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Melbourne snapper mission

Eight years ago, I reeled in my first decent lure-caught fish in a newly acquired Hobie kayak. It was a 35cm pinky snapper, just a few metres to the right of the Mordialloc pier. My mission to master the snapper began on that day and continues now. While I am still a long way from achieving mastery, I have learnt a few things that give me an increasingly better chance of landing the big red every time I launch.

Bait Vs Lure

The battle of bait vs lure is an exciting one regarding snapper because the contenders are so evenly matched. The “old school” snapper fisho will typically head out in a big boat and anchor up on a proven mark. He or she will berley up with pilchard cubes, cast out multiple baits of whole pilchard or squid, and settle in for the waiting game. These old school fishos consistently catch good fish. The “new school” angler is likely to head out on a boat with a casting deck or a kayak. He or she will cruise around a proven area but is less likely to anchor in one spot. Lures are the weapon of choice for the modern angler. Soft plastic lures are by far the most popular but jigs, vibes, and diving hardbodies also catch fish. The new school fisho also consistently catches great snapper.

In my first few seasons on the Hobie I put plenty of time into both bait and lure fishing. I just wanted to battle a big red and I would have been happy with any method that got the job done. I had reasonable success drifting around Mordialloc with soft plastics in the early days, but my inability to crack a 60cm+ fish caused me to double back to bait fishing. Unfortunately, the bait method brought me even less joy. I was in fact more likely to be pestered by small fish using bait than when I was fishing lures.

It was on a windy day at Westernport Bay that I made my final decision in the bait vs lures for snapper debate. I was anchored up in muddy waters near the mouth of the Tenby Channel with baits set. It was early November, so I was optimistic about my chances of encountering a big snapper. As good as the timing should have been, my baits lay untouched for hours. With low expectations and partially out of boredom, I started to flick around a soft plastic grub. Don’t get me wrong, I love these lures, but the water was so murky that I couldn’t imagine them being effective in this spot. You can probably guess what happened next; the baits lay still, and my lure got smashed! A 55cm snapper was the result and for me it was the deciding vote. Fishing for snapper has mostly been a lure game for me from that day on.

The Two Bays

When snapper season fires up in Melbourne there is an important decision to make before you even start the car. Do you fish Port Phillip or Westernport Bay? As geographically close as the two bays are, they are worlds apart structurally, tidally, and in the way that you fish them for snapper.

I like to think of Port Phillip Bay as a great big bowl. Generally speaking, it is shallowest on the edges and deepest in the middle with reef systems scattered throughout. There is a lot of empty space between some of these reef systems, so knowing where you are by use markers or a GPS is vital. Locating suitable structure at the right time of year is the key to catching snapper in Port Phillip Bay, and it is certainly more important than your choice to fish with bait or lures.

Westernport is a unique and intensely tidal inlet consisting of many channels that surround a central land mass, French Island. Fishing and boating conditions can be highly volatile within the port so significant research is necessary before a fishing trip is undertaken. In some areas the current is so brutal that fishing is near on impossible while the tide is running. In other spots the water is deceivingly shallow, to the point that boats will become stranded at low tide. These challenges might make Westernport seem like the lesser option of the two bays, but it also boasts significant advantages. Many snapper anglers agree that while the best numbers of snapper can be found in Port Phillip Bay, the 10kg trophy fish is much more likely to be captured in Westernport. Another great advantage to a bay that contains large islands, is that there is always a place to hide from the wind. Days that would be completely unfishable on Port Phillip Bay can be quite comfortable at a carefully selected location on Westernport.

In recent years I’ve tried to approach my snapper season with a calculated game plan to incorporate the strengths of both bays. Water temperature plays a huge part in both bringing the snapper in to spawn, and in triggering the hot spring bite. It is for this reason that I like to kick off the season in warm, shallow waters at the top end of Westernport Bay. It is widely accepted that 16 degrees is the magical temperature when it comes to snapper fishing and in areas such as Grantville and Lang Lang, this number will be reached much earlier than in Port Phillip Bay. These are not areas that you go to with high hopes of bagging out, but it is common for an absolute beast of a snapper to be caught around Grantville in October. I like to start a season in Westernport Bay but there are some great October options to consider in Port Phillip Bay as well. Years of studying the fishing reports has shown me that great early season snapper consistently show up at Mornington, Port Melbourne, and sometimes even up the Yarra into the Docklands.

