Hard Yakkin’ – Kayak Fishing Ningaloo from a Hobie Outback
After months of anticipation I was finally amongst it – drifting in gin clear water across the bommie strewn flats of Ningaloo Reef, casting arm twitching as large shadows moved between the scattered cover. Out to the west, the procession of swell approaching the reef front were being forced into raging walls of water by the rising seafloor. Waves crashing north and south of me pumped gigalitres of water over the reef crest and into the lagoon, and together, the water and I were being sucked back out to sea through a passage in the reef off the southern end of Cape Range National Park.
I had figured all sorts of pelagic adversaries would be patrolling the exit of this giant plughole to the sea, with stockier predators hiding amongst the bombies that lined the edge of the drain, ready to ambush any prey that got sucked past. Big mean G’s and Spaniards seemed a definite possibility, red beasties and other ooglies quite likely. Mayhem, an absolute certainty! Expectations were high but after noticing how fast the current was moving, and seeing the depth drop off dramatically, a vague shadow of something sharky was all the encouragement I needed to pedal like mad and get the hell out of there.
“Hang on a minute, did he just say pedal? On a boat?”
Maybe I should back-pedal for a minute. Shortly before moving to Exmouth, I had been driving past these new fangled kayaks everyday until finally my curiosity got the better of me, and before I could say “what’s a mirage drive”, I was the proud new owner of a Hobie Outback Kayak, pedals and all. The mirage drive is the pedalling whatsa-doosy and allows hands free fishing from these super stable yaks. What’s more, they come with four rod holders, stubby holders, a cushy seat, internal tackle boxes, plenty of storage and a set of pneumatic wheels to assist with beach launching. A more traditional paddle also comes standard but I can assure you, once you’ve gone pedals you’ll never go back.
In short time I was back in far safer waters and a rethink of tactics was in order. I had set myself three piscatorial goals for my time in Exmouth, they were to nail a decent GT, Spaniard and Cobia from the yak before the year was out. While at first this seemed quite feasible, these aspirations were now looking shaky at best so I decided to instead concentrate on Spanglies for the rest of the day and hopefully reclaim some face.
Soon, a tiger-lily Bomber was hanging from my bream stick, drag wound down, and I was scanning for a likely bommie. I veered left in silence as the penguin wings did their work down below and landed the lure just short of the coral stack straight in front of me. A few twitches, one swirl, and I was on. Good fish too. He lunged for safety and started peeling off braid but his efforts were soon denied thanks to a timely thumb on the spool, or so I thought. No sooner was the pressure applied when I realised that I was being towed towards the bommie at an increasing rate. Damn, no reverse gear! Very soon it was all over and the words “so endeth the lesson” reverberated up through the hull.
After a quick retie I managed another turn on my drag and approached the next bommie side on. Casting across my body and landing the lure well short meant that upon hook up I not only had a head start, but the fish would have to pull the yak sideways to reach safe haven and, as a last resort, I could always pedal out of there, beastie in tow. After a short but torrid battle I had released my first solid Spanglie, too easy!
With the Spangometer nearing double figures I pedalled over to some new ground, prospecting along the way with Halco’s new Roosta 80. A school of Goldspot Trevally climbed over the pink and yellow offering and soon I was being pulled through a few dizzying 360’s. This time the battle was definitely fought on his terms and I had to wonder how I’d go connected to just a mid-sized GT.
Passing over a deeper area inshore of the reef gap, a school of small barracuda took an interest in the kayak and fell into line behind me. After shadowing the kayak for some time, my piscatorial cavalcade was suddenly spooked and the scene behind me took a frantic turn. My convoy sped off in random directions and one took to the air. The landing produced a much bigger splash than expected and as a Spaniard charged from the white-water, I was in no doubt as to what had just occurred. Soon a Haymaker was launched into the thick of it and before I could get one bloop away, that clichéd Polaris missile with Spaniard striping launched skyward, instantly slicing through my leader. Nearby, my popper floated chin up in the water as if nothing had ever happened and contemplating my goals again, I thought to myself, in Ningaloo, anything is possible.
The abundance of spangled emperor inside Ningaloo reef provide an excellent proving ground for kayak fishing as they are as prolific as your lure box is full. But why would anyone choose to fish from a kayak? Well for starters, the initial financial outlay is much lower when compared to a tinny and they are far more reliable than any outboard. Whilst I love the sound of a two stroke roaring away to the beat of an aluminium hull slapping on each wave, it doesn’t quite compare to silently slicing a path through the water. For me however, the ability to single handedly launch in areas that you would never get a tinny into was the initial drawcard, along with the challenge of landing big fish from such a small platform. The connection you feel with the underwater environment is also a huge thrill as the underwater inhabitants seem far more accepting of a kayak to the point of being inquisitive, and this allows you to get much closer to your quarry without spooking them.
