A catch of snapper at Whyalla, Steve Cooper

Whyalla is snapper central for anglers. Every Easter the Australian Snapper Championships are based here and the top ten snapper weighed in are always over 10 kg. As you would expect with a destination where fishing is the major part of tourism, boating facilities are excellent.

Whyalla Marina is a sheltered harbour with a four-lane boat ramp protected from the vagaries of weather by breakwaters. Anglers often fish from the breakwaters and catch snapper, squid, salmon and yellowtail kingfish. A jetty outside the southern end of the harbour is popular with anglers looking for catches of Australian herring (Tommy ruff), garfish, silver or yellowfin whiting, squid and blue swimmer crabs. Wheelchair access to the jetty is available via a concrete path from the carpark. A large fish-cleaning bench is located near the boat ramp.

Most anglers fish from boats and sometimes travel long distances into Spencer Gulf in search of big reds. Many of the reefs are artificial and the Gulf is littered with drops. Some better known marks include the Whyalla Tyre Reef (GPS: S33.05.772, E137.36.349), the Leighton (S33.09.638, E137.38.552) and Marecks (S33.05.697, E137.36.387).

Whyalla isn’t just about snapper. There are a few surprises in store. Even in the marina you can come across sights you will rarely see in the wild. Like the events that unfolded on the first day of my first visit here.

It was about 1.30pm when we returned to the marina. The 20 km or so run to port from the Leighton at 25 knots was quick and relatively comfortable. In the harbour entrance Lawrie slowed the boat and three dolphins, two males and a female, swam alongside. As the boat cruised slowly, the dolphins left the water and hit down with a splash, letting us know they were there. Lawrie tossed a small fish to each of the males, crossed to the starboard side, inserted a Tommy ruff into his mouth – tail first – then leaned over the side of the boat. Right on cue, as if it was rehearsed, the female dolphin rose out of the water, almost kissing Lawrie on the nose to take the fish from his mouth.

South of Whyalla on the Cowell Highway is a small community of fishermen at a place called Murinini, between Plank and Shoalwater points. The seabed off here is littered with drops, and the area produces excellent numbers of  large snapper.

I was fishing out of here one day on a hot bite of snapper when we had an encounter with a great white shark. Fishing nearby in another boat, Jim Harris called: ‘Get your camera ready, there’s a 12-footer cruising around the boat.’ Jim was holding a large snapper head, a fish that probably would have topped 8 kg had it not been bitten clean through just behind the pectoral fin, blood and bone trailing off the lifeless skull. As he talked, Jim pointed at the side of the boat, his arm following the shark as it circled, then vanished into the depths.

We knew that a few great white sharks were about. Some friends had three of them around their boat and one was a big female estimated to be about 6 m long with a bulk comparable to a champion bull. And that was a concern. We were on a good drop and about the last thing you want around the place is Jaws looking for a feed of reds – unless of course you happen to be holding on to a camera!

Jim had no sooner stopped talking when the shark came rushing into the side of our boat and took hold of a snapper of about 9 kg. It was a rare opportunity. Leaning over the side, I started snapping photos – and then realised where I was. At first, the shark had the snapper pushing in towards the side of our boat, then it swung around and started coming towards the fool leaning over the boat with the camera … then the line broke!

For anglers who want to fish these waters and don’t fancy the 60–70 km run from Whyalla, the best bet is the seaside town of Cowell, which sits on the sheltered waters of Franklin Harbour. This  48 sq km natural harbour supports an array of fish including whiting, snapper, snook, Tommy ruff, flathead, garfish and squid. Blue swimmer crabs are also caught night and day in the shallows. Boat- launching facilities are excellent, or alternatively you may prefer to launch your boat at Lucky Bay.

Further south is Arno Bay, another area for jumbo-sized snapper. A small seaport and grain town, Arno Bay is situated between Port Neill and Cowell. During a particularly productive window in 2008, three snapper over 17 kg were caught offshore. In what must be the best snapper double-header ever, two snapper weighing in at  20 kg and 17.6 kg were caught on the same trip in early May. Two weeks later, a third jumbo snapper, this time weighing 18.5 kg, was caught by Colin Tannahill. Colin, who is based in Sydney and works for fishing tackle company Shimano, was fishing about 25 km offshore with local charter boat skipper Grant Fennell. Conditions were rough, with 2 m seas, whitecaps and 20-knot winds. It was late in the afternoon when the garfish bait was taken, and it took 20 mins before Colin saw colour.

‘When I saw the snapper in the water I knew it was huge and it took two of us to lift it onboard because its tail was hanging out of the net,’ Colin recalled. ‘I couldn’t wait to weigh it and I said to the guys: “I am finally going to be a member of the 30-pound club.” But when the scales went past 18 kg I said: “Forget the 30-pound club, I am going into the 40-pound snapper club!”’ The club probably has no more than six members. Colin’s fish was 1.08 m long, 35 cm deep and 24 cm thick.

Colin has been fishing Spencer Gulf for about 10 years, usually off Whyalla. Last December he went to Arno Bay for the first time in company with two Melbourne anglers, Brendan Wing and Warren Carter. In 16 hours on the water using soft plastic lures (Squidgy Flick Baits, Stealth Prawns and Shads) they caught more than 50 snapper of 6–9 kg.

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