Exmouth and its Magical Surrounds by Trailerboat

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Spanish mackerel can be thick along Exmouth’s Ningaloo Reef during the cooler winter months.

The remote north-west Western Australian township of Exmouth sits right at pointy end of most Aussie fishos must-fish bucket lists. In this illuminating and wide-ranging article, Exmouth resident Ben Knaggs outlines what this frontier sportfishing town has on offer for visiting small boat anglers. For the majority of Australia’s east cost-centric population an expedition to the north-west of Western Australia is the adventure a lifetime. This is a part of the country so far away from major population centres that the journey is a significant fraction of the way around the globe. It’s a trip requiring the investment not just money but a fair amount of time – a big chunk of that taken up in the road trip alone. But the rewards for this pilgrimage are many. What greets a bitumen-weary fisho after days of mind-numbing driving is a wild, untamed coast with fishing to match. There are opportunities on offer that you’ll struggle to find anywhere else in Australia. Often these options are all clustered together to create a bewildering array of possibilities for a visiting fisho. What could be more exciting? Western Australia’s continent-width coastline offers a heap of potential fish-filled destinations. The township of  Exmouth – roughly midway between Broome in the north and Perth in the south – is one of the prime destinations on many an adventure-seeking fisho’s bucket list. There’s very good reason for this, as the renowned frontier town of the sportfishing world offers just about every Aussie saltwater fishing scenario imaginable.
Late winter and spring sees sailfish invade Exmouth’s inshore grounds and even push right into the gulf. This is a prime time to enjoy some sensational small boat billfishing.

Late winter and spring sees sailfish invade Exmouth’s inshore grounds and even push right into the gulf. This is a prime time to enjoy some sensational small boat billfishing.

With so much great ground to prospect, it’s never too difficult to find a few reef species like this nice coral trout to clobber a soft plastic worked along the reef ledges.

With so much great ground to prospect, it’s never too difficult to find a few reef species like this nice coral trout to clobber a soft plastic worked along the reef ledges.

 Small boat, no problem!

If you’re visiting from the east coast, towing a large trailerboat across the nation is not a feasible option. Soaring fuel prices are just one factor towards this. As a result, many fun-seeking fishos choose to downsize for their Exmouth adventure, towing a 12-15 foot tinny or even a decent sized car-topper. This cuts down on visits to the bowser and, once at the destination, won’t limit you as much as you might think. Exmouth lies at the tip of a small peninsula known as North West Cape, a land mass that seems to have been designed by some sort of fish-crazed deity. With a large, shallow, semi-protected gulf on its eastern shore, the Ningaloo Reef and lagoon on its west flank and the continental shelf running to within just a handful of kilometres further offshore, the geography of the place is close to perfect. Theatres for estuary, flats, reef and bluewater fishing are all easily accessible, even via modest trailerboats.

What’s on offer when?

As with any location Exmouth’s sportfishing menu depends largely on the time of year. Such is the range of fishing options on offer, the region doesn’t have a low season as such however species availability and the water you’ll find them in does change by the season. Let’s now follow Exmouth’s fishing calendar through the months with the small boat fisho in mind.
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Small black marlin are a year-round Exmouth option, and can often be found mere minutes from the boat ramp.

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Small black marlin are a year-round Exmouth option, and can often be found mere minutes from the boat ramp.

The most popular time for visitors to make their Exmouth pilgrimage is winter. During the mid-year months, waves of holidaying families, caravanners, sightseers and anglers head north to trade a cold, southern winter for the clear, blue skies and 25-degree-days of an Exmouth winter. The winter fishing is good, highlighted by a strong and very reliable run of Spanish mackerel along the back of the famous, shore fringing Ningaloo Reef. South-easterly trade winds at this time of year make Ningaloo Reef more accessible to small boats, as the easterly aspect creates a lee shore on this western side of North West Cape and helps flatten incoming swells. Trolling Halco Laser Pros, Rapala X-Raps and the like along the seaward edge of Ningaloo Reef in 15-30m of water will find these fish without too much effort. Be prepared to deal with plenty of reef sharks that love to monster hooked macks. For this reason, tackle far heavier than would otherwise be needed is recommended to help get those Spaniards to the boat in one piece. Winter is also prime time to fish the bottom for ever-popular demersals like red emperor, coral trout, gold-band snapper and a myriad of others. Coral trout and spangled emperor (aka, nor-west snapper) are best targeted by bouncing soft plastics along the coral ledges close to the reef. Red emperor, gold-band snapper and the like prefer more subtle structure in deeper water from 50 metres onwards, where bottom bashing with bait still rules the roost. The transition into spring is evident by increasing numbers of bait schools in Exmouth’s inshore waters. As soon as this begins to occur, a range of pelagic predators from school mackerel, cobia, trevally and queenfish through to sailfish and small black marlin start to appear in close – a perfect scenario for the small boat sportfisho.
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Schools of longtail tuna can usually be found busting up bait inside Exmouth Gulf, and make great flick stick fun for small boat sportfishos.

