Night of the big reds

Andrew ‘ET’ Ettingshausen | VOLUME 22, ISSUE 2

Melbourne boat ramps overflow each November as thousands of anglers wet their lines in search of the ultimate snapper.

Just about every weekend around Australia, anglers battle it out in fishing competitions, going head-to-head for prizes and status. They are intended as fun activities and bring groups of friends together, which is more than evident in the Tea Tree Snapper tournament held on Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay and neighbouring Western Port early each November. Actually, to give it its proper name, it’s the Mornington Peninsular Tea Tree Snapper Fishing Competition and it has been hosted for the past 23 years by Melbourne’s Snapper Point Angling Club.

Not surprisingly, snapper are the major prize and number one target species on both bays. Each November, thousands of snapper swarm in to breed and feed before returning to the sea. It is a time when anglers in their thousands head to the boat ramps with their boats full of tackle and bait. Rods are already rigged, and anticipation is pumping through their veins as the outboard kicks over and they head for their favourite spots.

When the snapper are on, word quickly gets around. Tackle stores are jam-packed with fishos keen to stock up on sinkers, hooks, line and all the other odd bits that always seem to find a place in the tackle box. The snapper are on, so there’s no time to waste. A check over the gear, a sleepless night, and you’re away to that secret spot. Just in case, you have your mate, George’s father’s special marks, and Bob’s mate, Jimmy’s spot, which absolutely never fails. You have the secret baits, too, so it’s now simply a matter of boating that huge, competition-winning snapper.

The Tea Tree Snapper Competition is a real family affair. It’s actually more like a regional show, with a total of 2256 competing anglers this year and many more than that back at the trophy presentation. With crowds of that size you can imagine that the organisation would be a nightmare, but the management team, led by Rien Bleumink, take it all in their stride and leave no stone unturned. To accommodate the growth of this huge event, the grounds of the Mornington Racecourse are needed for all the people, cars, boats and the prize-packed stage. It is truly a great couple of days of amateur fishing and family fun on the water.

My trip in November saw me team up with Club Marine editor, Chris Beattie. A couple of days earlier, Chris had scouted out the territory with a morning on the water with angling guru, Alistair McGlashan. Alistair is a virtual human FAD (Fish Aggregation Device), according to Chris, and he was soon hauling in more snapper than he’d caught in many previously fruitless years spent targeting Port Phillip reds. The weather forecast looked good, as did the fish reports and, with Chris having already bagged a few, the omens looked to be in our favour. Or so we thought.

Our competition began with an informal social get-together with Rien and tournament organisers, during which we got some insight into what it takes to put together such a big event using pretty much only volunteer help. All I can say is rest assured that Rien and his crew burn plenty of midnight oil ensuring everything is in preparation for one of Australia’s most successful fishing competitions.

The tournament actually kicks off on the Friday afternoon, with the start of fishing at 4pm. Boat ramps are packed to capacity from early in the day around both bays as anglers aim to be in the water and catch some fresh bait before the start. Weigh-in runs from 11am to 3pm the following day, so the serious competitors are set up to spend all of Friday night on the water and, from what we saw, it seemed that just about all of them – us included – did. It really was quite a sight to look out over the Bay after sunset and see almost as many lights twinkling on the water as there were overhead.

We had plenty of marks where we were told the snapper were being caught and our Shimano tackle was rigged and sitting nicely in our Haines Hunter 600 Classic. I have fished Port Phillip Bay a number of times and while I have caught the odd snapper, I hadn’t had the kind of dynamite session I’d heard others talk about.

After arriving at our first mark in time for the four o’clock start, the Lowrance sounder was showing patches of quality fish scattered in 18 metres of water. With boats sounding around for as far as the eye could see, my line went tight and the telltale head shakes and explosive run of a decent snapper had my heart pounding. Halfway through the fight, the line went slack before again tearing off at an even greater pace. I knew something was wrong and when a very large fur seal appeared behind the boat I realised it was curtains for my catch. The seal happily tossed the snapper in the air and continued to smile at the two of us as it devoured my prize fish right behind the boat.

Our luck didn’t improve much as it seemed the Fishing Gods cast their favours elsewhere this time around, and while we stayed out for most of the comp, moving from spot-to-spot, we were never really a threat to the other anglers. That’s not to say we didn’t catch a good haul of fish, it’s just that there were a lot better fish caught.

In fact, I was completely blown away by the hauls of good-sized snapper hooked over the course of the comp by just about everyone. The official count of snapper must have pushed the thousand fish mark. The tournament only accepts snapper over 38cm, which is well over the State’s regular size limit so it was an amazing session with lots of happy anglers. Happily, catch-and-release was a common practice, with many anglers releasing fish, keeping only those they thought would put them in with a chance at the weigh-in.

Rien said that the tournament results definitely bore out the sentiment from many keen anglers that Melbourne’s snapper fishery is in the best shape it’s been in years.

“There’s no doubt that, based on the overall size and quantity of fish caught, the fishery has never been in better condition,” he said.

“We had plenty of entrants reporting bringing 25-30 fish to the back of the boat, with most being released, so we’re hopeful that the fishing will continue to improve for the future.”

The presentation at the Mornington Racecourse was abuzz with excitement. There was a real festive feel in the air as the big crowd gathered, with anglers lining up with their fish boxes, some with very impressively big fish inside.

The queues were long, but families were happy to show off their catch and share stories of their time spent on the water. Tactics were compared, hot spots shared and, no doubt, many laughs were had at other people’s expense. It’s amazing what things can go wrong and how easy it is to lose that ‘big’ fish. There were plenty of stories about the one that got away.

Tall stories and fishermen seem to go together. So believe me when I tell you that the biggest snapper I have ever seen in my life, which was easily as tall as me and would have walked away with the biggest fish trophy, no contest was, unfortunately, eaten by a seal. Some fishermen have all the bad luck…

Special thanks to the Mornington Yacht Club for their help and cooperation during our two days fishing the Tea Tree tournament.


Random Capture Prize (JV Marine Quintrex 4.2 metre Estuary Angler Deluxe, fitted with a 30hp Yamaha motor, Lowrance X52 sounder, trailer and Ace All Covers canopy.) Gabriele Alonzo.

Open Heaviest Fish (and New Victorian Snapper Champion)

Robert Lewin – 8.14 kg.

Heaviest Fish Junior: Alisha Dickinson

– 6.11 kg.

Winner Catch and Release: Joe Nikodemski.

Total number of competitors: 2256, including 237 Juniors.

Total number of boats: 909.

Total fish processed: 2957.

For tournament information, go to: