Beginners’ guide to fishing Port Phillip Bay

Travelling Well | Sue Hewitt | Image: Getty | Posted on 27 January 2021

Fishing expert Ben Scullin tackles the most-asked questions for novice anglers.

Melburnians are blessed with bountiful Port Phillip Bay, where even first-timers can dangle a line and hook their own seafood basket. 

There are few summer pastimes more rewarding than barbecuing your fresh catch on a beachside barbecue as the sun sets over the water, says fishing expert Ben Scullin.  

“Fishing in the bay is amazingly easy, you’ll be rewarded with a seafood basket of calamari and pinkies (snapper), flathead or bream,” says Ben, from Victoria’s peak recreational fishing body, VRFish.

“One warning, though – after eating fresh-caught fish and calamari, it will ruin you for restaurant seafood.” 

A person fishing

Most commonly asked questions for novice fishers

What rod should I use?

Ben suggests beginners choose a general-purpose spinning-combo rod and reel, about two metres long and weighing about three to five kilograms. For around $100, most fishing kits include a tackle box with hooks, spinners, swivels, sinkers and floats.  

What about tackle?

If you’re angling for a particular fish, the Victorian Fisheries Authority has species-specific guides with advice on what hooks and other tackle you need to attract your quarry, but generally just a hook and sinker will do.

What’s the best bait?

Ben recommends asking local tackle shop staff who know what works in their water, where and when the fish are biting, and what bait to use. He says the best general baits are pilchards, pippies, whitebait and even chicken fillets.

What time should I cast a line?

Although sunrise and sunset are regarded as the optimum time for fishing, the best time to dangle a line is when the tide changes, triggering a fish feeding frenzy. “You don’t need to hit the water at 4am to catch fish,” Ben says. You can keep office hours and still land a big haul if you check the Bureau of Meteorology’s tide predictions.

He recommends timing your fishing to tie in with your coastal feast and look for a tide change just before lunch or dinner time.

Do you need a boat?

No, says Ben. You can catch fish from shore as well as from a riverbank or pier. Or you can join a fishing charter boat from about $60 for a half day, per person for 20 people, with fishing gear and advice provided. A specialist charter fishing for snapper or bluefin tuna will set you back about $200 each for about eight people.

Any secret tips?

When fishing for calamari the best way to find them is to walk the pier and check for the tell-tale ink-blots that squid squirt when they have been landed. These indicate what depth the calamari are being caught at, and the fresher the ink-blot the better. 

To find flathead and other good eating fish such as whiting and pinkie snapper, look for dark areas of reef or weed beds where they meet light patches of sand. Fish like to hang out on the edges.

What do I need for a beach feast?

Catching fish and calamari for the table is all about preparation and care for the catch, says Ben. The very best seafood is not only freshly caught but also humanely dispatched and chilled immediately. 

You’ll need a sharp knife to quickly ‘dispatch’ (kill) the fish, a chopping board for easy filleting and an old tea towel to hold the fish and protect you from any spikes while you’re at it. Bring a bucket you can fill with seawater for cleaning the fish and a cooler bag with ice to store your cleaned catch. Some boat ramps will have a fish-cleaning table and a bin. Don’t throw the left-over fish frames back into the water.

To really make the most of your beach feast, don’t forget seasonings, oil and your favourite herbs. If you’re catching calamari, Ben suggests taking along a bagged mix of breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, poppy seeds and herbs. Once the calamari is cleaned, slice into rings, add to the bag and shake to coat before frying quickly in oil. 

What can you catch in the bay?

Ben says the bay offers a huge variety of delicious eating fish from a pan-sized pinkie snapper to huge gummy sharks, also known as flake, which can be caught off a pier. When fishing for gummy sharks, Ben suggests fishing from a pier ladder or a lower landing to avoid breaking the line – or ask fellow anglers for help. 

He is also a fan of delicately flavoured garfish, Australian salmon, and trevally, which he says is one of the most delicious fish to eat raw.

Ben suggests checking out the Victorian Fisheries Authority’s guide to fishing in the bay.

Are there restrictions or rules I need to know about?

Before you cast off, you need a recreational fishing licence – unless you’re under the age of 18 or over 70, or have an exemption. A three-day licence can be bought via the Victorian Fisheries Authority’s website for $10. Bag limits and fish sizes are policed – find out more at the VFA website

Beyond the bay

While Port Phillip Bay is Melbourne’s water playground, inland rivers and lakes also offer plenty of fun fishing.  

For inland fisherman Stefan Bruni, there’s no greater prize than a Murray cod. “There’s nothing better than catching a Murray cod and holding it in your hand – they’re our largest native fish,” says Stefan, president of the Cobram Barooga Anglers Club. 

Most caught cod go back in the water. There’s a 55-centimetre to 75-centimetre size limit and many anglers catch and release fish even if they’re the legal size. “That way they’re there for the next time,” he says. 

And if fishing isn’t enough of a lure in itself, your angling adventure could hook more than you bargained for. The VFA has relaunched its Golden Tag fishing competition, releasing 20 fish with tags worth $10,000 each, and 50 tags worth $2000 each, in Victorian waters. Added to the 950 $2000 fish remaining from last year’s release, there are more than 1000 prize-winning fish to be caught across the state. One lucky angler caught a $10,000 fish at Lake Purrumbete near Camperdown in November.