Nelson in Winter

For me at least, mulloway are a mystery fish. They’re allegedly present in many of the estuaries I fish, and along some of more wild surf beaches. But the closest I’d come to a real one was surf fishing as a kid near Apollo Bay. I hooked something much stronger than the Australian salmon I’d been catching, and I fleetingly but clearly saw the fish in the face of a green wave. It was unmistakeably the same as the mythical creatures I occasionally saw pictures of in Geoff Wilson’s weekly column in the Geelong Advertiser: majestic, slightly threatening, and way beyond anything a young teenager could rightfully expect to encounter.

For several seconds the huge fish pulled against my surf gear; enough time for me to recall Geoff’s ‘mushrooms and mulloway’ line. He was linking good fishing for this top order predator, with mushroom-sprouting late autumn rains, which in turn would push a big fresh down his local mulloway location – the Barwon River estuary. But even with Geoff’s undeniable expertise, and even at the best times, this was evidently still a fish requiring many long, cold hours on the water – usually after dark.

Although I was 100 kilometres south of the Barwon estuary, sure enough, it was May and mushroom time, and I briefly wondered if the minor floods in the smaller local estuaries had contributed to the presence of my prize.

And then it was gone. Oddly enough, all these years later I can’t recall exactly what went wrong; whether the mulloway simply came off or broke off. I do however remember the feeling, which has been repeated countless times since with big fish of other species. The suddenly slack line, then frantically reeling in the hope the fish was still hooked and simply swimming towards me… and then the sinking realisation that a very rare opportunity had slipped away.

Last week, I was fishing a known mulloway haunt, the lower Glenelg River near Nelson with JD. This was one of those trips which had been on our ‘must do’ list for a couple of years, but which, for no good reason, kept getting pushed to one side by other adventures. Eventually, we locked in some dates, booked the accommodation, and headed down. While bream and estuary perch were our main target species, mulloway were at least mentioned, with JD going so far as to tie up some big baitfish flies… just in case!

The lower Glenelg estuary is a big, wild system extending over 60km.

The Glenelg estuary is a fascinating and extensive system. The estuary itself is over 60 kilometres long; much of it bordered by impressive limestone cliffs, and it’s frequently several metres deep.

The Glenelg is one of only two listed biodiversity hotspots in Victoria, and once you’re on the river, you can see why. Life simply abounds, from sea eagles, to all sorts of waterbirds (some endangered), and abundant kangaroos and wallabies. We also saw at least one seal, and the sounder on JD’s boat regularly lit up with large schools of fish. Normally, a seal in an estuary is a downer for the fishing (real or imagined) but the Glenelg is so big, you feel as if you can cope with the competition.

Sea eagles were a constant presence.

As opposed to my occasional visits ages ago, JD had fished the Glenelg a few times over the years, so we had a bit of an intel ‘base’ to work from. Even so, it’s easy to get intimidated by the sheer scale of the fishery – the number of perfect-looking reefs, snags, bays, flats, drop-offs, channels and weed-beds can cause a degree of target overload! Every time I wondered aloud if we were in the best spot (usually a function of several casts without a hit) JD would say, half because of the sounder, and half because of past experience, “I think the fish are everywhere.”

There were plenty of EPs about.

He was usually right. Fishing a mixture of Hammerheads and Muz Minnow variations, we rarely spent time at a spot, boat or bank, without at least a hit eventually. And often, we caught a bream, an EP, or both – sometimes several.

Put simply, it was great fishing; the sort where you’re bracing for a hit every cast, rather than just going through the motions. I’m sure this sense of belief becomes self-fulfilling with all flyfishing, but it’s especially the case on estuaries. Here, the gap between success and failure can be perilously small, and I find I have to really focus to make sure, for example, that the fly has time to settle before it’s twitched. Even more concentration is needed to be ready to strip-strike on those subtle… and sometimes not so subtle takes. When you’re fishing with a mate, trout strikes are hard to get away with, and we were often ‘sprung’ (pardon the pun) subconsciously lifting the rod. Fortunately, abundant opportunities meant these misses were usually met with a chuckle instead of a curse.

Got the strike right that time!

While all this was going on, mulloway were never too far from our thoughts. Pictures and fibreglass casts of huge mulloway dominate shop and pub walls in Nelson. Once, in the boat upstream of town, we watched something big bust up on galaxias which were themselves several inches long. At other times, we fished beside or even above chasms in the riverbed up to 15 metres deep. It wasn’t hard to imagine Loch Ness mulloway lurking somewhere down there.

Whatever was smashing these, it must have been a good size.

When I let a large, heavy olive Hammerhead settle about 3 metres down on the edge of a deep channel, I assumed the hit which came on the strip was another bream or EP. However, it only took a few seconds before I realised something was different.

Hooked up to something decent.

This thing was really pulling, and covering a lot of distance very quickly. After a few anxious minutes, I caught a glimpse down deep of a trout or salmon-like shape that looked over 2 feet long. Blimey!

Another few minutes and it was in the net – a real live mulloway. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so delighted to land a fish. And while it’s true that my mulloway mightn’t have qualified for a spot on the pub wall, it was plenty big enough for me.

Only took me about 45 years!

JD and I fished the same area with renewed purpose, however perhaps not surprisingly, lightning didn’t strike twice. JD even had the self-discipline the next day to fish roughly the same area with a very big Clouser, thereby pretty much foregoing the chance of a bream or EP. And once or twice over the course of the rest of the trip, while back on regular bream and EP flies, we briefly hooked and lost very strong fish that left us wondering. Then again, some of the larger and more silvery bream that we actually landed, initially had us wondering too.

Sometimes, for a few moments, the better bream did leave us wondering just what we’d hooked.

On the long night drive back home, through the thick forests around Dartmoor and past the vague, enormous silhouette of the southern Grampians near Dunkeld, we agreed that it had been one of our best estuary trips, and the mulloway only added to it. I don’t think we’ll be waiting a few more winters before we go back to Nelson.