Return of the Chooks
  |  First Published: September 2014

Chinooks, aka Quinnat salmon, are an introduced salmonoid native from the west coast of North America from southern California to Alaska, and north-eastern Asia. The species has been introduced into several countries, but only in the South Island of New Zealand has a self-sustaining population become established. However, Victoria holds two of only a few land-locked Chinook salmon fisheries in the world.

The fish have been stocked in a variety of Victorian waters over the years but historically have only really succeeded as a viable angling species in three locations: Lake Bullen Merri, Lake Purrumbete and Lake Murdeduke. With Lake Murdeduke having received no stocking since 1999 due to low or no water, Bullen Merri and Purrumbete have traditionally been the home of the Chinook salmon. In the deep, cool water of these twin lakes the salmon thrive and grow quickly producing strong, fit fish that fight exceptionally well for a freshwater salmonoid. However a combination of drought conditions at the hatchery and difficulties with the brood stock saw no stockings of Chinook being possible in these lakes since 2007.

Fisheries Victoria, with the intention of recreating a world class Chinook salmon fishery in Victoria's western Crater Lakes, began stocking these fish again and in November 2012, 10,000 Chinook salmon fingerlings (20g each) were released into Lake Bullen Merri thanks to funding from Recreational Fishing Licence fees. Further stockings have occurred in 2014 in traditional Chinook strong holds Bullen Merri and Purrumbete as well as in other trial waters such as Lake Ellingamite, Bellfield Reservoir, Bostock Reservoir, Lake Tooliorook, Lauriston Reservoir and Rocky Valley Reservoir.

If you were making a trip to try to catch your first Chinook, Bullen Merri would be my first choice for a couple of reasons. The absence of eels and small redfin in Bullen Merri makes it a better place to practice some of the successful bait fishing techniques. Even with the closure of some of the South Beach area, shore-based access is also more prolific at Bullen Merri than Purrumbete.

For boat anglers, Bullen Merri’s fairly uniform depth gradient and shore contour makes finding the depth you want to fish, or need to be fishing, relatively easy. Also the Chinook at present seem to be growing quicker, and are in better condition at Bullen Merri.

One of the good things about fishing for Chinook is that there are plenty of productive techniques to target Chinooks and the other salmonoids in these fisheries. The good thing is that if technique number one doesn’t work, then the trip may not be wasted as there are plenty of other options to try.

This article will relate to Chinook fishing at Bullen Merri, although similar techniques can apply in Purrumbete.

Shore-based Chinook

In the past, many of the best fish each season are taken by bank anglers. As it is an extinct volcanic basin, deep water is only an easy cast away from the shore. Bank anglers concentrating their efforts around dawn and dusk are most successful, although bank angling through the night also produces fish. The big browns used to be an attraction for these cold night vigils but they haven’t been stocked in the last two years, so the attraction to fish during these hours has diminished somewhat.

There are two schools of thought on bait fishing technique – either fishing with an open spool or closed spool with the drag on strike.

Fishing with the open spool and allowing the fish to run works best when you are able to keep a close eye on what is going on with your line.

A closed spool with a set drag, in combination with a stinger hook rig for live baits, works best if it is difficult to maintain constant vigilance on the line, for example in the dark. The fish hooks itself as it tries to take off with the bait, the extra stinger hook assisting with finding purchase in the fish’s mouth. It is important in this scenario that the drag is set with enough force to set the hook but not so tight that the fish can pull the rod from its holder.

Rod holders should point horizontal and you should ensure line doesn’t catch anywhere and can peel off unhindered, either under drag or in free spool. When choosing your outfit go for something a little more substantial than you would normally associate with bank fishing for salmonoids. A decent sized Chinook, or rainbow for that matter can peel some line, which can cause some trouble if you already have a significant amount of line out having made a long cast.

Chinooks take a wide variety of baits, much more so than the browns. Not only are Chinooks happy to eat more natural live baits like gudgeon, minnows and mudeyes aimed at the fussier browns, but they will also take a wide range of frozen and processed baits. Glassies, saltwater whitebait, blue bait, pilchard fillets and Powerbait are all willingly accepted by hungry Chinook salmon.

Rigs depend on the bait you’re using, wind conditions and the bottom structure you’re fishing on. The three basic options are; bubble float, running sinker or unweighted bait.

