Phillip Island is approximately 140km south east of Melbourne or about an hour and a half’s drive. With the escalating price of petrol, it’s a close holiday destination for city dwellers, particularly those towing large boats.
Over the Christmas period Phillip Island’s population is said to treble. The locals swear that the island sinks half a metre every summer. The island boasts a tremendous diversity of fishing opportunities; there’s the huge expanse of water inside Western Port and good access to the open sea.
There are three main boat ramps: Rhyll, Cowes and Newhaven. Rhyll and Newhaven are the best and offer you plenty of options, inside and outside of the bay. They both have some jetty space to tie up your boat, whereas launching at Cowes means you have to get your feet wet.
Over the Christmas holiday period is a good time to fish this whole area because most of the prime fish species are around in good numbers. In the bay there are snapper, gummies and whiting. The open sea offers thresher, mako and blue sharks, couta, flathead and squid. The only disadvantage of a Christmas time visit are the crowds, but being in a boat soon finds you some space of your own out on the water.
To get to the open sea there are two main entrances – the eastern and western.
To get to the western entrance, head west past the Cowes Pier to the main shipping channel, which is well marked. Then head south. Follow the markers past Seal Rocks and you’re there.
To get to the eastern entrance, go out under the San Remo Bridge and follow the channel markers to Cape Woolamai. Hey presto, you’re there. The eastern entrance is by far the safest way to go because it is protected by landmass and the tide currents are not as strong. The only time it can be a bit of trouble is when a strong easterly wind pairs up with a run-off tide. It can chop up badly.
The western entrance is more open to wind and sea and the tidal currents can really rip through at a rate of knots. I once got caught out while down near Seal Rocks fishing a run-in tide. A howling northerly wind came up. I circumnavigated Phillip Island and came back in through the eastern entrance. It was ten times the distance to travel but under the circumstances, it was the safest option. Make sure that you have plenty of fuel onboard and if nasty conditions arise, don’t take the shortcut. Take the safest option, or if you’re in a no win situation, find a sheltered spot and wait until the tide turns and is running with the wind before you make your move.
Fishing Western Port is very different to fishing Port Phillip Bay. In most of Western Port you have strong tidal currents and lots of sand and mud banks. They tend to put a lot of regular fishos off. If you are going to fish an area for a few weeks over the holidays, go out at low tide and have a good look around to see where the sand and mudbanks are. Use your sounder to understand where the channels and gutters are and make a mental note for your return at higher tides. Once you’ve built up some knowledge of the area, your confidence will increase and your fishing will improve.
Tidal flow plays a big part when fishing Western Port. You don’t have to fish all day to catch a feed. If you fish at the right times and at the right stage of the tide then you should only need a couple of hours to catch a feed and get home to the family.
The best times to fish are during the last couple of hours of the run-off tide, slack tide and the first hour of the run-in tide. Fish the deep water for snapper and gummies an hour either side of low tide. Once the low tide starts to run, move onto the bank edges for some whiting.
One word of warning when fishing the deep channels off Cowes, don’t wait until the tide is in full flow to retrieve your anchor or you may not be able to get it up. The depth and some strong current can put a very big bow in your anchor rope making it difficult to get enough direct overhead pressure to be able to pull it free.
For those interested in a bit of gamefishing offshore, pick a light wind day, motor out 3 or 4km offshore and berley up. Put 2 shark lines out, one 20m and one 50m from the boat. Set the baits about 4 or 5m under balloons. Any deeper and the squid and couta will pinch your baits. You don’t need lots of berley, but you do have to keep pumping it out to set a good trail for the sharks to pick up the scent. While you’re waiting you can bottom bounce for flathead or drop jigs and catch a few squid. That is until a reel screams into action and a mako starts jumping all over the ocean. That’s when the fun starts!
Thresher sharks are also very acrobatic and spectacular to watch. Blue sharks, commonly known as blue logs when hooked, will often come back to the boat looking for more food. They don’t normally put up much of a fight.
