Exmouth – Australias Small Boat Billfish Capital

Have you ever fished Exmouth, WA? After reading this article on Small Boat Billfish by local Ben Knaggs, you will certainly have it on your bucket list……….just don’t leave it too long!

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Local boat Pants Party hooked up to a big blue marlin outside the Continental Shelf. This fishing is within easy reach of boats this size off Exmouth.

Local boat Pants Party hooked up to a big blue marlin outside the Continental Shelf. This fishing is within easy reach of boats this size off Exmouth.

Billfish are often seen as the epitome of small boat fishing. In many respects this is spot on, as to successfully target these fish out of a small trailerboat requires a demanding mix of boat handling skills, an ability to locate fish in the vast playing field that is the open ocean, and the capacity to handle a fight with a big, very powerful fish.

Without a doubt though, the tyranny of distance to the offshore billfish grounds is the major stumbling block that keeps many small boat fishos from achieving their long held dream of scoring a DIY marlin. However, there are a handful of precious locations dotted around the country where the deep, warm, oceanic water that marlin prefer is within a few good casts of the shoreline.

My home town of Exmouth in the north-west of Western Australia is one such location. Here, anglers possessing even the smallest of boats are right in the billfish game, as the grounds that hold these most regal of game fish begin literally within clear sight of the boat ramp. Even the Continental Shelf edge is as little as 10kms straight out from the ramp. To put that into some sort of perspective, reaching the shelf off most other ports on both the west and east coasts of the country requires a 30-50km run which is a bit of a trip in a small boat!

Small to mid-sized black marlin are the fish which underpin Exmouth’s incredible year-round billfishery.

Small to mid-sized black marlin are the fish which underpin Exmouth’s incredible year-round billfishery.

Regardless of distance from shore (or rather, the lack of it), there’s a very strong argument to be made for Exmouth as the country’s premier billfish destination. All six Australian billfish species (Black, Blue and Striped marlin, Sailfish, Shortbill Spearfish and Broadbill Swordfish) are caught here in good to great numbers, and the billfish fishery is a year-round affair, albeit with the perfunctory seasonal variations in species.

Which Marlin When

To me, the highlight of Exmouth’s extraordinary billfishery is the summer run of big Blue Marlin that takes place from the shelf edge and beyond. I’ve written about Exmouth blues previously on Kaydo Fishing World, so I won’t cover old ground here. Suffice to say, in anything approaching reasonable weather it’s eminently possible for fishos possessing seaworthy vessels as small as 4.5m to get in on amazing action on blue marlin that average 100-200kgs, with the occasional big girl that could be anything up to grander size. November-April is Blue Marlin season off Exmouth, but by February/March, lure spreads meant for the big blues start to get invaded by the next wave of candidates on the Exmouth billfish calendar. Black marlin are year-round residents of Exmouth’s Ningaloo Coast, and are the species which underpin the world-beating billfishery here. From late summer through autumn though, small to mid-sized Blacks can be in plague proportions which can actually be a bit annoying when you’re focused on the big Blues, but the best news ever for small boat fishos looking for some light tackle kicks.

To give you an example, each year the Exmouth Game Fishing Club holds Western Australia’s premier game and sport fishing tournament, GAMEX. In the most recent GAMEX tournament in 2014 (the 2015 tournament had to be cancelled due to a cyclone event) 62 boats fished the 6 days of the event for final raised-hooked-tagged billfish statistics of an incredible 1619-1133-601. Roughly 80% of those fish tagged being black marlin in the 15-80kg size range.

 A standard Exmouth blue marlin of around 150kg. Exmouth’s summer blue marlin fishery would have to be the easiest to access and most productive in the country.

A standard Exmouth blue marlin of around 150kg. Exmouth’s summer blue marlin fishery would have to be the easiest to access and most productive in the country.

These baby blacks can be found from just outside the shoreline fringing Ningaloo Reef to well beyond the continental shelf line. So boats of any size have a fantastic chance of getting in on the frantic light tackle action these fish can provide.

