Fishing World, February 2002
Sometimes a river and the fish in it can become as much a part of you as the blood in your veins. Robert Adamson details his obsession with the jewies in the mighty Hawkesbury system. Photography by Juno Gemes.
FISHING the Hawkesbury River is not like fishing other saltwater locations around Sydney. For one thing, a lot of fresh water runs into the Hawkesbury from the Nepean and the catchment area, and this colours the river. Some fish are more aggressive in cloudy water, especially predators like mulloway.
My part of the Hawkesbury extends from the top of Mooney Creek and Mullet Creek down to Broken Bay at the mouth of estuary. The rail and road bridges attract jewies all year round. Some of them are travellers but others seem to live there. Two fish caught in the same spot can have different colouration – the travellers silver shot with mauve, the locals dark brown with a rich purple dappling along their back. Mulloway over 25 kilos are mainly caught in winter, though I caught a dark-coloured 35-kilo fish a few years back in December.
There’s no mistaking jewies: the streamlined, soft-finned classic fish shape, the unique smell, the rainbow patterning on the back, the cavernous mouth with its small grabbing teeth, the silky air bladder, soft scales, big eyes and flipper-like tail. You can hold a live jewie in your hands and it will feel soft, almost warm, straight from the water. Part of you wants to release it immediately, to watch it shake its head slowly and swim back to its life in the river. Another part of you knows that the mulloway is one of the best table fish in the world if you handle it properly – that is, if you kill it with a swift blow to the head and cut its throat.
Watching a mulloway die slowly – its gills gulping for air, its colours fading – is a hard thing to take. I keep my limit of fish in a slurry of iced water in the kill tank and never take home more than we can eat.
I was about 10 when I first saw a mulloway caught and brought into a boat. I was with my father on a fishing trip up Mooney Creek. We fished in the deep channel out from the Seaman’s Chest, a distinctively shaped rock on Cheero Point – a spot that still produces good fish. We anchored and slept there and at dawn one of the lines went off, waking me as the old wooden caster rattled around in the boat. My father had brought a mate along, and after a fairly short fight on the old gut handline, they heaved a huge 70lb fish into the boat. (These were the days before kilos.) It was the most exciting and awe-inspiring thing I’d ever seen – that big jewie with its colours still lit up shuddered there in the belly of the old clinker-built half-cabin boat. There was no wind that morning and the distinctive musky smell of the mulloway filled the air as I stared at this beautiful creature, watching the silvery-mauve diamonds or “portholes” along its sides gradually fading. My father cut its throat and threw a couple of wet chaff bags over the dead fish.
It was another 14 years before I caught my own first big mulloway. I caught a lot of smaller jewies, some up to 10 pounds maybe, but a “real” jewie to me was a fish like the one my father had caught.
One summer I was fishing for bream under the road bridge in a rowing boat, using peeled prawns on size 2/0 French hooks with an eight-pound handline. I’d caught some nice bream and was about to stop fishing; it was the last two hours of the run-out and the tide had just about stopped. But as I starting pulling the line in, I felt a fish take the bait. I could tell it was huge and was pretty sure it was a jewie because of the distinctive knocking on the line – big mulloway always shake their heads in the first run. It took the line around the boat, dangerously close to the anchor rope, so with one hand holding the handline, I pulled the anchor in with the other, a yard at a time, placing my foot on the rope each time I grabbed another length.
As soon as the anchor was off the bottom, the boat started drifting away from the road bridge, but the tide still had a bit of kick in it and I was soon drifting down towards the rail bridge. I finally got the anchor in with the boat right out in the middle of the stream. I relaxed a little. The fine line had cut into my index finger, which was bleeding, but I felt no pain as the fish pulled the rowing boat slowly downstream. In just under an hour it was floating exhausted beside the boat. I held the line and watched it carefully, my heart beating faster than if I’d just run a 200-yard sprint.
