The Troll Game: Lake Bullen Merri

DESTINATIONS: Lake Bullen Merri, SW Victoria

If trophy-sized trout and Atlantic salmon are on your hit list, hitch up the boat and head to Lake Bullen Merri. By SCOTT GRAY.

LAKE Bullen Merri is one of Victoria’s premier salmonid fisheries. Located just off the Princess Highway about 200km southwest of Melbourne, the lake is stocked annually with about 40,000 yearling salmonids (namely brown and rainbow trout and, more recently, Atlantic salmon).

Lake Bullen Merri is a brackish volcanic crater lake which reaches 60m in depth. Its very productive water is high in nutrients and provides habitat for massive populations of small forage fish, such as galaxias and gudgeon. These baitfish form the diet of the stocked trout and salmon and are one of the reasons these species exhibit excellent growth rates in the lake.

Salmonid growth rates vary from year to year, but it’s common for most salmonids stocked into the lake to reach around the 2kg mark in their first year after stocking. With some brown trout reaching 4-5 years of age, the lake produces trout in excess of 5kg for some lucky anglers.

While the lake fishes particularly well for shore-based anglers during the winter and spring months, it’s an outstanding waterway for trolling from a boat all year round. The period from May to November is probably best for trolling when the water quality and temperatures are ideal for peak salmonid activity.

The lake is relatively featureless and there are very few weed beds, which makes trolling very simple. There are a variety of trolling techniques that will catch fish – many anglers simply flatline lures behind their boats or attach trolling weights to their lines and do laps of the lake – but if you take a little bit of time and use the latest technology you’ll consistently catch good fish even when conditions are difficult. Technically it all sounds pretty simple, but this is one fishery that can provide the opportunity to catch the fish of your dreams or just completely drive you mad!

One of the most effective ways to fish Bullen Merri is to use a variety of techniques in order to find out which works best on the day. Once you’ve worked out what’s getting the bites, you switch over and hopefully reap the rewards. As a general rule, the fish rise from the depths to the shallows during darkness and then retreat to the deeper waters as the sun comes up, then rise once again as the light drops in the afternoon. While rainbow trout are catchable throughout the day at a range of depths, it’s the trophy-sized brown trout that are the main attraction for more experienced anglers.

My days on the lake usually start very early – an hour or two before dawn. First light is a great time to catch fish, but a lot of people don’t realise how effective trolling in the darkness can be if your boat is set up correctly. I usually troll using an 80lb Minn Kota electric motor, which gives me complete stealth on the shallower margins between 2-6m depth. The electric motor gives my 5.5m open boat incredible versatility. The iPilot function on this unit allows me to control the motor from the rear of the boat by remote. While this motor also has the capability to learn tracks by itself in this situation, I prefer to monitor the pre-determined track marked on the GPS and keep an eye on the rods near the transom. By doing this even in complete darkness you can comfortably and safely fish the peak pre-dawn period.

Bibbed minnow lures are dynamite trolled at slow speeds (usually less than 2km/h) in the darkness. A selection of bibbed minnows in the 7-11cm range (which matches the size of the baitfish) are effective. While filming an episode of Adventure Bound for Season 11 this year the best results came from using the Rapala Max Rap 11, Jointed Minnow 09 and X Rap 06 and 08 fish at least 40m behind the boat on the flatlines.

As the sun rises the fish tend to disperse. I follow them out to the deeper water and switch to a range of techniques to increase the chances of a hook-up. Despite the lake’s depth, I rarely fish in more than 20m of water. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, in the autumn and late spring the lake will start to stratify and most of the fish can be found from the surface to the thermocline, which is usually about 10-15m in depth. In this situation there’s no need to fish deeper. Secondly, in the cooler months when the stratification breaks down, most of the feeding fish will be found on the bait balls in water less than 20m. Very rarely do you ever see bait aggregations any deeper than that.

In the more open water I prefer fishing a combination of rods include using flatlines (with or without attach weights), a leadcore line and a downrigger. The use of the electric motor is preferred at all times, however if the wind gets up I usually fire up the Evinrude, until I find a more protected cove to revert back to the silence of the electric.

