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Port Phillip Bay Snapper Fishing Charter Tips

Port Phillip Bay Snapper Fishing Tips Matt Cini Melbourne's Best

For as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with fishing! As a kid, if there was a puddle, I’d be fishin’ it and it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when I started up Reel Time Fishing Charters. How else was I going to spend every day on the water?

I began fishing Port Phillip Bay seriously when I was just ten years old. The year was 1988 and the world as we know it was a different place.  Bob Hawke was PM, Australia celebrated its bicentennial year and Gun’s n Roses were the biggest rock band in the world! We didn’t have mobile phones, the internet, GPS’s, mass fishing media or the vast array of bait and tackle that we now take for granted.

Snapper fishing in Melbourne has come full circle

from when I was first learning. Back in the day, there were only a few ‘old salts’ at the ramp that would get the numbers of fish (these people know who they are) that we get today. One of the main reasons being that there just weren’t many people fishing and there weren’t the stocks of fish that we know today. In fact, when we used to fish on a Friday or Saturday night and you saw one light on the horizon 10km away, it felt reassuring to know that you had company. Without the luxury of a mobile phone, we relied on our trusty 27 MHz radios to communicate, which were actually very reliable for their time. These days with a number of anglers using them, you will quite often have to wait ten minutes to get a word in! There weren’t queues to launch your boat and most sunny Saturday mornings, there would only be about 10 or 20 people parked at the ramp. Now you need to be there early to get a park and wait in queues to launch your boat, as you join hundreds of other anglers who are just as keen as you to get out there and enjoy a day’s fishing.  

So why is snapper fishing in Melbourne so good now you ask?

Well, the fishing environment was also very different back then as it was during this time when the whole eastern seaboard was being dredged every single day by scallop dredgers. It was not a pretty sight, in fact, it was terrible! The bay was being raped of its freedom to grow and there were limited areas for growth. The water would be almost grey with sediment crawling through it and most of the anchovy schools would die as their gills became clogged with sediment which left a little food for a productive waterway. During the windier and rainy months of August and September, I can recall the mouth of Patterson River looking like a ‘mud hole’ with dirty water and plastic bags floating out as far as the eye can see. Once the weather would settle, it would take at least three to four weeks to clear. Fast forward to today and the baby is showing signs of a healthy and productive system and only takes a couple of days to clear and even then it only runs out about 3kms at the very worst.

Thanks to all of the people who fought to have the dredging stopped and restrict the amount of pollution that falls into the Yarra, the bay is slowly but surely recovering and the anchovy and pilchard schools are thicker than ever. The snapper, as well as salmon, garfish, juvenile squid and couta all now have an unlimited source of baitfish to feed on as anchovy/whitebait and pilchard is the major food source for the mid-range size fish we catch in the bay.

The seabed has had a chance to settle and there are many artificial reefs and natural reefs that are slowly growing back and creating habitat for the juvenile snapper to feed and seek shelter from predators. This in itself is the biggest and most important part of the recovery, as sea grass and natural and artificial reefs act as filters and keep the bay in its pristine condition.

Since starting my charter business five years ago, I can be on the water for 12-18 hours a day and catch up to 3000 snappers in the season. Sure, time on the water has been an essential factor in my success, but more importantly, I have learnt to understand their feeding habits, migration around the bay and how weather conditions, such as the wind, barometer, water temperature and moon phase affect this. All in all, I’ve seen a lot of changes and learnt a lot in my 20 odd years of fishing and as we embark on the 2009 snapper season, I would like to share with you some tips I’ve picked up along the way…

Setting up your Vessel for Port Phillip Bay Snapper

Although land based fishing can be very satisfying, nothing beats being out on the water. Here are some essential things you will need on your boat for the correct way to catch snapper.

1) a snapper rack or three-way rod holders aiming horizontal or streamline of the vessel. Have one for each side of the boat as you will need to be consistent with checking your baits and a minimum of six rods should be used i.e. three per side in a fan.

2) You will need a bait board big enough to at least fit a block of pilchards on it and good sharp knives as you will be consistently cutting and cubing pilchards for burley and also preparing squid baits and so on.

3) For those of you who have bigger boats, an anchor winch is a must! By this, I mean a barrel winch, which is actually very user-friendly and comes with minimal if any maintenance. You will need a minimum of 50m of rope, (I prefer to have 100m) and you should have very heavy, small linked chain that is at least one and a half times the length of your vessel. I choose to have 15m of the chain because I don’t have to pull it up, the winch does, and if I mark up fish in a certain spot I can position my boat right on top of them without feeling like I’m going to drift. Also, don’t worry about anchor noise when fishing amongst school snapper in Port Phillip Bay as I find it attracts them. In the early days, we would often pull the anchor up and drop it in again when the fishing slowed just to create some activity. This method usually worked and we would get a hit straight away. Most fish will scatter from noise but snapper is inquisitive and will tend to come over to see what’s going on. Unless of course, you’re fishing for bigger snapper in the shallows, older fish, 8-13kg have become wise to the sound of boating and will scatter and not come back.

4) Good lighting is also essential, not only to see what you’re doing at night but for the safety of yourself and others. There can be hundreds of boats on the water at any one time and it can be easy to run into someone who doesn’t have adequate lighting. Both of my boats are fully decked out in Hella Marine LED products because they are the brightest lighting on the market and they also draw minimal amps from your battery ensuring that you don’t have a flat battery when you go to start your engine.

Importance of a GPS in Port Phillip Bay for Snapper 

No one should leave the river without a GPS. I choose to use Furuno because it suits my style of navigation but there are many other good brands on the market.

The main benefits of a GPS are to guide you home safely and obviously to mark in fishing spots that you have either sounded fish or where you have previously caught fish. Gone are the days of lining up the tree with the street light and the bump on the hill, now with the push of a button, you will be able to get within 5m of any given spot that you have marked.

I mainly use my GPS for getting onto reef/general area/marked fish and also to locate contour lines that snapper travel along. Certain bends in the contour lines may produce upwellings and temperature breaks in which a miniature effect to the ocean will trap anchovy and snapper will congregate to feed.

When following your GPS and approaching your mark, there will be a bearing and a distance. Try anchoring as close to the mark as possible and remembering to go about 50m upwind. You want to allow your vessel to land smack on the mark at 000kms and mastering this takes a lot of practice.

Another good tip to keep in mind is whenever you mark a spot, like when you’ve sounded fish in the mud or ‘open ground’ as we call it, name it with a date so that you get a rough indication of where the fish have travelled that year. Even if they don’t take the same path the following year it will still give you a starting point and believe me some days when it’s tough you need all the help you can get.

Compass to help you understand where you are !

A GPS is awesome and without will struggle to be on the fish day in day out but a vital and underrated piece of equipment is the humble compass.

For instance, if you’ve anchored as close to your mark as you can and your GPS says that you are 0.40km at 90 degrees, this will mean that the actual fish you have marked will be 40m away from where you are. By using your compass, you are able to locate the exact direction to cast your lines e.g. If you were fishing off Carrum and the wind is blowing from the west, you would cast 40m plus the depth you’re fishing at 90 degrees, which in this case would be East. It’s not rocket science but it can take a bit to get used to.

Sounder/Fish Finder in Port Phillip Bay for Snapper is everything

Another must have is a good quality sounder, again I only use the Furuno 585 because it is basically my eyes under water and has given me the best result out of any other unit I have used. Some of the best features of my sounder are that at night I can still sound for fish and see them clearly and free from the clutter on the screen. This is even more beneficial in the morning before sun up, so that you don’t miss that first light bite.

Also, once fish have moved off natural reef or structure and hit the open ground, I can successfully sound fish at speeds of 70km. This is amazing in itself and you can cover ground like you wouldn’t believe!

A simple guide when buying a good quality sounder is to spend at least $1000. The quality of a sounder all comes down to the amount of power it puts out, and how it processes the information it receives into a clear picture.

Once you have a sounder, it’s time to go fishing. Snapper is very easy to sound up as they have a large swim bladder that is full of air which shows up quite clearly. Most sounders will show snapper up as an arch or a boomerang depending on how fast you drive over them and the quality of your gear. My sounder shows perfect arches at low speeds and half an arch, which we call a ‘tick’ at high speeds.

Where Should the Marks be?

I like to see the marks hard on the bottom, this means the fish are feeding. When you sound up fish mid-water, it is not necessarily a good sign as it generally means that they are not feeding. On the other hand, when they are very thick, they can mark up like a massive Christmas tree in a mass on the bottom about 3sqm thick, almost looking like structure. When this occurs it’s probably going to be a fishing trip that you’ll never forget!

Try to learn how to use your sounder in manual mode and only adjust your gain when you have to. Also, try turning off the fish symbols and just have it on fish i.d mode as it will define what you’re looking at a lot better.

