Mack attack

Al McGlashan | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 6
The Mackerel Islands got their name from the huge number of mackerel that can be found in the area.
The Mackerel Islands are one of the West’s best-kept secrets. Tucked away in the Pilbara region, they’re loaded with line-burning sportsfish … if you can get past the ‘locals’.

There is no sound sweeter than that of a screaming reel, and few make it sing quite as well as a Spanish mackerel. After a two-day trip, I was fishing at the Mackerel Islands in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, located just offshore of Onslow in the northwest of the state. It’s a long way from Sydney … in fact, it’s a long way from anywhere which, to me, made the trip all the more appealing.

Earlier that morning, after a rather big night at Onslow Beach Resort, we had piled into a 24ft centre-console boat and headed out to Thevenard Island. The idea for the trip had come about over a few beers (like so many trips do) at a Compleat Angler conference a few months earlier. Good mates Phil Gee and Brian Marshall, who run the Compleat Angler stores at Rockingham and Nedlands respectively, were talking it up and said we needed to get over there to film the action. As the night wore on we devised an elaborate plan. First, Brian would buy a decent boat and a car to tow it with and get them to Onslow. Then, Phil and I would fly in like royalty with the camera crew. It was a great plan for Phil and I, but I’m pretty sure Brian thought he got the raw end of the prawn.

A few months later, I flew into Onslow with Phil and cameraman extraordinaire Brad to meet up with Brian and his offsider, Tom, who had just towed the boat 1400km up from Perth. After a brief stay at Onslow Beach Resort, we wasted little time in loading the boat and headed for Thevenard Island.

We had barely set a spread of Halco deep divers before the first reel screamed. With a start like this I was on cloud nine but, just as things looked promising, everything suddenly went downhill when sharks joined the party. The hookups were easy, but landing a fish became a real chore. After losing what could have potentially been my biggest mackerel to date to the men in brown coats, we made our way to Thevenard to lick our wounds and restock our fast-disappearing lure supply.

WA’S BEST-KEPT SECRET

The Mackerel Islands are situated west of Onslow, roughly halfway between Exmouth and the remote Monte Bello Islands. The group of 10 islands is just 22km from Onslow, making them easily accessible for adventurous trailerboaters.

The largest island is Thevenard which, despite its remoteness, has a long history as a tourist destination that dates back to the 1960s. Local entrepreneurs Ian Blair and Adrian Day were granted the first lease on the island and set it up as a holiday getaway in the late ‘60s. In the ‘70s, it changed hands and ticked along until the early ‘80s, when the discovery of oil and gas fields lead to the development of the North West Shelf Project. Thirty years on and the oil companies have bailed, leaving the infrastructure behind as a reminder of our insatiable thirst for natural resources. Despite the eyesores, Thevenard Island benefited in some ways from the oil companies and now has ample infrastructure, including a paved runway.

Managed by the lovely Jade and Art Skotniczny, Thevenard Island offers some pretty fancy facilities and a wide range of accommodation to suit most budgets. The pick of the crop are 13 self-contained, air-conditioned beachfront cabins which look out over the emerald-green waters of the Indian Ocean. They vary in size, from romantic twin-share cabins to big ones that can accommodate 10 people. This is where we stayed (no, not the romantic ones) and I have to say there are few things better than enjoying a drink at sunset while cooking the day’s catch on the barbecue in the shaded area out the front, while looking out over the boats moored in the bay.

Alternatively, there is Club Thevenard, a 34-room village built around the pool and entertainment area. An offshoot from the mining industry, it offers single or twin rooms complete with en suite, air-conditioning and all the essentials for up to 50 people. There’s also a well-stocked store that has lots of beer and other essentials … including a whole wall of Halco lures, which are restocked weekly, apparently.

TOO MANY OPTIONS

When it comes to fishing, Thevenard offers a massive variety of species and angling options. Trolling is popular for pelagics such as Spanish mackerel, with marlin, sailfish, cobia, mahi, wahoo and even yellowfin tuna on offer, too. Or, if you want something a bit more active, you can chase the surface-feeding tuna schools. Mack, tuna and longtails are encountered daily and are easily found smashing bait under the bird patches anywhere from right in front of the lodges to miles offshore. It’s an exciting way to fish, and casting a small metal Outcast into the melee draws an instant response.

Then there are the giant trevally (GTs) and queenfish that patrol the shallows around the islands, where working poppers and stick baits can cause some seriously explosive strikes in skinny water. There’s also the insane bottom fishing that gives you the biggest variety and the best fish for eating, where you can catch anything from red emperor and coral trout, to beautiful rankin cod.

As silly as it sounds, the Mackerel Islands simply offer too much choice, making it hard to decide what to do.

At the top of our list was, of course, a mackerel, simply because it would be un-Australian to come to the Mackerel Islands and not catch a mackie. Besides, they are bloody great fun – especially that first screaming run, which can burn the skin off your thumb if you try to stop them.

