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winter reds of corio bay with geoff wilson
Geoff Wilson
Dated: 5 December, 2001
The Grammar School Lagoon where Geoff Wilson began catching big snapper in 1961. It still produces the occasional fish to anglers who know how to fish this water.
The Winter run of big Snapper used to be as regular as clock work, that was up until about seven or eight years ago when, for some mysterious reason, they came no more, so after a couple of seasons with no fish being caught, people stopped fishing for them.

There was speculation that commercial pilchard seiners were cleaning them out before they arrived in our part of the world. However, this was based on the knowledge of only a handful of big catches of Snapper (up to two and half tonnes) which were said to be accidental, so who knows?

Three winters ago the big Snapper made something of a comeback, and this improvement in Corio Bay's winter Snapper fishery has continued. Mind you, it has never been a fishery many anglers have had the necessary qualities to take advantage of, even back in the sixties and seventies when the influx of fish was more reliable and the fish more plentiful than they have been in recent years.

Corio Quay, an area which has produced most of the big catches of snapper during the winter.
First and foremost, one needs to set aside a fair bit of time, and a good deal of that time needs to be spent at night, out on the bay, often in cold and windy conditions. In addition to that, one needs some qualifications as a fish hunter because unless you are prepared to seek out your quarry with a thoughtful approach you will only become success by default.

By that I mean, there are leaders and followers. The leaders find the fish and are first to catch them - and these are substantially the same people every time - while the followers are those with no prospecting skills save that they know who the successful anglers are and follow them about relentlessly, picking up the crumbs. That is not being unpleasant, that is simply stating the situation as it is.

Corio Bay's winter run of Snapper could be accidental. I say this because Snapper tend to move anti-clockwise around Port Phillip. This is from the time they first come through Port Phillip Heads in Spring, until they leave in Autumn. However, the full size range of Port Phillip and Corio Bay Snapper and never been represented in Corio Bay during the winter because larger fish, those over 7 kg, are more common than smaller fish.

It can readily be seen, by looking at a map of Port Phillip, that shoals of fish moving anticlockwise have to make a fairly sharp left hand turn somewhere around Williamstown to reach Port Phillip Heads or they will continue down the Geelong Arm of Port Phillip into Corio Bay.

Western Beach Moorings, another area where big snapper aggregate in winter.
The fact that many fish do follow the Geelong Arm down into Corio Bay during March and April, and possibly May, June and July as well, is why we experience a run of winter Snapper. Whether or not this is accidental is hard to say, but it does appear likely.

It certainly seems no accident that the first places the big Snapper appear in Winter are at Rippleside, which is virtually right at the end and exactly in line with the Hopetoun Channel, at North Shore which is directly aligned with the old South or Steamship Channel, and at the Grammar School Lagoon which is exactly where they would end up after following the old North Channel down past Avalon.

Having reached the Western Shoreline, or "dead end" so to speak, shoals of big Snapper appear at various places from the boat moorings at Western Beach to the Corio Quay and the anglers who are prepared to spend the necessary time looking for them are usually rewarded. However, these spots which regularly produce Snapper during the winter differ markedly and so do the angling tactics required.

Grammar School Lagoon My first experience at fishing for, and catching Snapper in the winter was from the beach, jetty and sand spit at the Grammar School lagoon back in the late fifties and early sixties. In 1962, Ross Middleton and I regularly camped on the sand spit for almost the whole weekend, from Friday night until Sunday morning. It was a long stint, but we caught our share of big Snapper doing this.

Paul Raduka and Stuart Cooper with two winter beauties. The biggest fish weighed 9.75 kg.
Unfortunately, the sand spit has deteriorated somewhat since I remember first seeing it in October 1958. Then it was a magnificent strip of sand narrowing the channel into the lagoon to around sixty metres. Now the spit is only a shadow of its former self and remains exposed for only a few hours each day at the lowest stage of the tide.

The jetty on the beach in front of the Grammar School and opposite the spit is completely gone, being dismantled after vandals repeated tore off the planking and lit fires with the timber. Several attempts were made by local authorities to maintain and repair the jetty but to no avail, vandalism prevailed and the jetty was dismantled because of safety concerns.

