Many Victorian anglers spend countless hours fishing in Port Phillip and Western Port hoping to catch gummy sharks. Unfortunately many trips prove fruitless for sharks yet successful for other species like snapper… and therein lies the problem. We all want to keep our options open and even though snapper and gummies do sometimes inhabit the same areas, the capture of big gummies while snapper fishing is rare. In the last five years we’ve spent countless hours fishing Victorian waters and I’m yet to hook a 10kg-plus gummy as an incidental encounter. Quite simply, if you don't target them, don't expect them to find you.
So, where should you look for big gummies? Well, there are countless productive channels and drop-offs in the traditional home of big gummy fishing, Western Port. Lately, however, there has been an increasing number of big gummies turning up in the shipping channel between Rye and Sorrento under the watchful eye of the old fort in southern Port Phillip Bay. When one area consistently yields fish between 15kg and 20kg, with reported captures of fish exceeding 25kg, it definitely deserves a closer look.
When it comes to gummy shark habitat, we need to understand the nature of these fish. Obviously, gummies don't have teeth. Instead, they are armed with a textured, bony mouth designed for crushing crustaceans, molluscs and invertebrates. It stands to reason if you can find the food source the fish shouldn't be far away. In the South Channel most of the gummies we have caught have been in 9-14m of water, which makes me think that this depth encourages the growth of their favourite foods. Contrast this with locations where the water is highly discoloured, like the northern channels of Western Port, which may fish better at depths as shallow as 5m.
The height of the gummy bite in the South Channel runs outside of the main snapper period, which is another reason not many big gummies are caught by snapper anglers. Gummy fishing here kicks into gear from late January to early February, hits a quiet patch when the water gets a bit too warm, then goes into overdrive from May until late July, when multiple captures in one night are not just a possibility, but a probability.
By the far the best time to be fishing is during the last two hours of either the ebb or the flood tide. Ideally, the end of the tide will coincide with first or last light, or during the night around the full moon. Bear in mind that to most effectively fish the last two hours of the tide, you may need to be there three hours before to get your berley trail established.
We know from examining the stomach contents of gummy sharks that the mainstay of their diet is crab. We’ve also found small crayfish tails and even a toadfish in a large gummy. Now there’s no way I’m not going to buy cray tails and mud crabs for bait but I do know of two affordable baits worth having if you’re serious about targeting bigger gummy sharks.
The first is silver trevally. Many tackle stores stock small silver trevally in season. Gotcha Covered is one brand available that works well as the fish are vacuum packed, keeping them in tip-top shape so they don't go mushy when defrosted.
The second bait needs no introduction and has received plenty of publicity in recent years – cured eel. It’s as tough as leather and surprisingly clean to handle. It is excellent gummy bait, no doubt.
Another advantage of using eel and trevally is that most other species do not favour these baits. Even the stingrays and banjo sharks ease up with the use of these baits. Other baits worthy of a mention are fresh salmon fillets, fresh calamari or arrow squid, and couta fillets. Don't be too concerned about using huge baits either. We now favour fillets no larger than about 15cm in length, keeping them narrow enough that the current doesn’t cause the bait to spin.
Many years ago an experienced fisherman once told me that when it comes to bait and berley, if I wouldn't eat it, don't expect that the fish will like it either. I’m not suggesting you should eat raw eel, but the quality of bait you use should be good enough to eat. If only fresh bait will do, similarly the berley should also be appetising for the older, more discerning palate of a trophy-sized fish.
It gets harder for big gummies because they dine on only the finest seafood – crab, crays, scallops and the like –so perhaps rotten fish and old, freezer-burnt snapper heads shouldn't be your first choice for berley. My personal favourite is Pure Pilchard mix with a little tuna oil, and it doesn't hurt to throw all of your trevally heads and frames in there after removing the fillets for bait.
If you think about it, even we humans react to berley. The yummy smell of a BBQ is a good example, as is Mum's lasagne. Rotten meat on the other hand just doesn't make me hungry. So why make the gummies swim through a horrible stench to find your perfectly prepared, fresh bait? By trying a little harder with your berley you can reap the benefits with multiple captures in one night. One word of warning with the tuna oil – too much will saturate the whole area with such a strong scent that sharks can find it impossible to pinpoint your bait.