So, with a big mackie in our sights, we headed out to a spot appropriately called ‘the supermarket’ early the next morning and set our gear. We barely got two Laser Pros in the water before I was on and that pretty much set the tone for the whole morning. Mackerel came thick and fast, to the point that we ran just two lures because the fishing was so hot.

Initially, it was good and we managed to land a few, releasing them quickly, but then the sharks arrived. It was like we had struck the dinner gong – the moment we hooked up, we started with a mack but, try as we might, it always converted to a shark.

It’s so frustrating to hook up with that screaming run then, suddenly, everything goes up a notch before an abrupt stop. The fight goes from erratic, to slow and steady as the taxman waltzes in and takes his cut, which is way more than 10 per cent in the Mackerels.

Despite the sharks making their presence felt, I thought it might be a good idea to run the new Halco Max prototype – it may have been the only prototype at the time, but I figured it needed to get wet. It certainly worked, getting smashed almost instantaneously … but then the sharks came in and I pulled the hooks. Did I learn from that? No, so out it went again and this time it got smashed even harder. I should have known better, but I couldn’t resist and then the inevitable happened. I thought it was hilarious, but the boys at Halco weren’t quite as impressed with my antics …

EXPLOSIVE GT ACTION

Finally, the sharks took their toll on both the mackerel and us, so we headed for the flats in search of queenies and GTs. First stop was one of the uninhabited islands where Brian and Tom had enjoyed some hot fishing the week before, encountering some solid GTs. Any style of fishing where you can see the bite is exciting, but few can beat the explosive surface strike of a GT.

There is something really exciting about casting over the flats in crystal-clear water, only to see those dark shapes materialising out of the depths to explode all over your lures in plain sight. Our boat was a big centre console with heaps of room, so Phil, Tom and I could cast while skipper Brian kept the boat in the strike zone. With a bit of promising bait flicking, it didn’t take long to find the action.

As is so often the case, the first bite came out of the blue. It smashed my Halco Roosta popper and I clean missed the hook-up. Then, to make matters worse, Phil cast straight over the top and scored. To be honest, I think I enjoy the bite more than the fight, so I wasn’t too stressed about missing the first fish … well, I wasn’t until the camera crew reminded me that I was actually the host of a fishing show.

Phil made no mistakes with his fish and as he fought it to the boat the whole school followed. There must have been hundreds of them turning the water black, but do you think I could catch one? Nope. That didn’t stop Tom, though, who snuck in a sneaky cast off the bow and hooked up as well, resulting in more comments from my amused camera crew.

KILLER QUEENS

North of Thevenard Island is Rosily Shoal, a small cay that rises up out of the deep water. It’s one of those fishy spots with steep drop offs as well as large shallow banks, where you can pretty much catch anything, and is famous for its resident queenies. Finding them is easy – just cast any popper or metal over the sand and instantly the water will come alive.

Queenies might not have the size and ferocity of a GT, but they more than make up for it with bravado. They are great fun on light tackle, jumping and cavorting all over the place like mad, and the more you catch them, the more the school fires up.

With the queenies in a frenzy, it was literally a fish per cast. I was just starting to think we were in for a hot little session when the party was crashed again. Without warning, sharks arrived and suddenly any fish we hooked went into overdrive, launching out of the water with the brown coats hot on their heels. While I wasn’t overly impressed with the gate-crashers, it was spectacular to watch and the camera crew loved the action they were getting.

TO THE BOTTOM

As exciting as the sportsfishing options are, many locals love fishing the bottom. Generally, I’m not a huge fan of bottom bashing, but the variety of species is just so broad that it’s like a lucky dip – you never know what you’re going to hook next. Highly prized red emperor, coral trout and rankin cod, as well as cobia, red-throat emperor and dirty big cod are just some of the species on the cards.

Midway through the trip, we fished some of the inshore spots, but found the sharks were an issue, so we worked our way out into the 70m line. The fishfinder was showing a bit of reef and bait, however the first couple of drifts were slow, resulting in some small emperor. And then Tom came up trumps – sneaking up to the bow on his own, he hooked up solid and boated the biggest saddletail snapper of the trip.

Phil was next, hooking into what looked like another solid saddletail, but somehow converting it into a shark … which then kept him occupied for the next 20 minutes. This set the precedent for poor old Phil, who became the shark magnet. Mind you, no one else was complaining because, like all good boats, there has to be a sacrificial anode!

With Phil out of the picture keeping the sharks entertained, I showed my prowess as the best gold-spotted trevally angler in the west – the little buggers just wouldn’t leave me alone. Tom, on the other hand, was the quiet achiever and followed up with a few more saddletail and topped it off with a solid cobia.

ISLANDS OF PLENTY

The great thing about the Mackerel Islands is that you don’t even need a boat to get into the action. Sure, there’s a charter boat and the majority of visitors (like us) bring their own vessel, which is what the islands largely cater to, but the shore-based fishing is also impressive and very popular. Walking the beach while flicking small metals out on light spin gear is surprisingly productive for the likes of golden trevally and dart. Having said that, though, the freedom of having your own boat really does open up the options. Mackerelislands.com.au


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