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Hunting Elephants in Western Port
  |  First Published: March 2007



When it comes to the weird and unusual in the angling world, elephant fish reign supreme. The elephant fish has everything from a nasty dorsal spine to a trunk-like snout that’s covered with sensory pores. These fish are easy to target and their unusual appearance makes them a popular species for recreational anglers.

Characteristics

When you take a close look at an elephant fish it’s easy to appreciate its fighting characteristics. Firstly, unlike some of its cartilaginous cousins such as gummy or school sharks, elephant fish can’t deliver any real acceleration, even over a short distance. Their tail is not as powerful and is much smaller when compared to the rest of their body. Most of the fish’s propulsion comes from their over-sized pectoral fins, which by comparison are much bigger than the tail fin. Elephant fish aren’t exactly greased lightening over the first 20m, but their large pectoral fins enable them to hold down low in stronger currents when hooked up on lighter gear.

Elephant fish use the sensory pores on their snouts to establish the quality of potential meals. They don’t have the triangular razor sharp teeth of larger sharks, but more rounded teeth similar to molars. These teeth and their lack of speed means that elephant fish are more of a grazer than a predator. They move along the sea floor looking for food and their diet mainly consists of crustations. Actually their diet is very similar to that of a snapper.

When and Where

There is still some mystery about where elephants spend most of their adult life. It’s widely believed that they inhabit southeast Australia’s offshore reefs in depths up to 200m before arriving Western Port in early March each year to spawn. They enter via the eastern entrance and then seem to bunch up in numbers off Rhyll. You’ll often hear about the ‘Elephant Triangle’ when anglers discuss where to catch elephant fish. The Triangle exists between Tortoise Head, Corinella and New Haven and is where most elephant fish are caught each year between March and May. Unlike other Western Port targets like gummy sharks, elephants don’t have a wide distribution. When they’re on the bite, head for the Triangle and you’re likely to run into large numbers of them.

Although elephant fish will be found in huge numbers in this area in March, some common sense still needs to be used when assessing any likely fishing spot. Switched-on anglers often work the edges of the channels and gutters off Rhyll and Tortoise Head.

If you have a look at a naval or a mariner’s map of Western Port, you will see a labyrinth of deep and shallow channels. Due to the often discoloured water in Western Port, particularly in the upper reaches, these channels can be almost impossible to see when navigating. To make things worse, these channels are usually surrounded by very shallow water that can cause you to beach your boat on a run-out tide. If you don’t already have one, buy a GPS chart plotter as it will revolutionise your fishing in Western Port. A GPS chart plotter takes the guesswork out of navigation. If you have a chart plotter with a Western Port C-Map then you can study the contour lines, assess any likely fishing areas and then home in on the best spot.

When it comes to water depth there are no hard and fast rules. Anything from 3-4m upwards can be fished for elephant fish but I usually fish between 8-12m as we target elephants and other species in channel edges. This is one of the best pieces of information for any Western Port newcomer, regardless of their target species. The logic behind it is pretty simple. Under tidal influence, food washes over the shallow water and into the channels. Feeding fish will hang around the channel edge and wait for any food that is carried in with the deeper water. The most productive time to fish will be 2-3 hours around a tide change.

Tackle

I remember reading articles years ago about fishing for elephant fish that said the best gear to use was a snapper outfit with a smaller hook. This is considered overkill now, even for really large elephants. Your standard whiting gear (a 2-4kg, 7’ rod with a 2500 series threadline reel) would be a much better set-up. When it comes to line, braid is the only way to go. With a smaller diameter and less water resistance than mono, braid’s lack of stretch will help set your hook. A breaking strain between 3-6kg will do the job nicely. Attach the braid to a couple of metres of 5kg shock leader (regular main line mono is fine) and then we’re ready to talk terminals.

In Western Port you need to be able to alter sinker weight as the tide strengthens or weakens. Use a paternoster rig with a loop on the bottom to secure the sinkers or fish a running sinker set up with an Ezy-rig. I prefer to use a running sinker on an Ezy-rig and this is the main rig I use in Western Port. Tear drop shaped bomb sinkers are best suited to either of these rigs. They come with a barrel swivel set in the lead so it’s a piece of cake to change sinkers via the clip on the Ezy-rig. When fishing in the area off Rhyll and New Haven, sinker weights can vary between 1oz and 3oz.

Use a small rolling swivel as a stopper for the Ezy-rig and a way to attach your leader. Although elephant fish don’t have sharp teeth, it’s still a good idea to run 60cm of 10kg leader to the hook. When it comes to hooks for Western Port, I always use a Black Magic KL circle hook. Neil Tedesco put me onto these hooks years ago and I haven’t looked back or changed since. They are ideal for Western Port’s fishing and nail the fish in the side of its mouth as it takes off after eating your bait. The trick with circle hooks is to not strike on the fish, but leave the rod in the holder until it really buckles down and it’s obvious a fish is connected to the other end. Normally you would not touch the rod until line starts peeling of the reel when the fish is well and truly hooked. For elephants I normally use the KL in a 3/0 size.

Bait and Berley

Elephant fish are regarded as an easy species to catch due to the numbers around in the Port between March and May, and because they will eat just about anything. Pilchards and other soft oily baits work well but can be limited by their lack of durability. The best baits are fresh squid and pipis. I know that pipis aren’t the toughest of baits but may provide a by-catch of whiting. Oily fish baits like pilchards will not attract whiting. You can use a combination of the two and cover some extra bases in case of finicky feeders. However, if you use a Black Magic KL circle hook or any other circle hook, make sure you don’t bunch the bait up on the hook. That barb needs to be fully exposed and there should be enough room around it so it can hook the fish in the corner of the mouth. When using squid on circle hooks, you only need to put the hook into the bait once and right up near the top. Squid is pretty tough and won’t come off easily so this way of rigging will improve your hook-up rate.

Even though elephants are relatively easy to find and catch, you still need berley. Elephants will respond to berley in a big way and can, at times, be enticed into a real feeding frenzy. The first thing to do when you arrive at a potential fishing location is establish a berley trail. Use a berley bucket, cubing, a scattering of chicken pellets; it does not matter as long as you get the trail started quickly. Normally with the aid of good berley and fishing near the tide change, elephants should start to come on the bite within 20 minutes or so. If there are no reports in 20-30 minutes it’s time to move and start the process again.

GREAT Autumn Option

With the lighter autumn winds it’s a good time for the novice angler to head out into the sometimes more unpredictable waters of Western Port. The month of March in particular is a time that these unusual elephant fish turn up in droves. They offer anglers something that’s easy to catch, pretty good to eat and certainly something different to look at.

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