If you’re serious about catching a big fish, stick with hook sizes between 5/0 and 7/0. You may miss a few bites on smaller fish but remember, we are specifically targeting big gummies and don't really want to catch anything else. I am an advocate of circle hooks for this style of baitfishing as the most effective way of getting a hook-up.
Down in the South Channel the current can push at a reasonable rate, which at times necessitates the use of sinkers up to 6oz. Most days are not so taxing and weights as light as 2-3oz will do the job nicely. You should always use a minimal amount of weight, changing sinkers as the tide flow increases and decreases.
One of the handiest pieces of tackle you can take with you is a sinker slide rig (Ezi-rig) that has a metal clip for interchangeable sinkers. I favour the brands featuring a larger hole for your line to pass through, because on our reels we almost always use braid, making it essential to use shock leaders. The larger line hole allows the leader knot to flow through without getting jammed, either while getting a bite or fighting a fish.
Leader strengths between 40-60lb are fairly safe and should be approximately 1m long with a swivel connecting the hook leader to a 3m long, 40lb shock leader. The shock leader is in turn tied to the mainline (preferably 30-40lb braid). The sinker clip simply slides along the shock leader as a running rig.
Heavier leaders can spook gummies because these toothless sharks can feel the stiff line when they are chewing the bait – sort of like having a straw in your mouth. Recently I started using fluorocarbon leader material in 40lb because you get the best of both worlds: line diameter stays low and abrasion remains high.
Rods should be set with approximately 1kg of drag and left in a secure rod holder. After that it doesn't matter – you can go to sleep and wait for the old ratchet alarm clock to wake you up. By the time you get your hands on the rod the fish will be well and truly hooked.
Another option is to use a downrigger while at anchor. These can be very effective when the fish are timid. By clipping your bait 6m or so behind the bomb the bait waves around freely in the current with little chance of spooking a gummy. Downriggers also make handy delivery devices for berley pots, and if you fish alone you may want to consider using one exclusively for the berley as bigger gummies will always wrap themselves up in a berley rope if it’s left unattended. Most downriggers offer a single-handed wind-in operation leaving the other hand free to hang on to the rod.
Now let’s discuss some of the myths of gummy fishing. Here are a few I've heard. Huge casts are needed in shallow water to get your baits away from the boat. Sounders must be turned off as the sound pulse emitted from the transducer frightens gummies away. Radios should be turned off and everyone needs to be quiet. Downrigger cables humming in the current deter gummies from entering the area. Light from the boat scares them off at night.
The funny thing is that nothing could be further from the truth. We have repeatedly caught gummies directly under the boat in 9m of water while the radio, sounder and mother of all flood lights are on, with two downriggers humming away nicely in the background. To add to all of this noise, enormous container ships will often cruise only hundreds of metres away, while channel dredging goes on only a kilometre away towards the heads. None of this stops the gummies from biting. I’m fairly sure you could catch a gummy off the Fairstar Funship if you had a fresh piece of eel and a well-tied rig. I think there is so much boat traffic in our bays these days the fish simply must be used to it.
Despite the boat traffic don't expect to be crowded out by other boats. This channel is long and there is plenty of room for everyone to have a go. Just keep in mind that strict regulations apply to anchoring in the channel itself. Most importantly, do not anchor in the way of passing container ships. Not only is it illegal, but a very dangerous game of chicken which you have no chance of winning. To be on the safe side try the south side of the channel in depths less than 14m. This should keep your boat well away from the shipping lane and in some very fishy country.
To finish, a request that anglers be aware that most of the big gummies caught in Port Phillip in winter will be breeding females. To protect this great fishery it makes sense to release them unharmed after a quick photograph.
GEAR FOR GUMMIES
|Rod:||Medium action 6-7” built to be used with braided line|
|Reel:||Good quality 4500 series threadline or overhead capable of using 30-40Ib braid|
|Line:||Preferably braid in 30-40Ib breaking strain|
|Shock leader:||40Ib Tough Trace|
|Hook leader:||60Ib fluorocarbon|
|Hook:||5/0-7/0 circle hook|
|Swivel:||10-15kg rolling swivel|
38 18 868 S
144 46 196 E
38 19 307 S
144 48 383 E