Fishing Etiquette in Port Phillip Bay

It is important to consider and be aware of other people on the water, there are truckloads of snapper in the bay and there is nothing worse than having another boat anchor on top of you. I try my best to keep at least 200-300m away, but a fair distance is 100m. If you anchor on top of others, you will not only ruin their day but will find that you will struggle to catch fish anyway. If the other boat has their pilchard cubes settled all around and a school of snapper are under the boat then mark my word the fish will not move. The best thing to do is to sound around at least 200-300m away until you mark up even just one arch. Drop your anchor and start to burley because you will catch fish.

Snapper Fishing Rods for Port Phillip Bay Snapper

The rod should be a 7ft 6inch, 6-8kg soft tip with a reasonably heavy butt section, which is used to set hooks. When the fish really fire up in mid-October to mid-December and they’re aggressively taking the bait, leave the reel in strike drag and let the rod do the work. I choose to use Wilson live fibres because they are built in Australia and have an amazing taper which makes for the very easy handling of fish when reeling them in.

Reels for Port Phillip Bay Snapper Fishing

There is really only one real that I would highly recommend and that is the Shimano bait runner. It has been on the market for so long because it is an awesome reel. I have also used Tica, Okuma, Abu and Penn reels which are all very good too.

I choose to only use reels with the bait runner system because they can be particularly useful in the early season or when the barometer is low and the fish are touchy. A bait runner can make all of the difference to the end of the day result because the fish will not be feeding aggressively and prefer a light drag setting and soft baits. Once you’ve mastered your knowledge about water temp and using your barometer correctly you will realise how invaluable a bait runner system can be.  

Rigging up for Port Phillip Bay Snapper Fishing

I simply run 20-pound mono on my reels with a 40-pound leader, no. 1 ball sinker sliding in the trace, rather than on the main line, and running down to 2x 5/0 hooks snelled. This combination is deadly for this style of fishing! Keep in mind that you can go as light as 4kg line and 20-pound leader if you are after the ‘big one’ because you will get more bites and get bigger fish more often. I go that bit heavier as more often than not, I have customers who are first timers on the boat and there is no room for error.

The brand of the line that you use is much of a muchness, I like to use about three different colours as I am running ten rods at a time and it makes less work of untangling them.

Also, try and use the lightest sinker possible, some people don’t use a sinker at all which is fine but your bait must be completely thawed out otherwise it will float.

If you’re using frozen bait then use a no. 1 ball sinker, test it out on the side of the boat and if it sinks slowly then it’s perfect.

You basically want your bait to sink as slow as possible so that you are fishing the whole water column and covering more ground. If your bait sinks too fast, you won’t attract fish because it will look unnatural and although snapper isn't that smart, they seem to have figured this one out.

Preferred Bait for Port Phillip Bay Snapper Fishing

When it’s early season and things are tough, I have found that you can’t go past pilly’s with no head, garfish or squid for snapper bait. The fish aren’t in an aggressive state and soft, small baits usually work a treat.

Once the water temperature rises to about 17 degrees and they are feeding more regularly, it doesn’t really matter what you use, I tend to turn to silver whiting, pilchards, red rockets, squid and couta. Although, I would favour silver whiting as it’s easy to get reasonably fresh from the shops and because it’s a hard bait, it can take a couple of hits before falling off the hook.

On the other hand, if you’re after that big bruiser, then you can’t go past my all time favourite baits, which must be local such as; couta heads, fresh squid, small mullet and bay trout.

Timing & Moon Preferences for Port Phillip Bay Snapper

The best time to go snapper fishing in Melbourne would without a doubt be October, November and December, but they can be successfully targeted right up until May/June.

Prime water temperature is 15-19 degrees and anything warmer slows them up a bit. Once the temperature starts to fall again in the same 19-15 degree bracket, you will notice the fish fire up again.

In October, you will definitely see larger catches on first light, November produces larger catches of an evening and in December you can catch fish fairly easy in the morning but between 1-5pm is without a doubt the best, regardless of tides.

As far as the moon is concerned, I prefer to fish the new moon until two days before the full moon as this is when I have had a majority of my ‘miracle’ catches. Around the full moon and just after, try fishing at night. I have had some awesome experiences and caught some of my biggest fish using couta head and squid in shallow water during this moon phase.

Wind & Barometer for Port Phillip Bay Snapper

I find that snapper fishing is good all season, although there are a few things that can go against you.

One of the most important things to remember is that a falling barometer, low barometer or barometer that has been high and stable for too long can all be bad signs.

