Spring is the season of anticipation for southern anglers. A time when the mindset of many an angler turns to the crimson snapper tide working its way into Western Port and Port Phillip Bays.
Forget about the old-timers who tell you the fishing isn’t as good as it used to be. Snapper fishing in Australia hasn’t been better in my lifetime. Last season was a mite slow, but all fisheries have highs and lows. Over the past decade or so, Port Phillip Bay has experienced what is best described as crimson tides in the spring.
Snapper fishing is an adventure; a challenge that brings rewards for effort and is particularly suited to the single-minded angler. For as long as I can remember, fishing has been my passion, and as with all pursuits, there are turning points. Mine came when I was 14 and doing time at high school. A classmate, Trevor Harper, was similarly imbued with fishing, but he was farther ahead of me in terms of angling knowledge and experience, and already had caught snapper to about 5kg.
Trevor and I hit it off and we started to fish together at a small sand spit lagoon situated at the northern end of Corio Bay. Better known as the Grammar School Lagoon, it was to become legendary for its winter snapper.
The Lagoon is a small, sheltered water. About 100 metres wide at the entrance, it opened into a circular bay about two kilometres long and one kilometre wide. The entrance was at the western end where there was an old wooden jetty on the northern shore, and sand spit that came two-thirds of the way across the Lagoon from the southern shore.
We fished off the jetty, the spit or out of a small wooden dinghy. Bait was usually small salmon or mullet that we had caught. Salmon was the preferred bait and we would row the dinghy for hours trolling chrome Wonder Wobblers until we had enough bait. Sometimes, when the salmon were big, we caught more bait than we could use, because catching them was great sport. As for the mullet, we would usually dig up sandworms and fish for the mullet from the jetty.
Trevor knew more about snapper than I did, and he gleaned most of his information from a couple of older guys: fishing writer Geoff Wilson and Ross Middleton. Dyed-in-the-wool snapper anglers, Geoff and Ross would spend hundreds of hours a year fishing for snapper from autumn through spring. They showed us how to rig our lines, where to fish and when and, just as important, let us read their fishing diaries. For a few budding snapper anglers, it was like a digger striking a rich vein in the Ballarat goldfields. In a short time, we learned more about the ways of snapper than anyone has done since. These two mentors went on to become lifelong friends.
I would ride my bike to the Lagoon to fish at every opportunity. The ride took about 40 minutes and I must have looked a sight: fishing rods were tied to the cross bar, tackle bag strapped to a carrier on the back, and a sleeping bag as well for an all-night session. As for clothes, we carried only what we could wear; there simply wasn’t room enough for anything else.
Tackle was different. Our reels bore names like Magna-Flite, Capstan, Surfmaster Avoca, Pfleuger Sea King and Penn Squidder. Rods started out as bamboo but eventually were upgraded to solid fibreglass, and we used the old cane rods to extend the butts on our rods so we could cast further. Lines haven’t changed much at all. A favourite was 7kg Damyl in a dark brown colour; other brands like Water Queen and Amilan were also used. We didn’t employ heavy leader material as most anglers do now. We fished 7kg all the way through to the hooks – 4/0 Mustad 92554 Suicide pattern – and hardly ever lost a snapper by being bitten off.
My first snapper was a long time coming. There was a year of solid fishing before I managed to land a 3kg fish but, as is the way of life, once you break the duck everything seems to fall into place and the snapper came along easier and more often.
It was the same when I managed to land my first fish over 9kg (20 pounds). I caught it on the high tide, three mornings after the New Moon on June 11, 1967. Another school chum, Bill Van Berkel, gaffed the snapper that pulled the scales down to 20 pounds 4 ounces or 9.18kg. It was a good morning because we caught another snapper about 3kg and Trevor caught a couple of 6kg fish from the jetty.
Carrying snapper home wasn’t easy: when there was just the one fish it was a matter of riding your bike one-handed and supporting the weight of the fish on your leg as you pedalled. Those were competitive days. If one of us caught a couple of snapper and no-one else had any, then life sometimes became more difficult and it was a case of “you caught ’em you carry ’em”.
Those were happy days. Today, snapper still give me a buzz despite many changes. Tackle has evolved from bamboo and solid fibreglass to fast taper tubular glass composite rods, some with solid tips. Fishing reels have improved out of sight, lines are more reliable, and the choice has widened. Even hooks, although the patterns are the same, are much better and most of us use chemically sharpened hooks as first choice. Today’s snapper angler fishes mostly from a boat, aluminium or fibreglass, and has a sounder and GPS unit on board as standard equipment. It’s a long way from rowing a small wooden pram dinghy.
As for me, snapper fishing continues to be an adventure. About four years back fishing off Point Lowly in Spencer Gulf with Jim Harris, Lawrie Birdseye and Rob North, I pulled more 9kg fish in a three-hour session than I had caught in 30 years in Port Phillip Bay. The biggest snapper of that session weighed 15.3kg; we released many 9kg plus fish and I remember thinking: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
I was wrong. Two years later, I was involved in an even hotter session of big snapper with Gus Storer, Rod Mackenzie, Jim Harris and Richard Carr. This time we were at the southern end of Spencer Gulf and we caught snapper on all methods: soft plastic lures, saltwater fly and bait. It was a truly cosmic experience. Our smallest fish nudged 8kg. No one is certain how many big snapper were caught and released, but everyone had at least a few dozen fish of 9kg or more to his name.
Fishing for snapper has taken me to many places in Australia and New Zealand. My snapper adventures range from rock ledges to bays to the magnificent snapper of South Australia’s Spencer Gulf. Since that first 3kg snapper in June 1966, snapper have never let me down. I no longer ride a bike, row a dinghy, or fish with Trevor or Bill, and these days I carry my fish home in a tub in the back of my car.
Snapper still give me a buzz because I love the adventure of new grounds, trying alternative methods and above all, I love the adrenalin rush when that big, red-flanked whopper appears on the end of my line from the depths, dorsal fins erect and opalescent blue spots glowing like luminous beads along its lateral line – I hope you feel the same.
The good news is that snapper are working their way inshore into our bays. It isn’t a crimson tide yet, but over the next month the flood will come and then the fun starts.
Author: Steve Cooper
STEVE COOPER won two Walkley Awards for investigative journalism but his great love is fishing and he is renowned as one of Australia’s foremost writers and broadcasters on the subject.