Destination: Perth to Shark Bay, Western Australia

By: Peter Goulding

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The WA coastline between Perth and Shark Bay is as varied as the fish that reside in its waters. See what secrets are revealed.

Destination: Perth to Shark Bay, Western Australia

Western Australia has a long and varied coastline punctuated by sheltered bays bounded by rugged cliffs and reefs. This mix of terrain and its vast size, running north-south through multiple latitudes and climates, produces a diverse fishery. The range of species could not be more complete for a recreational angler, the WA fisho able to target the most tropical of billfish species through to the humble whiting and everything in between on a daily basis.

Diversity and abundance aside WA can also be a very tricky place to fish, where the old 90-10 rule (90 per cent of the fish caught by 10 per cent of the fisherman) is applied liberally. Many of us travel many miles along the coast in search of catching that once-in-a-lifetime fish and I have been one of those lucky ones. Here are a couple of my favourite spots.

This pristine World Heritage area boasts a vast array of fish species to challenge the travelling angler. Located on the 26th parallel it is where the north meets the south. The key to consistent results lies in understanding how the place works.

Shark Bay primarily comprises two gulfs; the western, bordered by Dirk Hartog Island to the west and the Peron Peninsula to the east; and the eastern, where the famous Monkey Mia dolphins can be found.

The eastern gulf stretches right across from the Peron Peninsula to the mainland on its far eastern reach. So large is this gulf that many visitors believe they are looking at the ocean, when technically it is more of a massive estuarine system made up of large and small channels surrounded by shallow sand bars. Not surprisingly navigation can be difficult.

The main town of Denham faces into the western gulf and is my preferred destination. It’s a small place yet supports two hotels, three caravan parks, two supermarkets (one of which sells fuel) and a service station that also has a tackle store. There are also more than 30 houses and units that can be rented. Some are large enough to take two families and the local Ray White real estate office is your best point of initial contact.

A good boat ramp with plenty of parking can be found right in the middle of town. There are also short-term pens and moorings that can be rented through the council offices for larger vessels.

Travelling here by big boat means some prior preparation. In particular it’s advisable to contact the local fuel suppliers and let them know your fuel requirements prior to arrival so they can be prepared. Denham is also 860km from Perth by road so most vessels will require at least one stopover to complete the journey. There are good ports all the way like Jurien Bay, Geraldton, Port Gregory and Kalbarri. Smaller boats would be wise to allow for a couple of lay days as this exposed coast is subject to unpredictable weather.

Once north of Geraldton, trolling along the Zuytdorf cliffs and the back of Dirk Hartog Island can result in some great pelagic action. Mackerel and sailfish are regularly hooked by beach anglers along this strip of coastline. Bottom-based fishing turns up red emperor, coral trout, pink snapper, goldband, spangled emperor and many more species.

At the southern end of the island the South Passage allows access to the western gulf, while the eastern side of Dirk Hartog has good anchorages like Sunday Island Bay, Tetradon Loop and in the north, Turtle Bay. Remember, the island is nearly 80km long and a national park. If you decide to camp on the island, fees will apply.

Monkey Mia in the eastern gulf is 35km from Denham by road but much farther by boat. It has a good single-lane boat ramp with jetty and plenty of parking. There is a resort with shops that sell fuel, bait etc. The bay features many good anchorages mainly along the peninsula.

Fishing in either of the eastern gulf’s two southern bays is tricky because if you find 9m of water, that is as deep as it is going to get. Most of my fishing is done in 7m or less. The biggest mistake most people make is to head straight out into the middle looking for deep water and in most cases this works out to be fruitless.

I returned from a trip there in May and in most places we caught fish. If you happened to fall overboard it would have taken only three or four strokes to find a sandbar and stand up. There are big, shallow sand banks stretching off the mainland that look like they travel all the way to shore. Heading across the shallow water on a rising tide you will find gutters running through them. Following these into the bay will quite often lead to holes and deeper water and an echosounder will soon locate the fish.

We caught 17 different species in these holes and gutters ranging from 3 to 7m in depth. The catch included pink snapper, blue lined emperor, estuary cod, black spot tusk fish, baldchin groper, Spanish flag and coral trout. At the same time we trolled lures along the edge of the sand bars in about 3 to 4m of water until we got tired of catching Spanish and school mackerel.

In all the years I have been coming here I have never seen the mackerel fishing as good as it was this year. I counted 12 one afternoon just sitting at the back of the boat at anchor. The main channels are also known to have large cobia, frequent all-year-round visitors — a world record 61.5kg came from the eastern gulf during one winter back in the eighties.