As the season rolls into November, I settle back into some well-known snapper hot spots. I will reiterate at this point that I fish from a kayak, so all of my spots are within a kilometre of the shoreline. Black Rock and Mordialloc are immensely popular at this time of year for a good reason; quality snapper congregate here in large numbers. Schools of hungry fish will be circling this area from mid-November to mid-December and if you can drop the right lure in amongst them, you’re on!

The snapper season as I see it winds up at the end of December and I often double back to Westernport to see it out. Most quality snapper catches are recorded out wide in Port Phillip Bay at this time of year which puts them out of my range in the kayak. Plenty of great snapper are captured outside of the main season so you don’t need to give up hope entirely. You will find however that the bay snapper you encounter early in the year are more likely to be in the 30-40cm ‘pinky’ range than 60cm and above.

Snapper on Lures

Soft plastic lures have been the undoing of my best snapper so far, so I spend a lot of time thinking about how to use them. The methods I employ are basic but there are many ways to work these simple lures that can optimise your catch rate.

I like to begin a snapper season in Westernport Bay and that presents me with a few challenges regarding lure fishing. In my favourite spots around Corinella and Lang Lang the murky water and strong tidal flow will affect both my lure choices and methods. When visibility in the water is low, it is important that your lure is felt by the fish rather than seen. Curly tail grubs with a strong action and paddle tail shads achieve the kind of vibration that will bring the fish in. I have proven that snapper will both find and nail these lures in the turbid waters at the top end of Westernport bay. When you’re anchored up in a channel and the tide is flowing hard, getting your lure down to be worked through the strike zone is challenging. A fairly heavy jighead might be required to keep your offering in touch with bottom where the fish are feeding. My go to jighead weight for snapper in Westernport is 3/8 ounce and I find that it does the trick in most scenarios. Long casts upstream of the current are the way to fish fast flowing areas so when I’m set with my anchor line at the back of kayak, I’m often flicking a lure back over my head. When the lure hits the water, it will sink quickly and diagonally with the flowing water. If your cast is long enough, your soft plastic lure will shimmy through the strike zone for a significant period before it rises back up to your rod tip. With any luck it will get crunched halfway back!

Trolling soft plastic lures is a tactic that I implement on the quiet days and it’s proven to be effective in both Westernport and Port Phillip Bays. The theory is that when you cannot locate a cluster of active snapper, you troll to cover ground in search of the one hungry fish. Once again, a heavy jighead will be required to keep your lure down at the required depth. I find that a 5/8 or ¾ ounce jighead works well to keep your offering near the bottom on a slow to medium kayak troll. The Squidgy 100mm fish and the Berkley 4-inch nemesis are a couple of soft plastic lures that have worked very well for me on the troll. While I’m peddling along and eagerly awaiting a hit, I regularly pause to let my lure plummet all the way to the bottom. This lets me know roughly where my lure is sitting in the water column, and the change of pace will often trigger an inquisitive predator to strike.

A method that I describe as “dropping bombs” comes from an observation that I made on a perfect fishing day on Port Phillip Bay. Let me set the scene for you: It is a balmy morning in early December, boats are dotted all over the horizon, and a dense school of ravenous snapper are circling the shallows at Black Rock. I spent a few hours drifting around with minimal action before the mountain of arches first lit up on my sounder. It is times like these that you really get to trial different methods. With no subtlety at all I dropped a heavy jighead right into the frenzy and my reel was screaming before the lure hit the bottom. After following the school around for a few hours and plucking out some cracking reds, I found that ‘dropping bombs’ on them in this way was triggering a better response than drifting a lure in gently. I previously thought that the use of a heavy jighead was a necessary sacrifice, now I see it as a tactic that can really fire up the bite in certain situations.

There are many ways to catch a Melbourne snapper and while I’d love to know them all, I am not disappointed that the mission continues. 

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