Warrnambool’s Hopkins River has always been a favoured angling destination of mine. Having previously lived and worked in the region, I began my days as a bream angler standing on the railings of the road bridge, awkwardly leaning out over the edge, flicking soft plastic minnows underneath, hoping to hook onto one of the many blue nose brutes that call the bridge pylons home. Although I have now moved away from the region, I regularly make the trip back down the Princess Highway to the Hoppies every year to try my luck again, particularly during winter and spring.
The estuary isn’t huge, however it is big enough to make kayaking its length in one session a tall order. When I fish the river, I prefer to fish it during times of the year when I know the fish will be concentrated in one area. Between June to September, higher than average rainfall increases the flow of freshwater into the system, resulting in the bream pushing down into the lower reaches.
There is one particular stretch of river that sees massive schools of bream during this time of year, the Ski Run. Bream are not the only target on offer in the Ski Run at this time of year, with estuary perch often moving into the area as well as the occasional mulloway.
Mahoneys Road boat ramp is a great launch site with a two lane concrete ramp, floating pontoons, car and trailer parking and fish cleaning facilities. More importantly, the ramp provides excellent access to the Ski Run, which is only a very short paddle downstream. Another ramp with identical facilities also exists closer to the mouth near the angling club.
A key ingredient to experiencing success when targeting schools of fish in the Ski Run is using a good quality sounder. I switch on my unit the minute I hit the water and scan it constantly looking for large congregations of fish sitting close to the bottom, typical bream behaviour during winter and spring.
I will often ignore single returns – what I’m really looking for are larger schools where hundreds of bream mark up in close proximity. Once I have located a school, I mark a waypoint on my sounder to allow me to easily return to the school later in the day, often the school will be spread out over a large area, so using multiple waypoints can help to triangulate the school.
With the location of the fish established, the next challenge is tempting them to take a lure or bait. Bait fishing is popular in the Hopkins and as always, the best baits are those sourced locally. Hopkins River Bridge is a short paddle downstream from the Ski Run, past the bridge there are some excellent sand and mud flats where bait pumping can produce sandworms and brown shell bivalves, both are excellent local baits and well worth the effort to collect. Beach your yak and use a bait pump and sieve in water half a metre deep to locate these tasty morsels. Brown shells are best used whole on the hook, keeping the shell intact. Sandworms can be kept whole or broken into pieces, rigged up on a running sinker rig and cast into the school should soon see you hooked up.
Although bait fishing is popular, I have always found that casting and retrieving with grub style soft plastics or vibration style lures the most productive method to score a bream, perch or mulloway from the Ski Run. Motor oil coloured, 2.5-3” grub pattern soft plastics, rigged on a 1/12-1/10oz jighead are very hard to go past. Simply cast them into the school and allow them to sink naturally to the bottom. Use a variety of hop and pause retrieves until you begin to get results.
Schooled bream can be notoriously fussy eaters and remain relatively inactive, so tempting them can be a challenge at times, so long pauses and subtle hoops are often required. On those days when the fish appear shut down, the use of scent can help to produce a bite or using smaller, 2” grubs on lighter jigheads in 1/20-1/32oz weights can greatly increase the hit rate. ,
Keeping your plastic in contact with the bottom is critical to success and when using light jigheads, which can become a challenge in itself, this is particularly tricky in the Hopkins where a salt wedge often exists. During the incoming tide, the salt water can push up into the system, while in contrast the freshwater sitting on top will continue to flow towards the mouth, making it almost impossible to fish a light jighead effectively. Although only an issue when the river mouth is open, anglers can eradicate this problem by fishing the run-out tide where both the freshwater and saltwater wedge are moving in the same direction.
Vibes and blades are another extremely effective option in the ski run and capable of tempting all three target species. I generally use black or dark coloured vibes with orange bellies exclusively and it’s no different when I fish the Hoppies Ski Run. Worked in a very similar way to the grubs mentioned above, cast into the school and use a variety of hop and pause retrieves until you find an effective presentation. Again the addition of scent can greatly assist and works just as well on vibes and hardbodied lures as it does on plastics.
Deep diving hardbodies are also a productive lure to throw in the Ski Run, particularly after several days of above average temperature when the bream will move out of the deeper water and back up onto edges and drop offs to feed. Cast up onto the edges, twitch and pause your lure back down into the deeper water keeping your lure in contact with the bottom for as long as possible. This technique is killer on perch but will also account for both bream and mulloway.
The Ski Run schools can be very frustrating at times. Nothing is more demoralising than staring at massive numbers of fish on your sounder and being unable to tempt a single bite from them. It is critical on days like this to persist. Often changing one small aspect of your lure presentation will result in instant success. The tides and time of day can also affect the bite, the most productive times to fish the Hopkins, as with most systems, are the times of low light at the beginning and end of each day.
As always, make sure you wear your PFD at all times when fishing from your kayak and keep a bailer onboard as required by Victorian law. When launching your kayak on the Hopkins, it pays to exercise caution, particularly during this time of year. As the mouth often closes, water levels in the river can vary. When launching after the mouth has recently opened the concrete ramps can become very, very slippery. As a result I usually launch my kayaks from the pontoons to prevent any unnecessary slips or falls, a lesson I learnt the hard way.
The Hopkins River has developed a reputation over the years as one of the best bream fisheries in the South West of Victoria and although we did have some lean years, the river is seemingly returning to the glory days of old. Now is the perfect time to grab your yak and head out west in search of some quality estuary fishing. With a very realistic chance of scoring that elusive estuary trifecta of a bream, perch and mulloway in the one session, the Hoppies Ski Run is well worth the effort.Reads: 148