Kalgan River Kings

A chance encounter led SCOTT COGHLAN to a new fishing obsession – Kalgan River mulloway. Over the months that followed his first success, he sought to unlock the secrets of catching them on hard-bodied lures.

IT felt different the moment it hit the lure.

Through the 3kg Nanofil braid and Samurai Reaction rod, the sensation that came was more of a thump than the rattling take I associate with black bream. I was fishing a dropoff on the Lower Kalgan with Keith Andrews, both of us fishing from our Hobie kayaks, and as sunset approached, the bream were really firing up. I had just hopped the little gold Rolling Bait along the bottom when the fish struck. What passed up the line and through the rod felt like the sensation of a barramundi inhaling a lure rather than a bream mouthing it. Almost without consciously thinking about it, in the instant the rod started to load up, I whipped my right hand around to the front of the reel and loosened the drag a fraction.

At the top of my bucket list was a good Kalgan River mulloway and if this was one, I didn’t want to see the battle all over in seconds. Immediately, the rod bent down under a much heavier weight than the 30-35cm bream we’d been catching, and line started being peeled from the reel. The fish headed straight for deeper water, and I juggled steering and rod control duties as I set off in frantic pursuit under a stunning June late-afternoon Albany fire sky. At the forefront of my mind was the trebles on the lure, which I wasn’t sure were up for the task at hand, so I was loathe to apply too much pressure, lest I should straighten the prongs.

There was little doubt it was indeed a mulloway of unknown size and the fish slugged it out in the middle of the river, towing me from side to side like I was an obedient dog. Albeit against a very light drag setting, the fish impressed with its power, taking line when it wanted. The beauty of using the bream gear was that every sensation, including a number of violent headshakes which had me holding my breath each time, was transmitted clearly to my left hand on the rod. The battle went on like this for the next 10 minutes or so, during which time I managed to get my hands free for long enough to get a GoPro onto my head and running, with the fish lugging along the bottom and me trying ever so gently to coax it up any time I felt like it was tiring. But each time I gained a little line it was quickly lost again.

A couple of times I thought I nearly had the fish up to the surface, but it was impossible to really tell in the murky winter water of the Kalgan. Then, almost without warning, as I carefully lifted the rod there was a big boil next to the yak and a flash of silver before it turned tail and headed back to the depths again. At least now I knew I was getting close to tiring the fish out and my confidence levels about landing my first mulloway were rising. Still acutely aware of the pressure I was placing on the hooks, line and even 3kg leader, I kept trying to gain a few centimetres at a time.

Eventually there was another boil at the front of the yak and this time I had a perfect view of a beautiful Kalgan River mulloway plugging along on the surface. Without  a landing net, I slid it alongside the yak, placed a hand under its stomach, carefully lifted it from the water and let out an almighty whoop of joy at having caught my first legal-size Kalgan king. It was probably around 80cm, not huge by mulloway standards but typical of what you might encounter with this localised sub-species in the Kalgan.

I paddled in to shore to take a couple of quick snaps before carefully releasing it. It was a tremendous feeling to see the bronze paddle tail kick into gear and watch it glide away across the shallows.

With that one remarkably fulfilling capture I was hooked on the idea of catching more mulloway, and hopefully bigger ones, on hard-bodied lures from the kayak in the Kalgan.

Metre-plus mulloway are not uncommon in the Kalgan and I’ve seen plenty of pictures of those fish over the last couple of years. But it just happens that the Kalgan fish, which grow much faster than their west coast relatives and consequently spawn much younger, are much more commonly encountered in that 50-80cm range and therefore a big fish is a real trophy to be treasured. Research by Bryn Farmer showed the Kalgan River fish to be a totally isolated population which has developed its own genetic anomalies as a result of inbreeding, and with the biggest fish usually leaving the system to move to the west coast. With small mulloway dominating the stock assemblage, at times it can almost be easier to catch mulloway of that typical Kalgan size than bream, much to the chagrin of tournament anglers trying to find the latter.

However, the bigger croakers are also there and more and more innovative anglers are finding ways to catch them on lures, including on stickbaits. One of the keen young local anglers, Ryan Street, even got a metre-plus fish on fly last year, which is a fine effort.

The mulloway in the Kalgan can be found anywhere along the river right to where the fresh meets the salt near the top bridge. I’ve even heard of fish being seen moving around the flats in Oyster Harbour, although I am yet to witness it. And while mulloway are always regarded as a tough fish to fool, there are times when they can become extremely aggressive in the Kalgan. Anglers in the right spot at the right time have watched in amazement as big kings have herded terrified baitfish in scenes reminiscent of the bait balls getting destroyed by metro salmon earlier this year.

Although there are good numbers of mulloway in the Kalgan all year, during the cooler months, when rain flushes down the Kalgan, they school up and can offer some very exciting fishing. I didn’t crack the metre mark last year; however, I did come close, my best fish coming during a red-hot session on the lower Kalgan. I hooked five mulloway in a couple of hours, landing four and getting bitten off by one, all on the same bream outfit. The one change I had made for this session was a switch from the original trebles on the Rolling Bait to a couple of assist hooks, an approach that proved to work really well.

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Over the season, I found this to be very effective as even though the lure is only tiny compared to the size of a mulloway’s gob, they were almost invariably hooked externally right in the corner of the mouth, with the leader well away from the rasping teeth that could spell disaster. Indeed, of all the fish I hooked over three or four months, there was only the one time I was bitten off, when it appeared the mulloway fully inhaled the lure and bit through the thin leader almost instantly.