The direction of the wind also plays a massive role in PPB snapper fishing on the eastern seaboard. I personally dislike northerly winds over 10 knots because any north wind means that it is coming to the end of a high barometer. Once the wind becomes greater than 10 knots and the barometer starts falling it severely reduces your chances of getting on the bite.

Early season easterly winds are a disadvantage when it is more than five knots and you will struggle with these until late November when I find the easterly sea breezes to be very good.

Fishing for snapper is at its best following a big south-westerly blow. West, south-west and north-west are the most ideal and you should be able to produce fish at all times in these conditions. This is mainly because the barometer starts rising during and after westerly winds. If you’re not on the bite, then keep searching as they will be feeding somewhere and generally not too far out. Basically, the first couple of days after a westerly are the best and then as the wind calms off you will need to look wider and deeper.

Southerly winds are also quite favourable and I have never had trouble getting fish in a southerly.

Smaller school fish are the first to come into the bay and then in November, you get a short but true run of bigger fish around the 4-7kg mark in numbers. This is when you pray for the perfect recipe of a big SW, low barometer and then a massive high-pressure system and the barometer flying up to 1020. For two to three days it’s just hell for leather with the big bruisers that are biting like crazy in as close as 8-15m. In my early days of fishing, I would have told you that south-west was the best and this is true, but there is no point being out there while it is crazy rough. You are far better off watching your barometer like a hawk during this and the moment it starts rising a lot quicker than usual, it is time to get out there as the high pressure and light winds won’t be far away.

Once you’ve mastered the wind in conjunction with your barometer you will begin to understand when it’s worthwhile being out there or when it’s wiser to stay at home and score some brownie points with the wife.

Snapper Guides with Matt Cini

There are not enough pages in this magazine to tell you everything I’ve learnt about snapper fishing, but like all styles of fishing, the best way to learn is to watch and listen. Many of my customers on Reel Time Fishing Charters have their own boats and fish all the time, but their techniques have failed them. Going out on a reputable charter boat will teach you more in six hours than you will probably learn by yourself in a whole season, saving you time and money in the long run.

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Optimizing Your Boat Setup for Success


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What Our Clients Say:

Matt Cini: Hi Matt, I was on your tuition charter and was quizzing you on setting up my sounder amongst other things. I have taken your advice and it has transformed my sounder into the most valuable piece of gear on my boat. Beforehand, I was getting a few light ticks here and there on the screen which would always leave you pessimistic. Now I am seeing nice big clear arches almost like it is in simulator mode. I would like to take the opportunity to thank you for this advice as unbiased advice is not really available anywhere else. I can now find fish 100% of the time and had my best fishing day of my life yesterday after anchoring. Thanks again Geoff.

Matt Cini: Hey Matt, What a great day. Thanks. The tuition was worth every dollar I spent, you taught me many techniques that I will now use and hope that I can catch fish as good as we did that day. I’m going to spend more time finding fish rather than “joining the other boats.” I had a crack Saturday and used the Snapper Snack, tried sounding up snapper but seem to have a bit of trouble anchoring over the mark. More practice, can’t wait to have another go. Who knows I’ll probably see you on the water soon, seems we’ve been running into each other since Tuesday, Nautek and then Launching Way tackle shop Carrum. Regards, George

Matt Cini: Hi Matt, Thanks for yesterday, I greatly enjoyed listening to your wise words about whiting fishing and can't wait to put the theory into practice. Thanks again for a great day and I look forward to seeing you out on the water.

Matt Cini: Hi Matt, Just wanted to say what a great time I had on the snapper tuition session today with Matt and sidekick Mitch. It’s actually great not to skipper your own boat and concentrate on the fishing. On top of that, we all bagged out and I found out that a couple of us shared the same birthday! However, the proof of the pudding was the look on the crowd at the boat ramp when we stepped off with our bags of reds. Like some of your other clients that wrote in earlier, I seemed to have misplaced my factsheet in the excitement when I stepped off the boat, and I was wondering if one could be emailed to me. Also wondering if Matt could post the photo up of the “bagged out” tuition crew from today. I know you guys are absolutely flat out at the moment, so no rush. Will definitely look into doing this again and thanks again Matt (and young Mitch, who I forgot to thank) for looking after us. “I’m having fish tonight!”

Matt Cini: Thanks again Matt, saying you're a freak at your job is an understatement. Must recommend to all fishes, pay the money and do a tuition with this bloke; he is a gun. Thanks again.

