How to fish Port Phillip Bay
The experts tell how to lure the catch of the day.
When it comes to fishing on Port Phillip Bay, the world’s your oyster. Some of Australia’s big names in seafood, including red snapper and King George whiting, lurk in these waters. There’s gummy shark, mulloway and garfish, flathead, trevally and bream, along with more squid than you can poke a jig at.
From Portarlington to Portsea, everyone from larking families to elderly fisherfolk in search of their beloved cephalopods for a Mediterranean-style feast can be seen dropping a line in from historic wooden piers. The bay’s dedicated anglers all have their secret shore spots (no, they ain’t telling). But to really feel the undercurrents of this 1930-square-kilometre body of water encircled by Melbourne’s growing suburbia, nothing beats heading out on a boat for a day.
Setting out from Martha Cove on a mission for dinner.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessary to rise before dawn to catch a fish, although lifelong fisherman Shaun Furtiere, of Think BIG Fishing Charters, has fun with a complete newbie when he suggests a 5.30am cast-off.
Suitably caffeinated and dressed in layers (to ward off the chill) and sunblock (to ward off the sun), it’s the far more civilised hour of 8am when I meet Shaun on his boat at Martha Cove on the Mornington Peninsula. Joining us is Ashley Davis, chef-owner of Copper Pot Seddon and Messer in Fitzroy – a bloke who knows his seafood. Our mission: to dispel some myths, catch some fish, and score a delicious dinner. Easy.
Choose your quarry.
The red snapper is the hero of the bay, which is easy to understand. It’s tasty and looks great held aloft in an Instagram photo. But today we’re after squid and whiting. And that means choosing very different spots and very different tactics.
“Don’t make it hard for yourself and chop and change,” says Shaun. “Fishing here is very species-specific. You can’t go shopping. It’s the people who want a bit of everything who go home with nothing.”
Why squid and whiting? Because: delicious. “Whiting is my favourite eating fish,” says Ashley. “It’s so sweet, you don’t really have to do much to it when you’re cooking, just keep it nice and simple.”
It’s getting warm as we roar off to one of Shaun’s favourite squid hunting grounds. It’s important to find a current and let the boat drift while using a squid jig with vertical prongs, and to keep the jig moving in the water by jerking the line every three to five seconds.
Within minutes our first candidate emerges, a medium-sized squid that changes colour psychedelically as it reaches the shallows, before pumping an impressive amount of black ink over Shaun’s hands. It’s bagged and put in the giant Esky. Three more follow, the smallest of which Shaun turns into bait (another benefit of a charter is that the squeamish can let their captain do the messy stuff).
The fun of being out here isn’t simply confined to reeling in the bay’s bounty. It’s the sun, it’s the serenity, it’s the party pies Shaun keeps taking out of the warmer. Fishing, it transpires, combines our genetic predisposition for hunting and gathering with the Zen-like art of doing very little while appearing to do something.
Soon enough, anchored in sight of the heads where Queenscliff and Portsea bow to each other across the water, it’s back to work. As Shaun likes to say, it’s exciting when the whiting are biting. Probing the waters for our quarry – with whiting the technique is similarly to jig the line, fooling them into thinking it’s something alive and tasty – we come up empty-handed for 10 minutes until suddenly they start throwing themselves at the hook.
“With whiting, you catch one and all of a sudden you’re just reeling them in,” says Shaun as he energetically sets about playing deckhand, re-baiting lines with the practised efficiency of an old sea-dog.
One will always get away. I quickly become used to reeling in the line to see some sneaky fish has nibbled off the bait. One point fish, zero points me. Even worse is a tug on the line that turns out to be a pufferfish, the ugly and poisonous cane toad of the bay. But despite the puffers’ interference, my bag winds up with five King George whiting, two squid and a fat flathead. That’s dinner sorted.
The trip back to Martha Cove has more arresting sights, from divers in search of scallops to a pod of dolphins in search of their own fish dinner. Ashley points out the Rosebud foreshore, where he’s been known to dig up a kilogram of pipis in 20 minutes. The record ought to note that Shaun’s biggest catch was a 10-kilogram snapper and 25-kilogram gummy shark, both in Port Phillip Bay.
Ashley has been fishing since he was a child with his father and grandfather. “It equipped me with the skill early on for handling seafood,” he says. “I see fishing as the ultimate escapism – just nature, fresh air and perhaps a beer or two.”
As for me, whose primary contribution to the oeuvre has been an occasional Friday-night visit to the fish and chip shop – I’m in hook, line and sinker.
See the latest in boats and marine equipment at the RACV Marine 2019 Melbourne Boat Show, 13 to 16 June.
- Before you cast off, you need a recreational fishing licence – unless you’re under the age of 18 or over 70. A three-day licence can be bought via the Victorian Fisheries Authority’s website (vfa.vic.gov.au), for $10.
- Bag limits and fish sizes are policed – see the VFA website for details.
- Always wear a lifejacket and check latest forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology’s Marine & Ocean division (bom.gov.au/marine).
- Always let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
- Ensure you have the correct safety equipment on board – and know how to use it.
These five species are well worth tackling out on the bay.
- Snapper, King George whiting, flathead, squid, garfish.
No good with a rod? Fear not, fresh fish is available at these prime Port Phillip locations.
Buy the day’s catch straight off the trawler at Queenscliff’s marina.
Peninsula Fresh Seafood
Home of Dromana Bay mussels and much more. At Hastings foreshore, Hastings Market and Safety Beach foreshore.
White Fisheries, Drysdale
Fresh seafood from Port Phillip Bay and ocean-fishing vessels at wholesale prices.
Advance Mussel Supply, Bellarine
The home of fresh, local, sustainably farmed mussels and oysters – with a farm-gate shop and Little Mussel Cafe at Portarlington.
RACV Marine has all your boating needs covered. For boat insurance, finance, batteries and Emergency Roadside Assistance for your boat trailer and tow vehicle, go to racv.com.au/marine