The great thing about fishing the lagoon was that you could, and still can, catch a supply of bait, during daylight hours anyway. The salmon which come in on the early rising tide are small but usually of legal size and you can catch them on lures, either by casting a lure from the beach or sand spit, or by trolling for them, like we did, just using the oars from our dinghy, or with a motor as most people do today.

Fishing for Snapper at the lagoon was, and still is a slow process which produces relatively few fish, far too slow for most who simply give the exercise away after a couple of fruitless trips. This is as much to do with most angler's expectations that only deep water produces big Snapper as it does with patience. Most of the lagoon is less than two metres deep, but the attraction for big Snapper has always has been the small square-backed crabs inhabiting the muddy bottom.

Paul Raduka with an 8.6 kg beauty taken at Rippleside.
In such shallow water you would expect the Snapper to feed at night. This is mostly true, but during winter it is not unusual to catch one during the day as well. My Snapper diaries contain several entries which suggest a dead low tide anytime between daybreak and around 8.00 am during the months of June July and August is a good time to be sitting out in a dinghy about 200 metres from, what is now the Corio Bay Sailing Club building, waiting for the tide to start coming in.

Fishing from the beach in front of the Grammar School is not such a good idea now because a number of floating markers on chains marking the channel have been installed and these are a real hazard to anybody hooking a good fish. But even in the years prior to the floating markers being installed, the Snapper moved through the channel very quickly, and - if your missed that chance - it was gone for the duration.

The sand spit now offers only very limited access to land-based anglers, so the option taken by most people seeking Snapper at the Grammar School Lagoon is to fish from a boat.

North Shore North Shore is a suburb of Geelong. The rocks below the clay cliffs at North Shore are exposed at low tide and popular with, not only anglers seeking Snapper, but those seeking pan size flathead and whiting which are both plentiful here from time to time.

The North Shore Rocks are one spot where big Snapper sometimes show up suddenly and in good numbers, something which is not surprising should you adhere to the belief that our winter run of Snapper is accidental.

Corio Quay North Shore is really the west shore and dead end of Corio Bay so to speak, anything following the Geelong Arm of Port Phillip will eventually finish up here because you can go no further, except into Corio Quay, and that is where hundreds, perhaps thousands of Snapper often finish up in winter with nowhere to go, and where anglers in boats have made some staggering catches, limited only by the capacity of their boats.

Hopefully, with bag limits now in place, anglers will curb their zeal now that there are hopeful signs our winter run of Snapper is resuming.

While Corio Quay is about as different to the Grammar School Lagoon as you can get, this wasn't always the case. In the not so distant past, the inlet which is now a wharf facility, used to be a picturesque lagoon known as the "Log Ponds" and the estuary of Cowies Creek, similar to the Grammar School Lagoon which is the estuary of Hovell Creek.

Glenn Stevenson with a 9 kg beauty taken a few hundred metres from the St Helens Boat Ramp where this picture was taken. The boats you can see in the background are fishing for snapper.
The Log Ponds no longer exists because some fifty years ago the whole ar ea was dredged out to a depth of around ten metres and an extensive wharf complex was built here and remains today.

Going back a few years, I used a little Lowrance Green Box sounder from my dinghy to locate Snapper in Corio Quay. Launching the little dinghy from the bottom of Crowle Street was a two man job because the nearest launching facilities were at St Helens, not far away, but just a bit too far in a rowing boat.

The strategy was to row around the Quay till we found a pod of Snapper, then free spool our unweighted baits, usually pilchards, so they would slowly down sink to where the Snapper were. Locating fish was one thing, catching them was another. However, with the Snapper willing, the risk of sinking the dinghy became all too real, even on the calmest of nights.

As more and more anglers became aware of the Snapper potential of Corio Quay during winter, rowing around in a dinghy at night became too risky because the risk of being run down by somebody driving a runabout - watching his sounder, and probably going too fast - was real.

My experience in Corio Quay during the late sixties, seventies and eighties, indicated that sounding for fish Snapper early in the night was usually a waste of time, not always mind you, but the best time to find Snapper in Corio Quay was - and still is - late at night and during the early hours of the morning. By midnight or so they were out from under the wharves where they spent most of their time sheltering during daylight hours and throughout the early part of the night.

Going under the pier, either on foot or by dinghy, is not permitted, but some enterprising lads found the mother load under Corio Quay North some years back and began a fishing trend which resulted in a lot of big Snapper being caught from under the pier, and even more, in fact many more, decorated with hooks as hooked fish darted around the pylons and cut the offending line: I wouldn't like to see that happen again.