Unfortunately however, those men in grey suits are also unfazed by you and your alien vessel and I have on more than one occasion, wished I was sitting in the safety of a nice big aluminium tub rather than a little plastic yak. While the adrenalin rush of close encounters with sharks may do it for some, it isn’t for everyone and although they are generally only small reef sharks, spend enough time on a kayak in Northern waters and you are bound to have the odd encounter with larger suits. A shark shield would no doubt come in handy here.
Perhaps the biggest drawcard of the Hobie range of kayaks is theMirage Drivewhich leaves you with both hands free for fishing. The ability to retie leaders and change lures whilst on the move is pretty handy, but being able to continually pepper an area with lures while circumnavigating a large bommie or chasing down a tuna school is revolutionary (to yak fishers anyway), and something that was impossible in a traditional paddle driven kayak. It also provides the angler with some control once a fish is hooked, whether it be to ‘peddle’ a fish out of a snaggy area, or chase down a larger beastie that is motoring for the horizon.
It is important to use a light weight, well balanced outfit, as casting lures from a sitting position with an unbalanced rod and reel can become a pain in the back in short time. I run 20lb braid on my lighter outfit with the drag wound right down as the light kayak already provides enough give to a running fish. I also employ a 40-60lb monofilament wind-on leader of just over 1.5 rod lengths to allow you added control over the fish once it is yak side. Though some may balk at such a heavy leader in such a high visibility environment, I initially ran 30lb but have found that since switching, my lure budget is slowly climbing back into the black.
Whilst I used to carry a tackle shop of weird and wonderful lures, jigs, and soft plastics; I now use Halco Roosta 80’s and Cultiva Savoy Minnow 112F’s almost exclusively. I’m yet to find a fish that won’t have a go at one of these presented the right way and what’s more, a choice of only two lures greatly helps with the decision making. Ideally, you want each lure set up on different outfits so you can quickly change, for example, to the Roosta when something busts up beside you without having to re-tie.
I bear no weight on popper colour other than to aid in lure visibility for the angler, but when it came to the Savoy Minnow I had an affinity for chartreuse and I think the Spango’s have the same attraction; if only the same could be said for my bank manager! After numerous foul hook-ups on the sides and tails of fish, I did wonder if this attraction was just a territorial response towards the similarly coloured intruder and, in an attempt to ward it off, the Spanglies were simply getting too close to the razor sharp Owner trebles. Some Mangrove Jack guru’s swear by using predominantly red lures for the exact same reasons, and while I would say that Lethrinids are nowhere near as territorial as Lutjanids, the idea is not altogether without merit.
A heavier outfit rigged with a large popper usually comes along for the ride as well to do batlle with Giant Trevally or Mackerel but due to the outfit’s weight, it is invariably left in the holder and I take my chances with the lighter gear. As far as essential tools go, a pair of braid scissors and some decent pliers are two must haves, and if you are not too confident at handling lively fish or tailing bigger thugs then boga grips and a pair of gloves would also come in handy. An assortment of metal slices to match any hatch, split rings and a box of decent trebles to redress your lures with after a serious tussle would be the only other addition to my tackle box, oh and a squid jig or two – I’m a sucker for calamari.
Preparation is the key to fishing from a kayak, make sure everything is well organised and accessible and tie on your leaders and lures before hitting the water. If you haven’t already, learn to tie braid to mono connections so you can do away with swivels and reduce the number of knots necessary after a bust off. Once you’ve learnt the knot, practice, practice, practice! Ideally you need to be able to retie a leader and lure in windy conditions, while paddling flat out towards that bustup you have your eyes focussed on. Otherwise, when those rare opportunities arise, you will still be trimming your dags rather than listening to a screaming drag.
Most importantly, crush all your barbs! When bite time comes around and you are catching a fish a cast you will be glad that you do not have to wrestle barbed trebles out of every mouth. Removing lures from large Spanglies whilst sitting down can be tricky at the best of times so if you insist on connecting yourself to both the lure and lively fish all at once, then please, ensure you do it with no barbs! The deal breaker for me however is Longtom, if crushing barbs means I do not have to get too near the business end of these beasties for too long, then I’m a convert!