Another year-round possibility, Striped Marlin can also pop up just about anywhere. I’ve seen stripes suddenly appear in the spread all neon blue and angry as close to shore as the 50m line (again, just short squirt from land off the western side of Exmouth’s North West Cape). For your best shot at these most beautiful of marlins though, along or just outside the shelf line is the place to be.

Striped marlin are more of an occasional encounter off Exmouth rather than a species to be specifically targeted, so most tend to get caught while chasing blues. Being a billfish that can handle and quite enjoys cooler water, early on in the ‘summer’is billfish season. October-December seems to be the best time to find them. This 2015/16 summer has so far brought much cooler than usual currents to the Ningaloo Coast, and as a result, we’re catching just as many stripes as we are blues along the shelf edge which has been a novel experience. As stripes are known to hunt in groups, pack attacks and multiple hook-ups have been quite common this season. Hectic stuff in a small trailerboat with minimal crew!

Sail City

Like small Black Marlin, Sailfish are the other solidly year-round billfish that keep the tag cards ticking over for Exmouth’s trailerboat billfish brigade. Again, I’ve written about switch-baiting for the inshore run of sailfish that typically occurs just off the back of the Ningaloo Reef from around August-October each year, so no need to re-hash this segment of Exmouth small boat billfishing.

The author hooked-up to a nice Exmouth blue marlin on 37kg gear in glamour conditions. This is as good as small boat game fishing gets!

The author hooked-up to a nice Exmouth blue marlin on 37kg gear in glamour conditions. This is as good as small boat game fishing gets!

There is a literal other side to Exmouth sailfishing though, in that a separate annual run of sails occurs on the opposite side of Exmouth’s North West Cape, inside the semi-protected waters of Exmouth Gulf. From roughly September-November, the seasonal appearance of a local baitfish known as Gulf Mulies draw mobs of sailfish into the gulf to strafe the baitballs. When this happens, champagne light tackle fishing can be enjoyed by sight casting to sailfish rounding up and tearing through the bait balls.

This fishing is not always as easy as it may seem, as it takes some skill to be able to locate the sails amongst unending bait balls and get the system down pat, but in the confines of a reasonably calm body of water for a bucket list billfish it is the perfect scenario for trailerboat fisho.

Swords & Spears

Striped marlin like this can be encountered off Exmouth all year round-, although spring and early summer seem to be the best times.

Striped marlin like this can be encountered off Exmouth all year round-, although spring and early summer seem to be the best times.

Rounding out the Exmouth small boat billfish experience are perhaps two of the toughest billfish species to come across anywhere in the country. Shortbill Spearfish are the real longshot, as I’m only aware of a handful of confirmed spearfish caught in Exmouth waters over the years. Nevertheless, the chance is as good as most other billfish destinations around the country. Broadbill swordfish however are present along Exmouth’s canyon-riddled continental shelf line in good numbers, as evidenced by both the relatively high amount of swords caught in past years and the frequency that crews deep dropping for reef fish along the shelf line have had their hooked reef fish bashed up or broken off by unseen and very un-shark-like predators down deep. The very few crews who have put any reasonable amount of time into chasing swordfish off Exmouth, but almost all who have done, have experienced success. Modern daytime deep dropping techniques are just revealing the full potential of this fishery, both off Exmouth and in several other locations around Australia. Once again, the big advantage Exmouth has for a small boat fisho lusting after a sword is that long runs are not required to reach likely ground.

So there you have it, Exmouth’s sterling small boat billfishery. And all this without even mentioning the by-catch which includes wahoo, dolphinfish and yellowfin tuna. Take it from me; Exmouth is THE bluewater hot spot for trailerboat fishos!

A feisty black marlin jumping around on the leader - the stuff trailerboat fishing dreams are made of!

A feisty black marlin jumping around on the leader – the stuff trailerboat fishing dreams are made of!

Being a coastal billfish, Exmouth’s sailfish tend to congregate along the Ningaloo Reef or inside Exmouth Gulf, making them accessible from even the smallest of trailerboats.

Being a coastal billfish, Exmouth’s sailfish tend to congregate along the Ningaloo Reef or inside Exmouth Gulf, making them accessible from even the smallest of trailerboats.

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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