Bass Strait blues

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 4
Anglers travel from far and wide to take on Portland’s bluefins.
Large southern bluefin tuna lure sport fishers from around Australia to Portland each year.

“Chris, mate, have you seen the weather? It’s not lookin’ good,” bemoaned Mario Aquilina. “Might have to wait another few days ‘til the weather turns.”

Mario and I had been attempting a trip to Portland to chase the south-western Victorian town’s legendary southern bluefin tuna for around four weeks, but the Bureau of Meteorology seemed intent on confounding our efforts at every turn.

Mario’s 760R Limited Edition Haines Hunter was positively bristling with heavy duty weaponry ready to tackle the mightiest ‘barrel’ bluefin and the American Special Vehicles RAM truck folks had even joined our quest with the offer of a new 2500 Heavy Duty Laramie crew cab as a tow vehicle. All we needed was a little cooperation from the BOM, but for weeks on end all they gave us was chilling Antarctic blizzards and howling, gale-force winds.

Throughout late June and into mid-July the skies remained bleak and the trees bent as the wind continued to wreak its havoc on the Victorian coastline.

A kind of despairing cabin fever set in, not helped by news that others who had ventured out during a brief respite in the weather had hauled in a torpedo of a 164kg tuna right where we were aiming to troll our yet-to-be-tried lures.

But finally, on the cusp of the deadline for this edition, the weather lifted long enough to give us a two-day window of hope.

BRING YOUR WOOLIES

“Mate, tomorrow morning at my place. We’re doin’ it. Bring your woolies and wet weather gear,” was all I needed to hear from Mario to pack my bags.

So there we were, with mate Dave Camilleri in tow, a seven-tonne, eight-wheel convoy rolling down the Princes Freeway from Melbourne on a still-gloomy and overcast Thursday.

Word from Portland was that the next couple of days would see the seas calm enough to launch the big Haines Hunter and get the lures wet.

At least we knew we had picked a worthy companion for the trip in the form of the big RAM. Not only did it look the part, riding high and wide on the highway, and pushing a wall of chrome across its bow, it hardly seemed to notice the four-tonne load attached to the rear tow hitch. The Haines Hunter 760R is actually a little over 8m of boat and even on steep hills, and with the cruise control set on 95km/h, the RAM barely raised a sweat, only bothering to change down once climbing a steeper gradient.

It was also extremely comfortable, with wide, supportive seats in the front and plenty of room in the rear, with storage under the rear seats too.

A leisurely four hours later we were pulling into the Allestree Holiday Units, right on the foreshore at Portland overlooking a surprisingly calm and benign looking Portland Harbour. Manager Jenny Klingberg was ready and waiting with a couple of spacious and well-heated units and after parking the boat, we ventured a couple of minutes up the road into town to catch up with Chris Hall and the crew at Portland Bait and Tackle.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

Also waiting for us was local expert on all things piscatorial, Bob McPherson. Bob would be joining us on the water for the next couple of days and his advice and experience would prove invaluable as we set forth in search of the majestic migrating southern bluefin tuna.

Bob explained that Portland had become a gamefishing Mecca only relatively recently following the discovery of a couple of close to 100kg southern bluefin tuna near the Continental Shelf in 2006.

“They used to catch plenty of tuna up to 20kg offshore, but then one bloke was out near the Shelf fishing for blue eye, when he saw some big ‘barrel’ southern blues in the water around his boat,” explained Bob.

“He threw a lure at them and hauled in an 86kg fish and that was the start of it. Before we knew it, word spread through the media and we had around 70 big fish weighed that year. It’s just grown from there.”

It’s now not unusual to see fish brought to the ramp weighing in excess of 150kg, with the record so far being a monster barrel of 176kg caught a little west of Portland last year.

“Now we have thousands of people coming down here during the season, which stretches from March through to August, although it’s been getting a bit longer lately.”

Apart from the big tuna, Bob explained that there were plenty of other fishing options in local waters.

“We’ve got everything here,” he said. “There are snapper, whiting, big flathead, albacore, bluefin and kingfish in the bays and out wide you’ve got all kinds of sharks, blues, threshers and makos, plus blue eye, and ling.

“It really is a world class fishery and I reckon it’s still one of Victoria’s best kept secrets.”

Day one ended in comfort and style with dinner at Edwards Waterfront Restaurant and Café. Apart from the great view overlooking the harbour, the bonus was a mouth-watering selection of desserts that tantalised the taste buds at the expense of the waistline.