During the endless pursuit of bigger Spanglies, it is easy to accidentally tick many piscatorial boxes which have thus far eluded you and happen upon hotspots that soon become regular stopovers as you pedal from one area to the next. There are however a few pointers that may help to get you on your way. Firstly, don’t assume that somewhere won’t hold fish; you will be surprised at the quality of fish you can pick up off seemingly barren ground, especially when you are far from any boat ramps. With that in mind, and given that your cruising speed is around 3 knots, there is no reason not to actively cast and retrieve lures off your preferred side as you travel between clusters of bommies. I have picked up my biggest Spanglies and many Golden Trevally blind prospecting like this but remember, I said ‘actively’, leave the trolling for the guys in the powerboats!
I find sandy lagoon areas scattered with large aggregations of coral rich bommies in a water depth of 2 – 4 metres provides the greatest return for Spanglies. If this is nearby a gap in the reef then all the better as the possibility of encountering larger pelagics and demersal beasties is far greater. Whilst very good fish can be found on shallower reef flats on the right tide, these areas are also generally plagued by other species of smaller Lethrinids and Serranids and are therefore best left alone.
Once you have found a good coral stack, positioning is everything. It is no good pedalling straight over the top of a bommie and splashing your lure down all around, unless you enjoy playing with those little fearless Charlie Court Cod. I like to setup to windward of any promising looking bommie so that I will drift past, leaving it two casts off my preferred side. I then work in one cast closer on my second drift before moving around to the other “goofy” side (i.e. working the rod away from your body). By doing this you are ensuring that most hook-ups occur further from danger and there is less chance that you will spook everything in the area, oh and your forearm will thank you for it the next day! Whatever you do, don’t approach a bommie bow on as there is no way to stop a good fish from dragging you towards a snag.
You will find that once near the boat, larger fish have a dizzying tendency to do numerous laps of your kayak or alternatively, they will insist on playing around behind you the whole time, which can be a real pain in the neck. This is easily dealt with by stretching your arms towards the bow, thereby moving the rod forward of the kayaks pivot point. The fish will then have to work hard to spin the whole kayak around rather than lazily doing laps, or, if he decides to sit behind you, you will soon spin around and be back in control.
Whilst the lagoon adjacent to the cape range national park offers champagne fishing for Spanglies, accesses to the north of the national park provide a greater opportunity to mix it with tuna and mackerel close to shore as they are not cordoned off by the fringing reef. VLF and Lighthouse bay are also very productive however access is difficult and once afloat you need to pedal a fair way to get out of the sanctuary zone. The waters off the back of Bundegi reef are also highly underrated and provide a great option close to Exmouth when Huey is blowing from the west. While Spanglies were much harder to find north of the National Park and conditions generally rougher, the reward of larger pelagics and more variety kept me coming back for more.
Shark Mackerel in particular proved to be abundant in the gulf waters and their presence was easily uncovered from a distance by the telltale showering schools of garfish. I found the best tactic was to setup inshore of the bait schools and wait for the Sharkies to chase the garfish towards you. If you can position it right then you are in for a treat as the bait school generally loses cohesion and alters direction as it nears your kayak. This confusion is exactly what the Mackerel were hoping for as within seconds they step up their attack and individual Garfish seemingly explode on the surface. All that is needed then is to slowly bloop a Roosta 80 through the area and wonder why you aren’t using any wire trace. The added bonus of chasing shark mackerel that are actively feeding on bait schools is that all manner of other beasties could pop up at any moment. Spaniards can often be seen launching through the garfish school and occasionally beat the Sharkies to the popper. Trevally and Tuna also show up from time to time, not to mention the odd big cod rising from the depths.
Remember that kayak fishing in Ningaloo is no joke. You are in a seriously unforgiving environment in a seriously small vessel and caution needs to be exercised at all times. Don’t attempt to fish near any breaks (it is not a fun experience), or too deep into any of the passages as you will soon find yourself being sucked out to sea. Always keep one eye on your location at all times as the currents in some areas of the lagoon are extremely strong and you do not want to be pedalling back into it, especially against a stiff breeze. Whilst the heat usually deterred me from donning a PFD, I always had one stored below in case of a sudden weather change along with a few handheld red flares and a personal EPIRB, all of which thankfully never saw the light of day. Lastly, and I know it may sound clichéd, but make sure you carry plenty of water, you will need it.
If you are keen on checking out one of the kayaks in the Hobie range then I strongly recommend you talk to Grant Alderson at Sail Power Marine in Nedlands. He stocks the full range of Hobie kayaks and is more than happy to take you out for a test drive so you can see what all the fuss is about. And if you do make it up to Ningaloo, good luck with the Giant Trevally. I had no problem ticking off the Spaniard and Cobia but I was never in with a chance with the GT’s, despite a few opportunities….