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With the continental shelf running in very close to shore off Exmouth, bluewater pelagics like dolphinfish are well within range of even small tinnies.

Now’s the time to get stuck into some excellent small boat billfishing a mere throttle squirt from the ramp. Sailfish lead the charge, with these most spectacular of fish turning up along the back of the reef from August onwards, joining the small black marlin that prowl these waters almost year-round. These ‘west side’ sails are good fish too, often pushing or even exceeding 40kgs, and are almost indescribably entertaining to switch bait from a little boat. As spring sets in the baitfish bonanza ramps up with the appearance of big schools of a local herring species known as ‘gulf mulies’ inside the Exmouth Gulf. The sailfish are always onto this and when the pieces come together the gulf can be lousy with flying sailies. Gulf sailfish tend to be smaller fish, averaging 15-25kgs, there’s a common inkling these ‘gulf sails’ may be an altogether separate stock.
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Exmouth is famous for its flats fishing. The warmer waters of summer can see these shallows alive with the likes of golden trivially.

You can expect to find just about any predatory species around these big bait balls, including Spanish mackerel, sharks, school and spotted macks. A whole roll call of trevally, cobia, queenfish, monster longtail tuna and of course the ever-present sharks are also common. Live baiting the edges of the bait schools is a sure-fire tactic but a few words of warning – take plenty of gear. Bait schools or not, spring is also an excellent time to run into packs of surface feeding long tail tuna in the gulf. These make for brilliant spin stick fun from a small boat. These fish can be super boat-shy so keep your approach stealthy as and make your casts count when the fish come into range. As summer approaches the prevailing southerly swing to the west. Unfortunately the breeze tends to strengthen into what is locally known as ‘the hundred day wind’. Calm weather gaps do shorten between November and February.

 High summer in the North West

High summer brings hot weather to the north-west of WA and Exmouth is no exception. At this time of year temperatures can exceed 40 degrees for days, if not weeks upon end. Maximum temps over the almost unbearable 50 degree mark are not uncommon. On the plus side, these temperatures (and the moderate risk of a cyclone) help keep the crowds away so you largely have the place to yourself. That means a heap of fish for the catching! Exmouth billfishing gets hotter with the weather, as small to medium sized black marlin reach plague proportions. Past the shelf, the availability of big blue marlin is at world-class levels. That so, the small boat fisho will need to snare a glamour day to safely chase them. Warmer inshore waters can fire up Exmouth’s famous flats fisheries too, especially for big ticket species such as permit, bonefish and golden trevally. The bonefish are available only in the aqua-clear waters of the Ningaloo Lagoon, while permit, golden trevally, big queenfish and giant herring can also be tracked down over the vast flats of the lower Exmouth Gulf. The gulf’s far eastern and southern shores are fringed by mangrove swamps, and the many small mangrove creeks that dissect these swamplands fish well through summer. With no roads coming near many of these creeks, access can be an issue, although small boats can make the easy beach launch from Learmonth or Pelican Point and cut down a pile of sea miles. The main creek targets are mangrove jacks, trevally, estuary cod and even the odd barra, but you didn’t hear that from me. Late summer and early autumn are the best time of year to fish Exmouth from a small boat. Those persistent south-westerly winds typically ease off, and temperatures gradually pull back to a more comfortable early to mid thirties. Better still, the blood-warm water will have an obscene variety of fish species on the chew, both offshore and in close. The big question is, what to chase? While you can take your pick, I personally like this time of year for pelting big poppers and stickbaits at the reef for brutish giant trevally. The GTs tend to be fully fired up at this warm water time of year, and some of the ultra-agro strikes make the lather of sweat you’ll work up casting big lures as far as you can on heavy tackle well worthwhile. This is two man fishing though, with one keeping eyes on approaching swells while the other tempts the trivially. Believe it or not, all of the above is just a mere sample of what Exmouth has to offer the small boat fisho. So what are you waiting for? Pick your time, cash in those holidays and get yourself over there.
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If the wind is up during your visit, all is not lost. The mangrove creeks toward the base of Exmouth Gulf offer plenty of shelter from the breeze and plenty of mangrove jacks.

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Big giant trevally call the weather edge of Ningaloo Reef home. Pelting big stickbaits and poppers into the whitewash is intense fishing with big rewards!

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Even just a small boat can get you into this sort of hot action off Exmouth.

 
Ben Knaggs

About Ben Knaggs

Born and bred in South Australia, Ben’s love of fishing developed from a very early age and evolved to become an obsession which would ultimately shape his life. Actively involved in fishing related journalism from his mid teens, Ben has written articles for most Australian fishing titles and served as editor of Saltwater Fishing magazine for eight years.

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