I watched the sun as it slowly rose, igniting the sky in beautiful crimson red. There is something very special about sunrises. I admit I hate getting out of bed in the dark, but when I’m on the water the effort always seems worthwhile. Sure enough, on my latest outing I wasn’t disappointed: we had barely set the rods before they started buckling over.
It was like someone had flicked a switch; suddenly, as the sun poked its head over the horizon, the action went ballistic. This is normally a welcome situation for most anglers, but we had a camera crew aboard; instead of lunging for the rods, we had to wait while they dealt with an audio issue. Everyone says I have the best job in the world, but watching those rods load up and not being able to do anything about it was angling agony of the highest order!
Suddenly we got the go-ahead from Tristan, the producer of our show, Big Fish Small Boats, and I just about fell over myself as I clambered forward to grab the nearest rod. This was the start of a hot little session in which we hooked countless snapper from 3-5.5kg for almost two hours without a break. There simply wasn’t a second’s rest; at times three or four rods were going off simultaneously.
This really was snapper fishing at its finest, but what makes it all the more impressive was that we were in the centre of Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay, and not at some remote location. When the dust finally settled, we tallied something like 30-odd fish. We promptly released each fish to fight another day, keeping just a couple for the table that night.
I’ve had a soft spot for Port Phillip Bay ever since I started my career as a fishing journalist more than 20 years ago. I kicked everything off with a flathead on a handline in the bay, but I’ve seen the bay change dramatically in the years since. Back when I started my search for bay snapper, the scene was nothing like it is now.
In the early days, commercial scallop boats dredged the bay to the point that it was a virtual marine desert. Dragging two tonnes of steel across the seabed could only have dire effects for the environment and the marine life it supports and in the case of the bay, the snapper all but vanished.
Then, in 1996, the Victorian government finally relented to pressure from recreational anglers and banned the devastating scallop dredging – and the snapper fishing has continued to improve to the record levels we see today.
Sitting here now, hooking snapper after snapper, I couldn’t help but think of how we were surrounded by suburbia – even Melbourne’s city skyline was clearly visible. In this day and age we seem to be constantly bombarded with doom and gloom about the future of our oceans. Yet here we were right in the centre of suburbia enjoying world-class snapper fishing!
Port Phillip Bay is a massive expanse of water covering close to 2000sqkm, but what makes it unique is that it is mostly fairly shallow and, with a tiny entrance to the ocean, it enjoys minimal tidal flow.
The annual snapper run, which usually kicks off in October, now runs all the way through to late May. Fish pour into the bay, the peak period usually in late October through to November, with a second run in March. However, every season the fishing seems to get better and last year, for the first time in living memory, big snapper were still being caught in deep water right through winter. It was like the snapper never stopped running.
An average fish is now a respectable 2-4kg, with a heap of 7kg-plus fish also present in good numbers. Unlike South Australia, where fish over 10kg are not uncommon, in Port Phillip Bay fish over 9kg are rare, but 5kg fish are extremely common.
As the fishing has improved, so has its popularity and now on a calm Sunday there are thousands of boats on the water.
It really is a spectacular sight to look out over the bay and see boats in such numbers stretching right to the horizon. One of the prime launching points is on the bay’s eastern side at Carrum, where Trevor Hogan and his team run Launching Way, a one-stop fishing shop at the entrance to the busiest boat ramp in the state. They also manage the ramp and ensure everything runs smoothly. On a good day the ramp is operating around the clock, with as many as a thousand boats launching in a 24-hour period.
Port Phillip Bay may be a massive expanse, but finding the fish is now relatively easy thanks to technology. The whole bay is basically flat as a pancake and this makes it perfect for locating snapper with a decent sounder. Snapper show up well thanks to their oversized air bladders, making them relatively easy to find.
For those who are still learning to mark snapper on the sounder, the key is to turn off the Auto modes and manually vary the gain control to give the best possible picture with the most detail and the least interference. On cheaper sounders the fish will show up as an arch, but on decent colour units they will appear as a red mark, usually just above the bottom. Just remember, while the snapper may be thick, not everything that appears on your screen will be a big red – bait schools and even stingrays will mark up, too. The trick is to look for the clearly defined shapes with sharp edges; every time you catch fish off a mark pay close attention to how the snapper appeared on the screen.
In the last few years developments in tackle have been amazing; now we are fishing with tackle that is much lighter and more sporting. As a kid I used to fish 6500-size reels loaded with 10 and even 15kg line, all on heavy Ugly Stik-style rods. Now I find I’m fishing with 4kg graphite spin rods and 3000-size reels that, in all honesty, would seem better suited to bream.
Unlike in NSW, where snapper regularly bury you into the reef, in Port Phillip there is no structure on which the fish can destroy you, so you can fish really light and have a lot of fun. Catching a 5kg fish on light gear can take several entertaining minutes and can be really exciting compared to the old days of ‘skull-dragging’ fish to the boat.
With lighter outfits comes more finesse, while fine-gauge hooks are also essential to maximise hook-up rates. Circle hooks are the only way to go these days and they work a treat, pinning the fish in the jaw hinge nearly every time. J hooks need to be driven home – difficult on light tackle – but circles hook themselves.
With almost no tidal flow throughout much of the bay it is possible to run multiple rods, which you cast out in a fan around the boat. Remember, the snapper are grazing a bit like cattle, so the more you spread out your baits, the better your chances.
Snapper are not normally fussy feeders, but in Port Phillip Bay they are subject to intense fishing pressure, so they quickly smarten up. Therefore it’s important to make your offering stand out from the crowd. As a result, I have converted almost exclusively to fluorocarbon leaders these days. Not only is it less visible to fish, but it’s also stronger and more resistant to abrasion. Since I’m now using circle hooks, I have also found I can drop down in leader size and fish on line as light 20lb – and I definitely get more bites.
Fresh bait is always the best policy and these days sand whiting, scad, WA pilchards and squid are easily obtainable from tackle outlets. But the best bet is to catch your baits on the grounds; species like yakkas, garfish and squid are usually readily available so you can bait-up once you’re out on the water. A size 12 hook drifted out the back under a float will quickly attract the attention of garfish or a bait jig down deep will produce yakkas. A still-kicking bait sinking slowly through the water column is like ringing the dinner gong for snapper.
Given the minimal tidal influence, a single circle hook on a 40-50cm fluorocarbon leader is the go, with a small Halco swivel linking it to the main line. To keep the bait on the bottom, I use a small sliding ball sinker above the swivel.
There are few other places in Australia that offer such impressive snapper fishing within sight of the city. However, as anglers we still need to look after this fishery to ensure it continues to improve. We need to think less about catching bag limits all the time and really start pushing towards releasing the bigger fish. It’s funny – not many anglers would kill a big flathead these days, but a big snapper will go straight on ice.
Don’t get me wrong, I love eating snapper, but I’m just as happy to see a big fish swim off so they can turn up on the sounder another day.
In the meantime, I hope we can all can enjoy this great fishery as it continues to recover and improve.
Note: Re-runs of Al McGlashan’s first season of Big Fish Small Boats can be seen on the free-to-air Channel One. Season two is planned to go to air early in the second half of the year. Check out Club Marine Premium at www.clubmarine.com.au/premium for great footage of Al’s snapper fishing exploits on Port Phillip Bay. ¿