The slight breeze shuffled across the water as we stood waiting in anticipation, then, as if someone flicked a switch, the water erupted 100m ahead of the boat with a seething mass of salmon gorging on whitebait.
Rather than start the motor and risk spooking the school we waited the minute or so for them to move into casting range before letting fly with small soft plastic stickbaits. Almost as soon as they hit the water the lures were eaten, followed by that sweet sound as reels squealed and light bream rods folded flat on salmon that were now getting airborne in an attempt to throw the lures.
This is what light tackle sportsfishing is about in Port Phillip Bay.
As the water warms each spring and summer schools of Australian salmon move into the bay to feast on the huge schools of whitebait that abound on the inshore reefs. This, in turn, creates some spectacular fun for anglers in the bay.
With the commercial cannery closing in Eden several years ago we have seen a steady increase of salmon numbers move into the bay each year. Along with this we are beginning to see some serious sized fish in among them. Several were taken around 3.6kg last season.
Usually, the first fish are seen and caught around Mornington, then they move around the bay before holding up on the reefs from Mordialloc to Sandringham and around to Altona. Dawn and dusk, and tide changes, are the prime times to look for them.
While not really regarded as a fantastic table fish, they certainly make up for it in the way they fight, with spectacular leaps, fast runs and dogged power that feels more like a trevally or kingfish. They love to eat metal lures, trolled minnows, flies and, most of all, soft plastics.
While some days it seems salmon will eat anything you throw at them, most of the time they are quite fussy. This is where a little bit of thought can increase your catches from a couple of fish to almost a fish a cast.
‘Matching the hatch’ is a common term with flyfishing as anglers strive to use the exact size and replica fly the fish are feeding on. It’s the same for salmon. Wherever possible, take the time to find out the baitfish they are eating, for instance there’s no point using a 12cm long metal lure when the baitfish being chased are 5-7cm. While the big lure will catch the odd fish, a small lure the same size as the bait will attract far more attention. Same goes with fish feeding on pilchards – they will readily pass up a small lure to eat something ‘pilly size’… it’s all just a matter of taking note of what is happening.
By now, some of you are probably asking how do you know how big the bait is? The easiest way to determine is if the fish move fast and very aggressively then they are probably on larger bait. Schools that pop up and move slowly while turning the water to foam are probably on whitebait or similar. Also, take note when a hooked fish is brought to the boat. It will usually spit up baitfish which is the perfect way to work out how big a lure to use.
Trolling for salmon is effective and is a great way to find schools that aren’t feeding on the surface. When they do pop up, it’s far better to stand off the school and cast.
Time after time anglers continue to troll up the sides and through the middle of the feeding fish. While this usually produces a hook-up it’s a short-term gain as the fish will go down to the bottom to get away from the noise. I suppose I wouldn’t like to have a car drive through my dining room while eating dinner.
Instead, take a few seconds to see what the feeding fish are doing – usually they will be feeding in patterns and this is making use of the wind or tide as they push the bait into it. Naturally, a whitebait or similar baitfish can’t swim into the waves all that fast making them easy pickings.
For best results, motor around and above the school so you are in its travelling path, cut the motor and wait until the fish are in casting range. With no boat noise, the fish will come straight to you without spooking. It also has your lure looking natural as it moves in the same direction of the baitfish and salmon.
Some of the best fishing we have experienced is when the salmon have been pushed down by boat noise. When this happens we use the depth sounder to locate the school, then drop plastics down deep to where the fish are holding and still feeding. Usually a small jerky/twitch retrieve will have the fish thumping the lures in no time flat.
When the fish are on top, a plastic cast into the fish and allowed to fall freely with no movement usually brings a solid hook-up, bigger fish are often taken with this method as they hang deeper under the main school. It is also a great way of connecting with some nice snapper that get in on the action. If no takes are received on the drop, a few quick flicks will have a stickbait looking like a tasty wounded baitfish.
Stickbait style plastics are hard to beat on salmon, with the 85mm Squidgy flick baits in Evil Minnow and Sashimi Shrimp, and Berkley Bass Minnows (3”) in Pearl Blue and Watermelon great lures. Aside from this, it still pays to have a range of different styles from wriggler to paddle or fish tails as it can vary from day to day – always carry a few diving minnows as well for trolling.
Jigheads are usually in the form of darter or minnow shaped heads with the Squidgy Finesse, Bassmaster Minnow style and Gamakatsu Darter Heads being the pick as they are built on strong super sharp hooks, in a range of sizes – 1/16, 1/8 and 1/4oz are the pick.
For true sportsfishing mayhem we primarily use our heavier bream tackle. My favourite outfit is a 7’6” Shimano Raider – the extra length is great for long casts with light plastics and also helps to set the point on fish hooked at long distance – matched with a 2500 size spinning reel, 2.7kg braid and a 5-6kg leader.
Hope to see you all out there this summer getting stuck into some high-flying fun!Reads: 849