Words & Images: Peter Morris
For many Australian anglers, jewfish (or mulloway) are a species that can become a near-unhealthy obsession. We are more than willing to throw frightening amounts of time, money and travel at these incredible fish and the more you see of that mesmerising silver glow, the more your “problem” develops. As your wife rolls her eyes when you try to discuss this infatuation, you quickly realise the only ones who can sympathise are other super-keen anglers.
The jewfish trail
The jewfish trail is a long one and can see you hunting fish well offshore and throughout rivers, harbours, beaches and ocean rock platforms. When my interest in the species first developed I spent countless hours fishing the beaches scattered along the NSW Central Coast. Cracking various patterns concentrated on the full and new moon periods and my fishing buddies and I were regularly rewarded for our efforts. The sight of a big silver-sided jewfish in the surf’s powerful surge is a privilege to see and something I dreamt about as a kid. The old black and white photos of my grandfather holding up monster jewfish from the beaches of Coffs Harbour had more of an influence on me than I had realised.
Since then I have been fortunate enough to catch my fair share of “soapies” and school-sized fish on finessed gear from our estuaries and rivers, and no matter how you encounter these fish every one seems special. Arguably the most satisfying captures are land-based, and in my view the most challenging environments are ocean rock platforms. It is here the angler is immediately on the back foot and your powerful opponent has the upper hand.
The ocean rock approach
It is important to establish what we mean by an ocean rock platform. These are naturally occurring formations and differ greatly from manmade breakwalls. The breakwalls that line the mouths of some of our most impressive rivers are well-known jewfish haunts for several reasons and these provide ideal fishing platforms for anglers of all ages. They often provide protection from weather and more powerful ocean swells, making them safe environments to cast lures from. It is true that due to the more user-friendly terrain – meaning greater numbers of people fish from them – large fish are often landed from breakwalls.
But those anglers wishing to seek out tougher fishing environments will be suitably rewarded. Ocean rock platforms are more dangerous and anglers must be able to read the water and anticipate general sea conditions. There is a serious need to stress that SAFETY is of paramount importance. Most anglers are well aware that rock fishing can be a dangerous pastime and no fish is worth risking your life for. Wherever your chosen platform may be, take 20 minutes beforehand to observe your location, watching the tide (bearing in mind it can rise), how much wind you are facing and how much swell and surge you will be dealing with.
Jewfish are a species that adore rough and wild weather, but these conditions will make things horribly unsafe and uncomfortable for anglers. The key word is balance: you are looking for safe platforms to cast from while having the necessary wash and white water.
When those southerly fronts move in, generating powerful wind, swell and associated rain, it is weather far more suited to sitting in front of the television, but in the minds of jewfish hunters things have just got real.
Jewfish habits and hunting
Once conditions are favourable and you have a location marked out, your job is to find the fish. One of my best learning curves was at Sydney Aquarium, Darling Harbour, where in the large “oceanarium” I studied the jewfish for a good half an hour. A noticeable trait was that the fish never strayed far form the darkest, dingiest corner of the tank, which was in complete shade. Right there I was staring at an important clue in my hunt for jewfish. They are very much structure-orientated, and the rocks provide the ideal habitat with both caves and holes to seek refuge, while nicely shaded sections provide a further level of comfort. Combined with a foaming mass of white water, jewfish find themselves in an absolute playground where, among the wash, they can easily ambush unsuspecting prey that has become disorientated by the rough conditions. Jewfish will use absolutely anything to their advantage, which is why they also love the darkness of night.
Now to throw a spanner in the works: I have also caught jewfish from our ocean rocks in seas that resemble a sheet of glass where there is next to no wash. But think about those fish in the aquarium; those deeper holes and cave-like areas hard-up against the rocks may also offer suitable shade. Those times in the afternoon when the sun falls behind a headland and a small amount of darkness is thrown beside those rocky hideaways can be ideal. Always bear in mind that on calmer days the fish will never venture far or even look to seriously feed. You must virtually drop your soft plastic on one, or have your lure pass right in front of a fish’s nose for it to even react. Jewfish are opportunistic feeders and if your lure is in the zone they will not pass up the chance of an easy meal.
