectively fish in; but 7’ setups suited to flathead are crazy fun to chase jewies on.
One of the benefits of light setups is being able to fish lighter lures. I generally use 4-6” plastics; which might seem small for mulloway; but if you’re going to be casting for hours the odd flathead or salmon is a welcome break. I think that jerkshads are most versatile in the surf as they are least affected by strong, conflicting currents. Berkley Gulp! has always been a favourite and the ‘atomic chicken’ colour is top stuff. Jig heads in the 1/4 – 3/4oz should do the trick. Try to keep things as light as possible but be aware that most of the time the beach calls for more weight to keep in contact with the lure.
Leaders of 12-20lb will do the trick, depending on what the rod can handle. The biggest strain on gear here is during the cast. You’ve got to match lure weight to leader to stop snapping off during the cast; and leader weight to rod strength to stop far greater damage.
Braided line is of huge benefit in the turmoil of the surf. It’s rare that conditions are calm enough to be able to watch for subtle movements in the line so feel is everything. React to any bump with a hook set. With such light equipment, braid also comes into its own for line capacity. A big fish is going to take 100m or more in its first run and might not want to turn around for a while. It’s probable that a monster will be un-turnable; but it’s the risk us light tackle junkies take. It’s happened to me.
As I portrayed above; the beach is a dynamic environment and I think that mulloway move around on them in response to tidal movements. With that in mind it pays to get a handle on the beach and work opportunities as they present themselves. It’s no surprise that most of my captures have been around midway through a rising tide – the fish are actively moving on the beach and patrolling gutters. You’ve just got to be there to intercept them.
If you can get to the outer drop on a rip near the bottom of the tide, top stuff. All manner of fish could be waiting there with open mouths. Sometimes these are located along headlands at either end of beaches – which are mulloway magnets in their own right.
ANY structure on a beach needs to be worked. Not all beaches have rocky structure within casting range; and even where it’s present it isn’t always perfectly suitable for mulloway – but when conditions are right there will be a jewie in the area. These spots are like oases in the desert.
Keeping retrieves at a modest pace is best when possible, but wave action sometimes necessitates faster retrieves to keep up with the lure. These aren’t easy conditions! I like to get my lure down towards bottom and gradually hop it back. Beach mulloway don’t appear to be as dainty as their estuary counterparts and strikes are savage. Most of the time it’s a big whack followed by a dead weight. Just before you start to think it’s a snag, two or three huge headshakes jar you back to reality. Then all hell breaks loose. Hold on!
Lure fishing for beach mulloway isn’t for the faint-hearted. A lot of casts between fish is the norm; and on light tackle nothing is certain until your fingers slip under that gleaming silver gill plate. But you’ll never forget any of the fish you cross paths with.