OMINOUS SKY

As we rounded the corner from Portland Harbour under an ominous, darkening sky the south-westerly swell and north-westerly 10knot winds combined to give us a bumpy welcome. Today there would be very few boats on the water looking for bluefin, so we at least had the consolation of knowing that we would have Bridgewater Bay pretty much to ourselves. And for good reason. Four-to-five metre cresting seas, with an occasional six metre peak, meant that we were in for some punishment.

But at least the crew was ready for it. Mario and Dave had been out in worse seas, and with around 35 years of offshore fishing in the area, Bob McPherson simply took it in his stride, as did our sturdy mount.

With a brace of bibbed lures soon in the water, it became obvious that we were amongst fish. The Furuno sounder was full of large clumps of bait fish in about 40m and the local gannets were onto it, bigtime. There’s nothing like being out on the water with a boatful of large game reels and being surrounded by flocks of diving birds. The feathered missiles were hitting the water all around us, while the local seals soon got in on the action. We were only a couple of hundred metres offshore, just off Cape Bridgewater. Behind us the seas were exploding against the cliffs, making our ride even bumpier as the waves ricocheted back into the swells.

When the reel went off it was all hands on deck. Bob was onto it. With the scream from the big Tiagra reel confirming we had hooked something serious, Bob grabbed the rod and after seeing a few hundred metres of 37kg monofilament leave the spool, he was in no doubt.

“It’s a bloody big barrel, for sure!” he yelled as the rest of us wound in the remaining rods and cleared the cockpit.

As Bob wrestled back a few metres here and there, whatever was on the end of the line seemed to have taken a liking for Tasmania and was headed south in a hurry.

As Bob wound furiously, Dave was at the wheel positioning the boat, juggling the waves and the direction of the line as well as he could.

It looked like we were in for a serious fight, until …

“I think it’s gone,” said an obviously deflated Bob. “He’s spat the hook, I reckon.”

That was the last action we would see on day one as we spent the following few minutes winding in around 500m of line. With the birds and seals seemingly mocking us, we spent another hour or so pulling the lures through bait-rich water, but to no avail.

A great meal at the historic Mac’s Hotel rounded out the day. Built in 1855, the hotel underwent a renovation a few years back, but still retains its period look and feel, particular in the two upper stories where the authenticity and classic look and feel of the guest rooms has been retained.

The hotel boasts great views across the marina and harbour and is obviously a popular spot judging by the full dining room during our visit. Based on my experience, I’d highly recommend Mac’s for both accommodation, dining and its friendly atmosphere.

OFF THE SHELF

The plan for day two, as drawn up by Bob, involved heading south-west out past the Continental Shelf, a journey of about 55km and around an hour-anda-half battling snarly seas that threw 3-4m swells at us head-on. But the 760R took it all in its stride and with Mario’s experienced and steady hand at the helm, we still averaged around 35km/h for much of the trip out.

Once we’d reached the 470m mark, it was time to plug in the electric reels, which were each loaded with more than a kilometre of 80kg braid. Mario’s was a compact Daiwa unit, while Bob came armed with an industrial-strength Italian Kristal reel.

For the next couple of hours we battled angry seas as we sent multiple-hook rigs to the bottom, dragged down by grenade-shaped 2kg sinkers. Each rig was also equipped with compact flashing lights to help attract fish in the darkness below. Bait was a mix of pillies and squid and drops took around five minutes each as close to half a kilometre of line wound its way to the bottom.

The tactics involved driving a couple of hundred metres upwind of the mark then dropping the rigs and drifting back over the hotspot.

With a strong current and wind pushing us at around 5kt, we had the engines in reverse to try and slow things down to a more manageable two or so knots.

Within a couple of minutes of the two lines hitting the bottom, there were signs of interest from below, with both tips giving the characteristic rhythmic nod of blue eye trevalla, a delicacy according to those in the know.

Bob’s luck from the previous day continued though, and with the reel whirring away on the retrieve, the rod suddenly straightened. Somehow the braid had parted a couple of hundred metres above the leader, and the rig returned to the depths with what he felt were a couple of decent fish still attached.

DEEP BLUE

Meanwhile, Mario’s Daiwa was hauling its own load to the surface and after a few minutes we had around 7kg of blue eye aboard. We persevered with a few more runs and apart from a couple of bust-offs that was the extent of the fishing action for the day.

With conditions worsening, we decided to head for home. Unfortunately, the wind had turned around to the north so we battled another head sea on the way back in.

The ride in was a bit rocky, but never, ever threatening. Faced with 3-4m confused seas, we held an average speed of around 35km/h in the big Haines Hunter, sometimes peaking at around 45km/h, with only the occasional solid smack coming off the larger waves.