When shark fishing, don’t get too excited. Play them out until they are worn out, even if it takes an hour or so. It’s amazing just how much damage a small but green mako of 30kg can do when brought into a boat too early. The tail end smashes anything it touches while the business end makes confetti of everything it can get its teeth into. Makos have been known to completely demolish the insides of boats and then jump overboard. If you’re not sure what to do, the best option is to tail rope the shark, tie it to the stern bollard of the boat and head home slowly.
When fishing for snapper and gummies do yourself a big favour and get fresh bait. Barracouta, squid and salmon can be caught locally. Frozen pilchards are also a good standby.
With squid, salmon and couta cut them into long strips. With pilchards, cut the head and tail off. When baiting your squid, salmon and couta strips make sure that the bait strip is dead flat on the hooks.
With the headless, tail-less pilchard, the two half hitches go at the base of the tail. Next, drop your bait over the side and let the sinker sit about half a metre under the surface. Watch what your bait does in the current. If it’s lying nice and flat, let it run all the way to the bottom, lift the rod tip a couple of times and then let out a bit more line. You will feel the bump, bump of the sinker touching the bottom. Set your drag to about 1kg and you’re ready.
However, if you see your bait spinning in the current, bring it back in and re-bait it until it lies flat. Even with swivels attached, a spinning bait will make a mess of your line in no time at all. Tangles mean less effective fishing time so they’re worth avoiding.
Pilchards will naturally spin with heads and tails left on. You want your baits to move naturally in the current and not spin like torpedoes. As the current picks up momentum through the tidal stages, you might need to change to heavier sinkers. In some spots you need 16oz to hold bottom! That’s a lot of lead in any language.
Remember that when your sinker hits bottom, lift the rod tip a couple of times and give some more line in the process. You need to feel that slight bump, bump so that you know your bait is on the bottom and you have enough weight for it to stay there. As with all forms of fishing, it’s the small things that make a big difference to your catch. This is especially the case in Western Port.
Whiting are my favourite fish. I’ve found it certainly pays to drop a whiting line over the side while fishing the deep water for snapper. When the tide stops running you can get a light line to the bottom with a 1oz sinker relatively easily. You won’t catch a lot but the ones you do get are normally thumpers, so it’s worth a go.
The best places to fish for whiting around Phillip Island is along the edges of channel drop offs and gutters, usually in the 2 to 10m depth range. The run off tide is usually the best time as the fish come off the banks into the gutters and channel. They wait here for the tide to flood over the banks again so they can disperse all over the productive shallows.
The best baits for whiting are pipis, mussels, squid strips and nippers. My standard Western Port whiting rig consists of 3 to 4kg main line down to a 1oz running sinker, with a 50cm leader and a no. 6 long shank hook.
Some days whiting will bite hard and virtually hook themselves; other days they will just pick. That’s why, when I fish for whiting, I like to hold the rod in my hand. Whenever I feel the slightest touch, I strike. I don’t tend to miss too many fish. If your rod is left in the rod holder, 9 times out of 10 you won’t see the fish bite and your bait and the prospects of a delicious feed will have vanished.
When you’re fishing for whiting you can also fish for a squid. All you need is a weighted baited jig. I usually tie a 1oz sinker to the bottom of the jig. Silver whiting is ideal bait. Use a large bobby cork and set your bait so that it’s about half a metre off the bottom. Let out about 20m of line so it’s well out of the way of your whiting fishing.
When you see the float go under, give the line a couple of quick jerks to make sure the jig has really hooked the squid. Pull the line in slowly, keeping constant pressure on the line. If the squid starts pulling hard then let the line slip out through your fingers until it stops pulling. Remember to keep constant pressure on the line! When you get it to the boat simply net it and watch that you don’t get inked!
Fresh calamari rings and whiting go well together on the plate.
Whether you want to catch a shark or a whiting, the Phillip Island area is a great place to wet a line. Just pick your days, fish the right tide phases and you’ll have a much more enjoyable, and productive, day on the water.Reads: 6746