If you are thinking of travelling there I find the best time is any time after the middle of March when the easterlies drop, until mid-October when they start again. My personal preferences are April, May, August and September. The only problem in the middle of winter is that the weather can be spectacular but if a large front comes through in the south of the State they can stretch as far up as the Bay and you could lose a week. Trust me, if you only have a week to spare you can guarantee it will be that one. At the same time, a mate of mine was there in December and got the best weather for fishing. So I guess you just have to strike it lucky.

Being a resident of the Perth metro area I spend more time fishing around home than I do in the northern or southern reaches of the state. Once again many boats return with little to show for their effort. Most anglers travel miles too far, driving past the fish at blinding pace.

Fisheries management restrictions (a good thing by the way) allow for only two demersal fish per day, of which only one can be the prized Western Australian dhufish. It seems pointless to me travelling 30nm out to sea to find fish that are only going to take half an hour to fill the bag limit. My mates and I rarely travel over the 30m mark only a few miles offshore — and we do very well on all species.

The metro coastline is bound by small islands and reefs, which hold many species of fish. During summer when the Leeuwin Current is flowing southwards along the coast, warm water is brought from the north, and with this come many tropical species such as mackerel, marlin and sailfish. I have seen Spanish mackerel feeding on bait schools only 100m from shore during February and March.

FADs (fish attracting devices) west of Rottnest Island are popular spots for marlin and dolphin fish, although you will need to allow a bit of travel time to get to these. Cockburn Sound just south of Fremantle abounds with marine species. Protected by Garden Island, its sheltered waters make it fishable from a large cruiser to a kayak.

Once again, with good management, Cockburn Sound has become a fisherman’s delight. With a closed season for pink snapper from October 1 to January 31, increased size limits and the abolishing of commercial fishing now see pinks caught with relative ease, along with mulloway, King George whiting, sand whiting, herring, tailor and many more species. There are also blue swimmer crabs (closed September 1 to December 14) and loads of squid. We find the best way to fish our local area is to use the echosounder, cruising along trolling lures in hope of a pelagic, while watching the sounder for good bottom and fish signals.

I also enjoy targeting small fish during the closed season for demersal species. In my opinion there is no better eating fish than whiting (sand and King George). Bag limits are 30 sand and eight King George whiting per day and you don’t need to travel more than a couple of miles offshore to find the grounds.

Large patches of weed, with clear sandy areas highlight ideal country. The KGs are usually a metre or two from the weed. Look for larger open areas of sand for the sand whiting. A small hook (number 4) or less, some coral prawns or squid are all you need to clean up. Whiting spots can be found all along the metro coast and in this same area expect a mixed bag of flathead, trevally, herring, pike, cream, the odd pink snapper and more.

These backbreakers can be found over the inner reefs, shipwrecks or near any jagged reef or rocky bottom. Samson fish often chase tailor to the boat, to the point where it is safer for the frightened quarry to jump in rather than stay in the water. Most people let these go as they are not high on the list of eating fish but are great catch-and-release, well into deep water. Target Samson with lures, jigs and livebait.

Perth is well serviced by six boat ramps from Yanchep in the north to Rockingham in the south. They all have good parking and facilities. There are also marinas at Mindarie, Hillary’s and in the Swan River, where short-term pens are available. However, with Perth’s growth and increased wealth, pens for larger vessels can be at a premium. It is something most developers are trying to address so watch this space. Many of the bays around the islands have moorings in place for those only looking at a short-term stay.

Top photo: Exmouth, WA. (Photo © of Tourism Western Australia)

A Shark Bay mackerel taken in three metres of water.

The Zuytdorp Cliffs — 150 kilometres long, Shark Bay.

Stromatolites (formed by blue-green algae) — one of the oldest life-forms on the planet (Shark Bay).

Shark Bay in detail.

The oddly named baldchin groper is iconic to WA.

The much prized WA dhufish.

Perth’s metro coast is a well-serviced and productive fishery often overlooked by visiting anglers.

A nice pink snapper from the metro coast (above) and a mixed bin of whiting and flathead (below).

A solid, hard-fighting Samson fish (above) and another fat baldchin groper (below).

WA has its fair share of quality flathead.

Mindarie Marina, Perth.

From Trade-a-Boat Issue 430, Aug-Sept 2012. Photos: Peter Goulding; Shutterstock; Tourism Western Australia; Supplied. Maps: Hema maps

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