The bubble float is best used for suspending live baits, which can be positioned 1-3m below the float. Bubble floats are useful in rocky areas, such as the North Shore and Potters Point, but can be useless if the wind is blowing across your fishing spot. The unweighted bait is a good option for using the frozen baits such as whitebait and glassies, in calm conditions. Add a running sinker if you need to get a little more distance, the wind is blowing or you are using Powerbait, which floats slightly up off the bottom.

With little structure to concentrate your efforts on, shore based lure or fly fishing is a game of persistence. The exception to this rule is on the odd occasion when the fish can be seen smelting in casting proximity. A mobile bank angler can pursue a fish and get within casting range more effectively and subtly than a boat angler, as long as the fish remains within casting distance. Many good captures of quality Chinooks and browns are taken by bank anglers targeting these smelting fish using plastics.

The plastics have proven to be a good option as they cast better than a minnow style lure, yet land and work more subtly than the easy to cast winged lures. Popular styles have been 3-4”minnow-shaped and coloured plastics that match the local galaxid population.

Boat-based Chinook

Bait fishing is also a popular option for boat anglers. Apart from being more mobile than the bank angler, the boaties can establish an effective berley trail in deeper water.

It seems like their original genetics play a large part in Chinook behaviour. They can behave very much like their saltwater ancestors in the way they fight hard and respond to a light berley trail, much the same way as saltwater fish like snapper, trevally and Australian salmon.

Deep bait fishing is often the preferred technique in the warmer half of the year or when the lake is busy. Chinook are best targeted at depths of 12-20m. With a little patience and with a light, consistent berley, Chinook of varying sizes should be swimming under your boat. Even on a calm day there is often a slight movement in the water like a light ‘current’ that helps distribute a fine berley trail through the depths.

Chinook are a schooling fish, respond to wide variety of baits and are quite susceptible to berleying. It is this gregarious nature that makes them a willing target. Fish from new release to about 1kg can be quite easily captured; by all means keep a few for the table but their flesh doesn’t freeze too well so release a few before you reach the legal bag limit.

Anglers fishing at Bullen Merri have a perfect incentive to release smaller fish because of the incredible growth rates of salmonoids in this lake. A 500-800g salmonoid in many fisheries may be quite an acceptable, pan-sized fish. That same fish though, caught and carefully released in Bullen Merri, may be a 2kg+ trophy if you catch it 12 months later.

Chinook don’t like being handled too much – their scales fall off very easily. Fish hooked in the side of the mouth are best released using long nose pliers without removing the fish from the water. Gut hooked fish are usually the keepers. If they’re really small and swallowed the hook deeply, cut the line without removing the fish from the water.

While bait fishing at depth can be an all year round pursuit, trolling is a popular way of targeting salmonoids in the cooler months. The fish that were holding bellow the thermocline, thus being viable targets for deep bait fishing in the warmer months; disperse throughout the water column. By fishing a variety of lures/depths you can cover the water column to locate productive depths and lures.

Even though Chinook can be taken flat line, particularly early morning and evening, a downrigger is an essential tool if you are serious about targeting them using trolled lures consistently. The most important aspect of this is to use lures in the spread that work well together at the same speed. For example, the speed that is used to get a winged lure working correctly is too fast for a bibbed minnow to be used on another line in the same spread. Colour is another issue that keeps tackle suppliers happy as a wide variety work in different scenarios. Whites are popular at depth, pinks and reds on fish frustrated with their inability to spawn. Natural/green, brown hues that resemble the baitfish population work well with some form of bright attractor to get the fish interested in the first place.

As you can see there are many different ways you can go about pursuing Chinook. The day might start flat lining followed by some trolling at different depths. A bit of deep bait fishing in the afternoon can then be followed up with another troll. Pull the boat into the bank for the evening and toss out a few baits while you have tea. Remember if one technique, lure, location isn’t working a quick change of tactics can soon see Chinook in the creel.

Fact Box

Crater Lakes four-year stocking plan

Purrumbete 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Chinook salmon 0 025,000 25,000 25,000
Rainbow trout 15,000 30,000 10,000 10,000 10,000
Brown trout 15,000 005,000 5,000
Atlantic 8,500 0000
Total 38,500 30,000 35,000 40,000 40,000
Bullen Merri 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Chinook salmon 0 10,000 20,000 20,000 20,000
Rainbow trout 20,000 15,000 10,000 5,000 5,000
Brown trout 10,000 005,000 5,000
Atlantic 8,160 0000
Total 38,160 25,000 30,000 30,000 30,000
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