Moon and tide
Tides and moon phases are two of the more commonly discussed factors when it comes to jewfish and I believe tides are more important than anything else. When discussing beach fishing we get fixated on the periods of full and new moons but if you stop to think, it is again the tide that is the crucial factor. Larger tides occur as it gets closer to these moon phases, thus giving bigger fish more comfortable access to hunt the beach gutters and holes. In my view, the best time for casting lures from our ocean rocks occurs on slack water where the tide has slowed, which may be high or low tide. I have proven this to myself many times and if you think logically about the behaviour of these fish it makes sense. Jewfish are lazy and if they can hunt and feed when there is less water movement and current to fight against, they will. (Maybe we should say “smart” rather than lazy.) If you are able to combine low light at dawn or dusk, a tide peaking or coming to a final fall where you have washy, stirred-up conditions, then you are most definitely entering the domain of the jewfish.
Soft plastic and hard-bodied lure work
The two types of lures most commonly cast from our rock platforms are soft plastics and jerk baits/divers, and both work extremely well. The obvious difficulty in throwing hard-bodied divers is that you are often in rough, snaggy terrain and lure losses as a result of snag-ups can be high. Another potential hazard as a fish comes in closer to the rocks is that a treble can easily catch exposed cunjevoi or embed in a barnacle, often leading to lost fish. For these reasons I mostly stick with soft plastics as they are the more versatile presentation. Jig head selection is the next concern and the only way to judge what weight to cast is to sum up conditions on the day. I commonly fish a 1oz head, sometimes moving up to 1.5oz. While this may sound heavy, the surge and water conditions govern this and without sufficient weight the soft plastic is quickly swept away from the desired zone. Type of soft plastic is the next consideration and in my opinion most will work, with both jerk shads and paddle-tailed profiles doing an excellent job. Personal preference largely dictates this and mine has always been for the Gulp 7in Jerk Shads. It goes without saying a jig head featuring a strong hook of moderate to heavy gauge is an absolute necessity.
Gear selection can be a tricky business for this type of lure work and the main challenge is suitable rod selection. The good news is that more offerings are readily available in Australia. The ideal rods are 8-9ft with a moderate to fast action. While some prefer a longer rod for added clearance around the rocks once a fish is in close, I find the extra length an absolute headache for two reasons. The first is that huge casts are not usually needed, and secondly the longer the rod, the harder it is to work soft plastics while maintaining the necessary “feel”. It is important to maintain feel with your chosen soft plastic and react quickly to what may be only a subtle tap. Often forgotten is that fighting a larger fish can be uncomfortable on a longer rod as the angler can lose leverage if the rod lacks much-needed power. A rod rated PE 3-5 or PE 4-6 with some sensitivity through the tip section is ideal.
My current rod, which is the best I have used for this type of work, is 8ft 7in long with a rating of PE 3-5. This balances perfectly with a reel in the 6000 size and with this I fish PE 3, or 30lb, braid.
If you encounter jewfish of any size they will not be alone, as they are a schooling species. Bear in mind that the school can spook easily and I have had situations where I have caught two smaller fish and then pulled hooks or dropped a third one. The immediate result is that the school either “shuts down”, or panics and quickly moves on. Dropping a fish is never a good thing and the same can happen on releasing a fish. If possible, it is a good idea to keep fish alive in a rock pool then release them at the end of your session.
However, be aware that a fish kept alive in a pool must still be of legal size as you can be deemed “in possession” of the fish. If releasing a smaller fish early in a session do so away from where it was hooked. In any case, remember to keep an eye on legal size and bag limits.
Jewfish are among the most special of fish and deserve to be treated with respect. At the same time there is never a problem bringing home one for the table every now and then – they are sensational eating, especially when taken from cleaner environments such as rocks and beaches.