The flatlines are best fished at least 40-50m behind the boat. If the fish are finicky or there’s a lot of boat traffic, don’t be afraid to fish them even further back. Attach weights can be clipped onto your mainline to sink the lures down to your preferred depth. These are very simple to use: just attach a small lead bomb to the clip, let your lure out 20m then attach the clip and let another 20m of line out. If you hook up, simply retrieve your line until you can reach over and unclip the weight then continue the fight. This is a very cheap and versatile technique to get your lures down without having to invest in a more expensive downrigger or leadcore setup.

Speaking of that, leadcore outfits can be very effective in Bullen Merri. I usually fish an overhead reel capable of holding five colours of 14lb leadcore. Each colour is 10m and I usually fish at least 3-4 colours which, depending on your speed, will sink your lure about two metres per colour. It may take a little trial and error until you find how the speed of the boat or action of the lure affects the depth at which the line will run. To the end of the leadcore I usually attach a dodger (which is a kind of flasher), a short length of 12lb monofilament and then the preferred lure. Various lures work well behind the leadcore; winged lures like Cobras and Tassie devils are universally popular with trout trollers. This season the new Blue Fox Trout Quiver Wobbler worked extremely well fished behind the leadcore and on the downrigger behind a set of cowbells. I’m looking forward to doing some more experimenting with these lures in the coming months.

Downriggers give you extreme flexibility for fishing at depth through the daylight and are best fished using an added attractor such as a ford fender or set of cowbells with the lures attached no more than a metre or so behind in tow. These attractors will help to bring the fish closer to your lure at depth. It is important, however, to keeps your eyes glued to your depth sounder as you will often be required to retrieve or drop your lead bomb depending on the undulating underwater landscape or location of the fish. When trolling at Lake Bullen Merri you will often mark big bait schools with fish underneath so it’s a good idea to fish your bomb just below the major bait aggregations. If you’re fishing the right depths but find the fish are slow then continue to change your lure as you’ll often find one particular lure or colour will catch most of the fish on any given day.

With a variety of trolling techniques employed it’s up to the fish to see what works best. Persisting through the day at a range of depths will bring results until the next low light period when the bigger browns return for the next feed of the day. It’s then time to change your setup back to shallow running minnows and return to the edges for the evening session.

Even if you’re chasing big fish there is no real reason to overcompensate with heavier spin gear. Standard 2-4kg threadline outfits with reels spooled with 2-4kg braid or mono will suffice. The only suggestion I have is that you upsize your leader to 8-12lb strength and as this water is brackish you can get away with using fluorocarbon as well, which gives you a little more abrasion resistance.
Rigging up
I don’t have anything against treble hooks, but I have found a set of opposed single hooks is very effective when trolling, particularly when using winged lures or wobblers. This is very effective when fishing for large fish when you want to make sure you get a solid hook-up. I use Gamakatsu Siwash hooks in size 2-6, depending on the lure size. These hooks have a wide eyelet which makes them easy to thread onto a split ring and they will swing freely. When threading the lure on ensure you place the hooks on in an opposed way. While they don’t look very threatening to a fish when the lure is being trolled, when the fish actually hits the lure they split open and create a wide gap for excellent hook setting capability.

Lake Bullen Merri is open to fishing all year round and you can use two rods per person at any time. The daily bag limit for salmonids is five fish per person per day with no minimum legal size limit.
There’s only one boat ramp at Lake Bullen Merri, situated at the southern end of the lake. The two-lane concrete ramp and facilities are excellent and vessels up to 6m can be launched with little effort. Toilets, showers and BBQs are located close to the ramp. These facilities make it easy to enjoy a family day out fishing.

The Lakes and Craters Holiday Park is situated along the lake’s north crater perimeter. The views from the holiday park are awesome and although camping and van sites are available the cabins are excellent value for under $100 night and include all modern conveniences. These are great when visiting in the cooler months and give you a place to go back and warm up and have a hot shower after a long day on the water. There’s plenty of car and boat parking, a playground and BBQs. For more info contact (03) 55931253; email:

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