Western Port Bay is only an hours drive from the Melbourne CBD, it is the little brother of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay and separated from it by the Mornington Peninsula. Western Port covers 680 square kilometres and surrounds two large islands, French Island and Phillip Island. Unlike Port Phillip Bay, Western Port has two entrances from Bass Strait, one on either side of Phillip Island; the eastern entrance going under the San Remo bridge, and the Western entrance passing in between the nobbies and the west head at Flinders. There are three main areas of fishing and boating; the northern, eastern and western arms. Western Port contains three marine national parks, French Island, Churchill Island and Yaringa.
Growing up in the Bayside suburbs of Melbourne, Port Phillip Bay is where I first cut my teeth on fishing as a kid catching garfish and squid off the local piers and rocks. As I grew older and acquired myself a boat I fished Port Phillip Bay quite hard from St Kilda to Frankston, but this is only a small area of the massive bay.
Whilst Port Phillip Bay does have some great fishing on offer with snapper, whiting and squid, I found that there was a lot more on offer in Western Port. When looking at fishing reports and seeing captures of mulloway, huge gummy sharks, school sharks and even the ugly old elephant fish it was clear that this was a challenge I had to accept. Another thing I noticed about Western Port was the amount of Tee Tree winning snapper that had come out of the bay. There always seemed to be a lot more 20lb fish being caught out of Western Port than Port Phillip.
When I first ventured to Western Port I had no idea what I was doing. With sand bars, tides, weed and the general structure of Western Port I found it very tough and went home empty handed on at least five or six occasions in a row. I was determined to learn how to fish Western Port to its full potential so I hired a guide, Gawaine Blake, and quickly learnt some key factors to successful fishing in Western Port
1. Bait presentation
If your bait is spinning, you won’t be catching. Try tying a Mars Bar to a piece of string and swing it around your head while trying to take a bite! It’s not so easy is it? Same goes for the fish. Before every cast place your bait and rig into the water to check for spinning. If it’s spinning, rig it again and don’t bother casting out until you get it right.
Due to the currents in Western Port, led up to 20oz can be needed in certain areas. Fishing with braid or mono will make a difference to the weight of sinkers you will need. An ‘ezy rig’ set up is a must as shown in this photo. Tying a dropper, using a lighter line than your main line, to your easy rig is more effective because it can keep your bait up of the bottom and if your sinker gets snagged you will be able to break off your dropper line and still fight your fish and get the rest of your gear back to your boat. Choice of hook is up to the individual but I prefer circle hooks for the option of catch and release.
Western Port is a great place to catch your own fresh bait. In my opinion it’s the better of the two bays for squid fishing. There is no shortage of weed beds holding squid in Western Port. Also due to Western Ports’ underwater structure there are always bait fish to be caught such as yakkas, slimy mackerel, cowenyoung, salmon, couta and trevally. It doesn’t take much, a frozen burley log in a weighted burley cage dropped down in front of any decent structure including pylons and jetties (be sure to abide by guidelines and distances) My favourite method is to use a bait jig or Sabiki, slowly jigged up and down in your burley trail and you will catch bait.
Someone once told me that you could only fish Western Port an hour either side of the tide. This is not true, you can fish anytime in Western Port, as long as there is movement you are in with a good chance, BUT, I have had some very surprising catches on dead slack tide. Just because the tide stops doesn’t mean you should take your bait out of the water, this can be a frustrating time whilst at anchor waiting for your boat to turn with the tide but keep at least one bait each in the water, you just never know.
This is why I love Western Port over Port Phillip Bay, when sounding Port Phillip Bay you will find endless miles of flat nothing with the occasional humps and bumps holding fish like an oasis in the desert. If you don’t know where these marks are you can be fishing blind a lot of the time. Western Port has so many channels, gutters, bommies, sandbars and so much structure that your options seem endless. This is why it’s important to have a quality sounder and GPS plotter. Western Port is not somewhere you want to be travelling around at night if you don’t have a plotter and don’t know your way around. Fishing the edge of channels will more often than not produce gummy sharks as this is the way they navigate their way around the port and learning where to intercept these fish is the key to success.
The beautiful thing about Western Port is no matter which way the wind is blowing there is always somewhere to hide and always somewhere nearby to launch your boat from. With French Island smack bang in the middle of the Port you should have no trouble finding shelter. Stony Point, Blind Bight, Corinella, Hastings, Tooradin, Newhaven, Cowes, Warneet, Lang Lang, Grantville, Flinders and Rhyll all have concrete ramps, some better than others. Check your tides before launching if you have a bigger boat.
