The Point Lowly lighthouse marks the southern extremity of Fitzgerald Bay. Near the lighthouse is a small community of shacks. These lighthouse cottages are cared for by the Uniting Church, and are available for hire. It is about a 20 km run by boat from Whyalla so consider launching in the small harbour that fronts Fitzgerald Bay.
Less than a kilometre off the point, the seabed is marked by gutters, sculpted into wavelike shapes by a strong current known locally as the Lowly Rip. Water depth ranges from about 15 m close to shore to 25 m about 100 m out. Because the tide flow is strong, the best time to fish this water is when Spencer Gulf is experiencing its minimal tidal flow each month, an extreme neap tide called a ‘dodge’.
I went fishing on the dodge tide, barely a kilometre north of the lighthouse in Spencer Gulf. The sea was calm and it was an hour after sunrise. Our boat, a 7 m Nereus run by K&R Fishing Charters, circled slowly as skipper Lawrie Birdseye watched his two sounders, searching for gutters likely to hold big snapper.
This was my second trip to Spencer Gulf in four weeks. On my previous visit, I fished with Jim Harris, who was also on board this day. Previously we accounted for plenty of snapper up to 7 kg, but nothing in the XXOS class we really wanted.
On this trip, we had left a drop on the Mud Banks, 15 km to the north- west, after being harassed by a legion of snapper that barely made the SA legal limit of 38 cm. The day before, Lawrie and I fished several drops beginning about 40 km south of Whyalla, and again most of the snapper had been small except for one serious fish of about 10 kg.
Jim normally fishes the Lowly Rip on the drift, but current was minimal because of the extreme neap tide and Lawrie decided to drop the anchor down the 25 m. Our skipper was still organising the berley when Jim brought the first snapper onboard, a 40 cm fish.
It took another hour before the first serious snapper came aboard. Jim decided that the only way to get past the pickers was to use big baits. He cubed a salmon of about a kilogram into three baits about 7 cm long and 5 cm in diameter. We used 170 g snapper leads in the (still) strong current with running paternoster rigs. Leaders were 24 kg breaking strain and the hooks were size 4/0 Suicides.
Jim dropped his bait to the bottom and proceeded to feed out line, reasoning that somewhere behind the schools of small snapper were some big cobs laying in wait. In one hard-hitting chomp, the salmon was gone; Jim set the hooks, his rod doubled over, and the drag whined as line poured out through the guides. Things were looking up. The tail thumping transmitting through the gelspun braid to the rod tip told the story as the big fish hung deep, using its deep flank to hold in the current and take line.
Well away to our south, there was a huge steam cloud rising from the Whyalla steelworks. Like the molten metal coming from the blast furnace, Jim’s fish poured out of the green abyss, the sun’s rays reflecting on the snapper’s deep flanks just below the surface, turning them the colour of molten steel.
Eleven kilograms of prime snapper were still kicking on the floor when my rod took off. Following Jim’s lead, I was also using big bait – a cube of snook about 15 cm long. It was smaller in diameter than the salmon, and I reasoned it was probably better suited to 4/0 hooks. A few minutes later there was colour, Lawrie produced the net and a 12 kg snapper was landed.
Rob North owns the charter boat and we had prearranged to pick him up at the Point Lowly Marina. By the time we had to pick him up, we had caught more than half a dozen snapper in excess of 10 kg and, while it can be hard to leave a solid bite, a deal is a deal. But in the 30 mins that it took to pick Rob up and return, nothing changed. He caught the next fish, about 11.5 kg within 20 mins of our putting the baits back out. By the end of the session, everyone had caught big snapper, 14 in all, ranging from about 10 to 15 kg.
The southern side of Point Lowly is the northern end of False Bay. I fished here with Lawrie, chasing cuttlefish for bait. Anglers who are serious about their fishing always take the time and trouble to source their own bait. Same day fresh bait should always be your first choice.
As Lawrie moved the boat in close to the rocky point that is Point Lowly, the water was calm but not as clear as I have seen it on other trips. Allowing for tide and wind, Lawrie positioned the 7 m Nerius close to the shore and we began the drift.
False Bay is a declared marine park for giant Australian cuttlefish – the largest known spawning aggregation of the giant Australian cuttlefish – and we were just outside the northern boundary. The SA Government imposed the cuttlefish protection zone to safeguard these creatures from the ravages of commercial and amateur fishers. It’s easy to see why – even outside the park boundaries the cuttlefish are numerous, hungry and eager to attack jigs.
An estimated 41 000 cuttlefish migrate to the bay every year to spawn, with the breeding season running from March through to September.
As soon as we began drifting we put squid jigs out and allowed them to sink. Below us, in water just 1–2 m deep, the seabed was dotted with boulders. When the water is clear, you can drift over these shallow rock areas and spot cuttlefish lying between the small boulders. As soon as this happens, toss a jig out and work it across the cuttlefish’s line of vision. Like any form of sight fishing, the method is fascinating. There are few experiences in angling that get the juices flowing as well as being able to see your intended catch before you offer a lure or bait.
Lawrie, a former commercial fisherman, said that in the days when commercial operators worked False Bay, they employed the same methods and caught these creatures by the tonne: ‘We used to wear wet weather gear and would still go home smelly and covered in black ink,’ he recalled.
These creatures are the largest cuttlefish species in the world, and have a maximum-recorded body length (excluding head and tentacles) of 52 cm and a weight of more than 6 kg.
The ones we caught this day were mainly smaller specimens that Lawrie said were females.
Unlike squid, cuttlefish are pretty, changing colours to suit their environment and they seem to glow when hooked. As they rise to the surface, their body shape looks like a cross between squid and an octopus. Like squid, the cuttlefish are allowed to expel their ink before being lifted inboard. In less than an hour, we had enough for several days’ solid snapper fishing.