I watched the great fish slowly open and close its mouth, gradually drowning by the side of the boat. I had no gaff and even the snapper landing net was no match for its head. Then, almost instinctively, I plunged my hand down into its mouth and out the side through one of its gills, using my arm as a hook, and hauled it into the boat the same way my father had done 14 years before. My entire body was shaking as the air filled with the pungent smell.
The tide had kicked back and was running in again. I was about half a mile from the road bridge where I'd first hooked the fish.
When I weighed it back at the boatshed it was 57lbs. I spent the next 10 years trying to repeat that fluke. During this quest, I learned to read the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury River. I discovered that to repeatedly catch good mulloway I had to try to become part of the river system itself. Amongst other things, this meant catching your own bait, fishing as light as possible and learning where and when the mulloway were feeding. I was drawn into the ecology of the river. I studied the birds – especially the raptors, the whistling kites, the swamp harriers and the white-shouldered sea eagles. I waded in the upper reaches of Mooney Creek scooping up prawns on the dark of the moon, pumped pink nippers on the sandy flats at Jerusalem Bay, discovered green nippers under rocks in the soft mud and caught squid in the small deep bays around the mouth of Cowan Creek.
Thinking back on that first big jewie one detail is important: it was caught on a peeled prawn. Another big mulloway I caught 10 years ago – a fish weighing 20 kilos – was caught on a squid two inches long.
Most people say they catch jewies with big baits and live fish, but for years now I’ve caught my best fish on small squid. The quality of the bait is all-important: frozen squid only work when they’ve been frozen within hours of capture and carefully handled; local frozen squid are better than squid imported from interstate or overseas; best of all are live squid. It makes no difference what size they are – if I set my rod at the right time and right place with a live squid, I always catch a nice fish.
Mulloway seem to be guided by smell more than by sight, especially in the murky brown water of the Hawkesbury River. It goes in the other direction too: the distinctive odour of the mulloway is part of its mystique. I’ve read that they swim up under the surf along the coastal beaches, expelling this odour in their excretions as they go. When the beach worms come up out of the sand to feed on this stuff, the jewies suck them in.
In the process of learning to catch mulloway I found myself catching all the other fish in the system – bream, flathead, mullet, whiting, yellowtail, slimies and garfish. When I use live fish for bait, I choose the smaller and softer varieties. Slimies are best – preferably live, though often a fillet of just-killed slimy outfishes live squid – but small mullet are great too. When the jewies aren’t taking squid (which is rare) garfish are deadly. Another great bait is live prawns. Because they’re such a universal food, there’s always the surprise of the by-catch – huge bream, flathead, whiting and flounder.
I fish for jewies on the week of the full moon, especially when high or low tide coincides with dawn and dusk. Recently I thought I’d go down to Lion Island at the mouth of the river to see if any squid were around. My wife Juno came with me to take some photographs for this story. It was a calm afternoon and the low tide was at 6:30pm. Once we’d anchored I threw out some chook pellets soaked in tuna oil, and within an hour I had about 14 small squid – perfect bait for mulloway. There was still about an hour left in the run-out, so I pulled up the anchor and we went straight back to the rail-bridge.
By the time we’d anchored again, the tide was slowing down. There was no wind and the sun was setting. I baited up three rods with live squid and placed them in the rod holders. I use Ugly Stiks with 7000 ABUs loaded with 15-kilo ABU “bluewater” mono trolling line. I like this line – it’s soft and flexible and I like the stretch it has. I usually set the rods in gear with quite a firm drag and just leave them there until something happens.
Often it’s quite a long wait. But on this particular occasion, before I’d finished setting the third rod in its holder, the first was bent over, the reel screaming. I could tell as soon as I picked it up that it was a nice jewie, shaking its head and running toward the old sandstone pylon we were anchored out from. Before I had the fish halfway in, the other two rods were bucking in their holders. Juno was busy taking photos, so I ignored them and continued bringing the first fish in. I landed it, then moved on to the others. By the time the tide stopped I had three lovely schoolies in the boat. The whole thing took about half an hour. It was one of those perfect afternoons.