On this particular day, I found numbers of mulloway along a dropoff just a short casting distance from shore. The bottom dropped from a metre down to three and the fish appeared to be holding in this area- a common trait with Kalgan kings which makes using a sounder an important part of the equation if you want to seriously target them. I had caught three fish in the 50-60cm range, and been bitten off that once. Then, as the sun started to dip and the shadows over the river lengthened, I was considering heading back to the ramp when the fish hit right beneath the kayak.

Getting the hit right at the kayak is a common occurrence and my approach for fishing the Rolling Baits is simple – I just cast them as far as possible and let them sink to the bottom. I then retrieve them by lifting the rod around 30cm to get the lure fluttering off the bottom, before dropping the tip again and winding up the slack; effectively hopping them along like you might with a soft plastic or a vibe. This was obviously a better fish from the power coming through the rod and so began another fight similar to that first one, with yours truly trying to cajole the fish towards me and it towing me back and forwards across the river. It just kept going from one side to the other for around 15 minutes, with one solid run downstream, before I was able to keep it an area for extended period.

I managed to get the kayak between it and the shore to manoeuvre it towards the shallows, before eventually being able to lead it up onto the sand flat, where I could jump out and grab it. Unfortunately the fish was smarter than me, and the moment I jumped out of the kayak it turned tail and bolted back into deeper water, leading me to fight it from the shore for a few more minutes before finally subduing it.

I took a heap of photos before releasing it, including a heap of the tiny lure hanging from its mouth, but only ended up with the one picture on the smartphone to remember it by, after my Canon SLR was stolen a couple of days later.

P1030988It was 92cm and my best Kalgan king for the season, although I lost another fish that felt every bit as big, on the upper Kalgan a couple of months later.  After an extended fight, I pulled the hooks when the fish was no more than 50cm from the rod tip – devastation. I must say I love the sensation of catching these mulloway on the bream gear because the sensitivity of the tackle makes it a truly sensory experience as you feel every head-shake and tail beat.

However, as time went on I started to experiment with bigger lures on bigger gear, mainly to see if this would help me catch the elusive metre mulla. Local shore fishers Aron and Chris Dixon had been doing well on big stickbaits up to 14cm long by casting at mullet splashes, including getting one metre-plus fish and hooking a couple more, and it was a tactic I was keen to try. I had trolled and cast minnow lures of varying sizes, a popular local method of targeting them, without much success, and most of my captures had been on the small Rolling Bait, but I was keen to explore the other possibilities.

As it turned out, I had pretty good results with the stickbaits, but mainly by not going quite as big as the Dixon boys. At times I found bouncing the stickbaits right along the bottom worked well, but at other times they were quite happy to hit them close to the surface. I tried a number of different shapes and sizes with varying success and narrow-profiled stickbaits seemed to work best for me.

I might add none of the fish I caught on the stickbaits were big, with the best probably coming in at around 70cm, but it is an approach I’m keen to try to refine more this year, and maybe even throw poppers into the mix. That being said, I do find it hard to go past chasing them on the bream gear for the pure sportfishing joy of it, especially when all my biggest fish were in fact hooked on this outfit.

Also, the great thing about using bream tackle is that you will catch both bream and mulloway, rather than ruling the former out as you do when flinging bigger lures around.  I’d heard it said that mulloway don’t usually feed when they are croaking, but this didn’t really seem to be a factor in my success rate. At times the sound on the Kalgan can be almost deafening as they find voice late afternoon right along its length and you can’t help but wonder just how many fish are in the river.

On the positive side, you know the fish are in the immediate area by the cacophony of croaks around you, which at times sound like they are so close they must be hiding in the hull. On the negative side, it can be downright infuriating when the mulloway are almost taunting you with their vocals and you can’t get a touch! However, I didn’t notice any correlation between the two – sometimes they were croaking all around me and I caught fish, and sometimes they were not and I didn’t.

To be honest, I think I just like knowing I’m in the right spot!

Generally if I wanted to chase the Kalgan kings, I fished late afternoons, from around 3pm onwards until dark, but it must be said this was also often the only time I could get on the water. On the upper Kalgan I preferred a high tide that would push the bait up with it, while in the lower reaches I found a lower tide tended to concentrate the fish better into the deeper holes and make them easier to find. If I got those conditions, and there was bait showing on the sounder, then my confidence was high. I even got a handful of fish simply by jigging stickbaits up and down around bait schools that were showing on the sounder.

There is much more to learn about these fish, but looking back it was amazing how quickly my approach to Kalgan mulloway changed over the three months following that first June capture. I went from just hoping to catch one, to devoting entire sessions on the river to mulloway rather than chasing the bream that led me to them. When you throw in the pristine bush scenery of the Kalgan itself, which is an absolute pleasure to explore, in my case silently in the kayak, it’s a fantastic and unique little fishery that should be treasured.  And there aren’t too many other places in WA, if any at all, where you can reliably target mulloway on hard-bodied lures on a consistent basis. The shallow water, with fish caught in 1-4m, also means it is also eminently suited to catch and release, which is not always feasible for mulloway caught elsewhere because of their acute problems with barotrauma, and I recommend this approach to ensure the long-term sustainability of this magic fishery.

Long live the Kalgan kings!

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