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Big Browns of the Southwest

Some whopper brown trout call the rivers of southwest Victoria home and they love eating lures! By SCOTT GRAY & ANDREW CLARK.

SOUTHWEST Victoria is well renowned for its trout fishing opportunities. When anglers talk about the southwest, it’s usually the mighty crater fisheries of Lake Bullen Merri and Lake Purrumbete that get a mention. Although these are excellent salmonid fisheries and cater for a diversity of species, there are a number of stocked coastal rivers in the region that provide fishing opportunities for brown trout on a year round basis. For the past 15 years I’ve walked the banks of these rivers spinning, flyfishing and baitfishing and I am continually finding new scenarios and locations to catch fis.

All of these waters are located within 50km of each other and include the  Merri, Hopkins, Mt Emu and Moyne rivers. Despite their relatively close geological proximity, each has their own characteristics, such as catchment size and flow rates; however, all of these waters produce quality fish. They also rely on fish stocking to sustain the fishery, because there is little or no natural recruitment in these systems. As a result, these waters are all stocked annually by Fisheries Victoria.

These rivers flow through valleys which have over time have been affected by lava flows. As a result, there are large basalt boulder runs and waterfalls along the course of these waters, usually interspaced with deep, open pools. This is one of the reasons for the excellent growth rates of the local trout. Most of the year the water’s temperature varies between 10-18 degrees and there is plenty of available food and habitat, which all combines to provide ideal conditions for the growth of brown trout.

The proximity of these rivers to the coast also means that anglers have the opportunity to tangle with sea run brown trout on a seasonal basis. The Merri, Moyne and Hopkins rivers all have a run of sea run trout, usually during the spring months following heavy rains. These are much sought after fish for both their fighting and table qualities, however they can be difficult to find and to catch a good sized sea runner is a true prize. The waters of the lower Merri River produce the best and most consistent sea run trout fishing. In an attempt to ensure that anglers have the best opportunities to target these sea run fish, the lower reaches of these rivers are open to trout fishing on a year round basis.

The growth rates of brown trout in the southwest rivers vary depending on the season, but stocked yearling fish usually reach between 1-1.5kg in their first year. Stocked brown trout have been found to live for 4-5 years in Victoria waters and as a result they can reach weights in excess of 4kg, which puts the quality of these fish on par with many of the country’s other salmonid fisheries.

There are a variety of techniques that work well on these riverine brown trout, however last season we spent a couple of days fishing the receding spring floodwaters and although we didn’t manage to find any sea run trout we did manage to sample some good brown trout action in fast, shallow water using bibbed minnows.

Our favourite time to target the larger trout in these waters is when the water level and flow is dropping as the spring floodwaters subside. At this time of year the fish that have come out to feed on the floodplains and flooded margins drop back into the main channels of the river and take up station in among the boulder runs and at the bases of  the waterfalls. They are usually very opportunistic at this time of the year, which makes for exciting fishing. The fish will usually sit in quite shallow water close to the banks and you can literally walk right up near them and cast to likely looking pocket water.

During this period we used mainly floating/diving bibbed minnow patterns. We prefer the Rapala style minnows, although there are plenty of similar products on the market. One of the main reasons the floating/diving minnows are so effective in these situations is that they give you some flexibility, particularly in the shallower runs where you find most of the bigger fish at this time of year. You can cast them over structure such as logs or boulders, let them drift and then retrieve them. This reduces snagging and also allows you to cover the water behind the structure where the fish will be taking up position out of the current waiting for food to wash past.

Spring – ie, the next few months as you read this – is also an excellent time of year to target structure such as waterfalls and plunge pools as the fish will move up against natural barriers and reside in the well oxygenated pools. This can result in a natural fish attracting and congregating structure and provide fishing opportunities for fish that would usually never see an angler at other times of the year. A classic example of this type of structure is Hopkins Falls located on the Hopkins River that has a drop of around 12m and provides a geographical barrier to the upstream migration of fish even during significant floods. When fishing this area, anglers should try targeting the heads and  tails of pools and keep moving to cover as much water as possible. I usually have a dozen casts at each spot before moving on.

It’s important that you match the  lure to the size of the baitfish the trout are feeding on. Most of their diet consists of gudgeon and galaxias, which are between five and 10cm in length depending on the time of year, so don’t be afraid to use larger minnow patterns.  Some colours work better than others  in the discoloured water and lures  with a light/dark silhouette seem to  get most of the strikes. The vibration  of the bibbed minnow also adds to its attractiveness. The floating diving  7cm Rapala minnow we used easily fitted in the mouths of these bigger trout and often they were well down  the fish’s throat. One thing to note is that it is important to sharpen your hooks after you have landed a fish. 

Most hooks will be sharp straight out of the packet, but it doesn’t hurt to check just to be sure.

When targeting trout in these waters, using quality tackle is a must. We prefer using a light 7ft spinning rod and a 2000 sized reel loaded with four pound braid. The reason we prefer braid over monofilament is because when you’re spinning in moving water the braid offers much less resistance in the water so you can keep close contact with your lure. Other braid benefits are that the lures swims more naturally and you  can feel every bump or strike. The fine diameter of braid also allows you to  cast light lures a considerable distance to reach pocket water on the other side of the river. To help prevent knots in  the braid when casting it’s important that you wind the line on the reel  under some tension otherwise it may twist and tangle after repetitive casting.

When using braid you need to use a leader to provide some shock absorption when a big fish strikes. Fluorocarbon  in 4kg breaking strain will cover most situations and generally you only need  to downsize when the water is very clear or the fish are wary.  Despite the fact that fluorocarbon is usually more visible in freshwater than saltwater it doesn’t seem to put the fish off, particularly when spinning.  It’s preferable to have  a little strength in reserve when fishing in these waters as you never know when a big fish will appear, particularly  when fishing around structure. 

To attach your shock leader to your braid simply double over the braid and tie a back to back uni knot with three wraps on the fluorocarbon leader and 8-10 wraps in the braid for maximum strength.

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