After an hour and a half thumping back to the ramp we arrived to a minor commotion at the cleaning table, where Robbie Adamo and Amy Jobson, both from Melbourne, were just finishing chopping up some bluefin steaks from the 150.8kg barrel they’d caught an hour earlier in Bridgewater Bay, pretty much where we’d been trolling the day before.

“Had it to the boat in 15 minutes,” said an enthusiastic Robbie. “We were using 130-pound line and just cranked the drag up and had it in in no time.”

Coincidentally, Amy is the womens world record holder for her capture of a 124.8kg southern bluefin tuna on 24kg line off Port MacDonnell, just a few km west in South Australia in 2015.

I’d come away from my first experience of the Portland tuna fishery unfortunately empty-handed, but as with all trips involving boats and fishing, I’d learned a bunch and had a yarn or two to stash in the tacklebox.

This season looks like being another bumper for bluefin boffins, with the bigger barrels tending to sneak in closer to the coast. While the deadline intervened to prevent a longer stay in the southern tuna hotspot, I have no doubt I’ll be back to have another crack in the near future.

Options galore

Situated on Victoria’s south-west coast three-and-a-half hours by road from Melbourne, Portland is a town rich in seafaring and whaling history. The township sits on a bluff overlooking Portland Harbour to the east and Bridgewater Bay to the west.

Architecture is a mix of Victorian-style buildings and more modern influences.

Its population of 9000 relies on a mix of heavy industry, commercial fishing, tourism and rural industry for its livelihood.

The only deep water port between Melbourne and Adelaide, most of the heavy shipping occupying its docks is engaged in transporting wood chips from surrounding forestry and aluminium from the town’s giant Alcoa smelter.

There is also a local industry manufacturing and installing wind generators, which can be seen spinning their huge propellers on the hills overlooking the coast.

Visiting boaties keen on accessing the area’s fishery are well catered for. When word of the annual southern bluefin migration first spread around 10 years ago, it soon became obvious that the town’s infrastructure would struggle to cope, particularly its boat launching facilities.

At times in the early days of the bluefin run, queues would stretch for kilometres from the harbour’s single boat ramp, with wait times up to three hours or more on long weekends.

Lobbying by locals saw a major $12m upgrade to the ramp and parking area two years ago, including a new 70-berth marina adjacent to the ramp.

Tourism figures now put the value of the recreational fishing sector at more than $14m annually.

Accommodation options run from simple cabins and caravan parks, through to conventional motels, B&Bs and some of the older hotels in town. There are also plenty of dining options, from pizzas to ala carte and everything in between.

Anyone wanting a break from fishing has plenty of options available, from whale watching to nature walks and historic tours and museums.

Chris Hall, of Portland Bait and Tackle, says the town was caught by surprise when the first big fish turned up in 2006.

“Suddenly we had all these people coming to town and wanting to buy tuna gear and big reels and rods, but no one had any to sell them,” he recalls. “I remember Shimano was flying stuff in to cope. Now we’ve got all the right gear, including the reels and lures to cater for demand.”

Local fishing identity, Bob McPherson worries that some visiting anglers may be taking advantage of the fishery to feed a growing black market in Melbourne.

“I know of one guy who took 57 big fish last year and they’re getting up to $86 per kg for fish up to 150kg from the restaurants in Melbourne,” he says.

Hall agrees, adding that the recreational fishery needs to be more closely managed.

“We see groups of people coming down from Melbourne now and going out on the charter boats to get tuna, and we know that they’re taking their fish home and selling them.

“The Fisheries people really need to do something about it,” he says. “They should bring in a bag limit or maybe have quotas and establish a season to control the numbers of fish taken.”

Hall says last year’s season saw 327 big tuna weighed at the dock and this season looks like providing another good run.

No one knows for sure where the bluefin originate, but the migration runs west to east, across the Great Australian Bight, around the bottom of Tasmania and up the east coast. McPherson thinks some may come from as far as Africa, while there is evidence that Pacific bluefin even make their way across from South America.

Hall says there is also evidence that the bluefin spawn in the tropical waters of Java before embarking on their migration.

Initially the run was believed to last from from March to late July, but Hall says that’s starting to change.

“It’s starting to stretch now and we’re seeing the season lengthen. Last year we had fish right through the year, with school bluefin hanging around near the shore and being caught by guys who were going after kingfish.”

For more information, go to: visitportland.com.au or call Portland Bait and Tackle on (03) 5523 5213.

– Chris Beattie


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