What’s on offer
Coming into May it’s big squid time in the Port especially in the Flinders and Cat Bay region close to the entrance of the Western arm. There are always big squid to be caught but this time of year is best. Drop shotting (paternoster rig with squid jig attached to your loop) for squid in the deeper water of 6-12 meters whilst on the drift can produce some absolute thumpers. Squid are more active this time of year due to the colder water temperature of 13-15 degrees, which are prime spawning temperatures. This is the time that large numbers will move in from Bass Strait and head throughout the bay.
During May massive insurgents of elephant sharks to an area described as ‘the triangle’ which runs northwest from Newhaven to Tortoise Head, east to Corinella and then southwest to Newhaven. Generally elephant sharks are not known for their eating quality and have a bag limited of one fish per angler. With such high numbers of them around they can be great fun on light gear, especially if you want to take your kids out for a day of fun on the water. But please do be careful handling them as they have a large spine on their back and you would certainly know about it if this should spike you, it could put an end to an otherwise great day.
There is never a shortage of gummy sharks in Western Port, if you put in the hours and use fresh bait you will be rewarded. The only reason people don’t catch them in winter is because they generally don’t fish for them (too cold, soft!) With the colder temperatures and less boat traffic on the water the bigger females will move up the Northern arm as far up as Lang Lang and are often caught as a bi-catch whilst targeting winter snapper.
Melbourne is famous for its run of snapper. Snapper will start their run into the Port from September through to December. The last couple of years haven’t seen the numbers compared to Port Phillip but there are on average more 20lb fish caught in Western Port than Port Phillip Bay every year. If you are looking for that big knobber, Western Port is the place to go. The northern arm from Tortoise Head to Warneet produces some great snapper fishing throughout the season.
King George whiting
Once the snapper season starts to slow down a lot of anglers will start to target King George whiting as the warmer months approach. December through to March sees huge numbers of whiting throughout the entire Port. Whiting are quite easily caught on fresh squid, pippies or muscles and usually once you have caught one you are onto a school of them and it is not long until you have bagged out. Some cracking big flathead are often caught while targeting King George whiting and in my opinion you can’t beat that as a good bi-catch! Large winter whiting averaging from 42-50cms can be found in the Cat Bay and Flinders region. The numbers won’t be as high as in summer but the size will definitely be bigger.
Mulloway are one of the most elusive fish in Western Port and one of the most highly prized captures. The best months to fish for mulloway are November through to March and they are more often than not caught in the dirty tidal waters up and around the Corinella region. Whilst these fish are usually caught as a bi-catch to snapper there are dedicated mulloway fishermen who target these prized beauties, fish up to 30kg are not uncommon.
Whilst I have listed the main targeted species of fish for Western Port there is always bi-catch. There is never a shortage of what I call the undesirable fish, only due to the fact that I would not keep or eat any of these fish. Banjo sharks, port Jackson sharks, eagle rays, sting rays, skate, seven gill shark, wobbygong and rock cod to name a few. To be honest, whilst these fish are not targeted, as long as you are bending a rod they can still be fun and for someone who may have never caught one before, they can be a great catch.
There is no shortage of landbased options in Western Port. Flinders Jetty, Merricks Beach, Stony Point Pier, Hastings Jetty, Tooradin Inlet, Corinella Pier, San Remo Jetty, Rhyll Jetty, Cowes Jetty, as well as accessible beaches all around Phillip Island including the surf beaches. There are too many landbased places you can fish to list them all. That’s part of the beauty of Western Port, you are never short of options on where to wet a line. When fishing landbased try to apply the same methods as you would do when fishing out of a boat, always take burley and try to catch your own bait if possible. Remember you don’t necessarily need to cast a million miles to catch a fish, if you are standing on a pier don’t forget you are standing on structure, fish congregate in and around the pylons of piers and jetties. If you can manage to burley up the bait fish you will most likely attract the bigger fish. So don’t be intimidated by the tides and strong currents as these will only improve your catch. So long as you have a bait in the water you stand a good chance of catching fish because Western Port is the bay that keeps on giving. I often describe Western Port to be like a tatts scratchy ticket, you could win a dollar or one hundred thousand dollars you just never know.