Winter in Victoria. It’s cold, wet, grey and it’s not even snapper season. Who but the most hardened sea salt would venture out?
Although boat ownership across Australia has increased over recent years, boating for many people in and around Melbourne tends to be limited to summer. As much as we’d love to head to the Continental Shelf to chase tuna, the reality of holidays, work commitments and owning a tinnie combine is that venturing out for most us happens over the warmer months.
Except, it doesn’t have to be that way at all.
Cold, calm and predictable
To get an idea of what true winter boating is like, look no further than the ice, anti-freeze and mandatory winterising procedures endured by people in Europe and North America.
Victorian boaters are blessed with surprisingly mild winters, yet there’s a misconception that the weather is not conducive to safe or enjoyable boating. While it certainly gets cold, winter can often be more predictable and calmer than summer.
"The weather in Port Phillip Bay is not too bad in winter time,” says Charlie Micallef, charter operator and presenter at the long-running Savage Seas Adventures fishing show. “You get crisp and cold days, but you don’t get the strong South-easterlies from the ocean like you do in spring and summer,” he says.
In other words, your trips can be planned with greater confidence because the wind can be more predictable than in summer.
Winter boating, if you hadn’t noticed, tends to be a lot more relaxed, unless you’re launching from a red hot tuna spot (as an added bonus, many marinas offer cheaper off-season rates). For a start, there are far fewer boats at the ramp, although it’s not for lack of fish.
“We have what we call gentleman’s hours,” says Charlie, referring to the hours on some of his own operation during winter. “You don’t have to get up at two or four in the morning, you can get up at say nine or ten. It starts to get crisp after four or four thirty so that’s when you come home with a good feed of fish. I love it; it’s a very rewarding time of year.”
The same logic naturally applies for when you’re on the water. Fewer boats mean you can fish your favourite spots in peace.
Preparation is key
One thing that Charlie thoroughly recommends is having everything organised the night before.
“My biggest tip is preparation. Don’t just get up in the morning and start putting your gear together. Gentlemen’s hours are limited before it starts to get cold so my advice is to get every single thing ready the night before,” he says.
Futzing around in the bitter cold is not fun so he lists simple things like trickle-charging your battery, putting up your clears before departure (those studs can get pretty stubborn) or, if you’re fortunate enough to own a hardtop, treating the windscreen with an additive so it doesn’t attract condensation.
“These little things make a big difference to your trip. You’re more relaxed so you can go out there and do what you want — and that’s catch fish,” he says.
While you’re preparing the night before, get your warm gear ready too: thermos, hat, fingerless gloves, ear muffs, sunnies, sandwiches, you name it.
Winter species galore
Winter boating would hardly be worth it if it weren’t for the fish, particularly since water-skiing and diving are (who’d a thought?) less popular in winter. Contrary to popular belief, there is plenty of good fishing to be had in winter.
“A lot of people think that the fish disappear over winter,” says Charlie. “Well, they don’t.”
Good numbers of fish can be found in the southern end of Port Phillip Bay and also in Bass Strait. “The key is to hit the fish when they’re feeding. That just takes a bit of time to learn. For me, it’s a challenge to get those fish in those cold temperatures. The fish are still there, they just don’t feed as often as they do in the warm water.”
Fishing in winter doesn’t have to be hard though. For bread and butter species you can’t go wrong with that classic winter species, the big calamari, or bottom bouncing for the ever-reliable flathead. Pinkie snapper, bream, salmon, King George whiting and gummies are among the many more options.
Charlie says fish behaviour and movement varies a little from year to year, though not massively. His recommendation is to be patient.
“One of the important things to do is to keep a diary. The same species of fish will come to the same location, year in, year out. You might be out by a couple of weeks but it is really, really important to keep a diary. After a couple of years you’ll see there’s a pattern. Write down everything — the wind conditions, the bait you use, obviously the location, even the colour of your underpants if you think that’s important!”