Matt Cini: Thanks for a great day on Wednesday doing the Snapper clinic. I had a fantastic day and learned heaps. I went out the next day off Black Rock. Found some fish using the sounder and caught a couple of nice Port Phillip Bay Snapper. Kind regards, Nick

Matt Cini: Thanks heaps for today Matt and Mitch, Had a great day and picked up a lot, now we are just keen to get out and put it into practice. Kinda lost or forget my info sheet, was wondering if you would be able to email me another copy, or I can wait and chase it up off the boys just thought you might have it on file. Thanks again for a great, informative session.

Matt Cini: Hi, We had a great time yesterday, and learned a lot. Can you let me know when the tuition charter dates for Western Port are available?

Matt Cini: G'day Matt, We did a tuition charter with you in October just wanted to drop you a line and thank you again. We went from 1s and 2s to double figures every trip, and I owe it all to you. I now tell everyone no matter what level you're at a lot can be learned on one of your days so thanks again.

Matt Cini: Hi, Matt, I would like to thank you for your excellent Port Phillip Bay Snapper tuition course; the first time I went out after the course I sounded for snapper, found them and caught one. On the day we were talking about a whiting tuition day, have you come up with anything yet? Thanks again.

Matt Cini: Hiya Matt & Mel, Just a quick note to let you know that I had a great time on the Port Phillip Bay Snapper Tuition Charter last Wednesday. The main thing I learned was that I was previously doing everything perfectly right up until I actually launched my boat. Everything after that was a disaster. Thanks Matt for all you taught me. I'm positive now I'll bring in Snapper this season. Looking forward to booking a Gummy tuition charter for the New Year which I'll do in the coming weeks. Cheers guys.

Matt Cini: Morning, We had a great day on the water last Thursday; it was informative and beneficial to learn the factors we will be paying more attention to.

Matt Cini: Hi, I had a fabulous tuition charter last week. I reckon you guys could charge double per head and still fill each trip - seriously, most of the guys on my trip had $40k+ tied up in boats to catch small flatty... we all gained a lot more value than we paid for. I'm looking forward to my best season ever! I'm planning to book on one of your whiting tuition trips when they come around too.

Matt Cini: Hi, A massive thanks to Matt for our tuition charter yesterday, we all found it very useful.

Matt Cini: We loved the tuition charter and are feeling very hopeful for the coming season. The notes that Matt had prepared were great, and I'm sure that we will refer back to them during the season.

Matt Cini: Thanks for the informative session. I think I learned a lot. Now to put it into practice. A shame we couldn't

 find any fish willing to play the game.

Matt Cini: Thank you for a very informative time yesterday. It's inspiring to receive and be taught new methods because so many times we think we know it all. Once again thank you and look forward to seeing you out on the water. Best regards to you both.

Matt Cini: Matt, thanks for the informative tuition session this morning. I found it very useful and the knowledge that you passed onto everyone should mean we all bag out this season. Can't wait to put some of that knowledge into practice and spend more time on the water. Matt thanks again.

Matt Cini: Dear Matt, Thanks again for the training charter this morning, learned a lot.

Matt Cini: Hi, Had our charter on Saturday - was great fun. Many thanks :-)

Matt Cini: Hi Matt, First of all thank you for a great day out on Friday, I learnt heaps with all the info that you provided us; unfortunately, we only caught one fish (even though we sounded heaps. How did you go the morning after?) I went out the next morning but like usual I caught nothing, I suppose my time will come. I still have to get used to my Lowrance HDS5; I need to get out on the water by myself to learn. Thanks again for Friday, and I will see you in November when I am on a charter with you.

Matt Cini: Hello Matt, Thanks for the Tuition on Friday - we learned a lot, and while we didn't get any fish on Sat morning (we saw you out and about) we did sound up what we were pretty sure was fish and did all the right things so we are much more confident that we are on the right track at least. Thanks again, and we will see you on the 15th for our morning charter with you.

Matt Cini: Thank you, Matt, for giving me a lesson on Saturday. I just hope what you told me sinks in. A fan Garry.

Matt Cini: G’day Matt, Just must tell you again that the charter you took us out on was sensational. We all got heaps out of it. It was especially cool to run through the theory of how to target Port Phillip Bay Snapper, then two hours later it was all 100% proved, and we were busy landing fish. Gotta love it!!! Thanks again Matt... still getting through the yummy Snapper!!

Matt Cini: Thanks for an awesome trip today Matt and Matt. We learned a lot, now to put it into practice! Highly recommended charter for anyone needing a little help with their fishing.