Murray Scott with an absolute pearler taken from the Grammar School Lagoon on a very rough night in July.
Nowadays, the Port of Geelong is privatised and things are lot tougher for anglers with land based access being closed off by the new port owners who also employ security zealots who seem to take delight in threatening anglers fishing from boats in Corio Quay with "00 fines" and ringing the "water police".

In addition to that, Corio Bay has become less safe since privatization because of the number of floating logs lost through ship loading operations at the Quay and one of the channel beacons has remained in danger of collapse after being struck by a ship some time ago.

Rippleside In the past, Snapper have shown up in considerable numbers around the slipway and pier at the Rippleside ship repair facility in North Geelong during winter. This has resulted in confrontations with Port security personnel who have repeatedly called on the anglers in boats fishing for Snapper, to leave.

Unfortunately, the extensive land reclamation at St Helens, virtually adjacent to the Rippleside facility and popular with anglers, very rarely produces any Snapper at all during winter so we could see those problems arise again.

Western Beach Moorings The Western Beach Boat Club certainly does not encourage anglers to fish for Snapper among the moorings of its member's boats. I have been spotlighted a few times while fishing there and I suppose you can understand they have concerns about security.

Bill Sutton of Ray's Tent City with yet another nice snapper taken from the Grammar School Lagoon in July. This one was caught in the middle of the day.
Never the less, Snapper do congregate among the moorings at Western Beach, particularly during winter, and anglers will probably continue to fish for them there, just as licensed commercial fishermen sometimes set their nets here.

Fishing for Snapper during Winter As the water cools, from say 20 degrees Celsius or more in February to 10 degrees or less in August, Snapper become less active, their ability to metabolise food diminishes and they gather in tight pods or quite long periods without moving very much at all. For this reason Snapper in winter become increasingly difficult to catch as the water temperature cools.

Sometimes they will pick up baits, carting them about without any apparent intention of eating them. Sometimes they just crush baits without so much as moving the rod tip. This is particularly noticeable when using fish heads:

I marvel at the ability of a big Snapper to crush fish heads time after time without becoming hooked, even with two chemically sharpened hooks standing will clear of the bait. It's an ability they have and I have never able to come to terms with it. At other times however, they will take the fish head, race off with it and gulp it down no trouble at all and the fish is yours, but not when they are in a fastidious mood.

Scott Teasdale and Murray Scott with a pair of nice snapper taken from the Grammar School Lagoon. The largest fish is just over 9 kg.
During our days of fishing the Grammar School Lagoon back in the early sixties and seventies we caught Snapper at all stages of the tide, but the first two hours of the incoming tide was a very good time indeed, particularly when this occurred very late at nigh or in the very early hours of the morning.

The high tide and first couple of hours of the outgoing tide was another good time to fish, particularly if the high tide occurred right on dawn. I can remember, and indeed I have the diaries to support that memory, of fishing all night, on several occasions, without so much as a touch, yet - come first light of dawn - away would go one of our reels, and if luck smiled on us, we would be fast to a big Snapper.

In Corio Quay, where most of the really big catches of Snapper were made during the winter, large schools of Snapper could sometimes be located on the sounder yet prove almost impossible to catch. Sometimes they would pick up the bait and play with it like a spoilt child playing with food, but trying to hook them was frustrating and difficult. At other times, they would begin biting tentatively, but as the night wore on, they would feed more aggressively enabling very large catches to be made.

In July and August, Snapper become harder to catch, and this seems to be related to water temperature. However, come the third week in August, there is renewed activity among the resident Snapper population which lasts for about five weeks after which time they seem to disappear.

Young anglers are confronted with a No Fishing sign and high fence which virtually sprang up "overnight" at Corio Quay after the Port of Geelong was privatized.
During this period, say from late August until the end of September, the Snapper become active once more. Water temperature may rise as much as two degrees during this period, and - although water temperatures are still lower than what is considered optimum for Snapper to function properly - increased activity is apparent in the weeks just before the Snapper disappear. After that, there is a wait of about four to six weeks before we see the spring spawners which come in through Port Phillip Heads beginning the cycle all over again.

Footnote: Big Snapper are never the easiest fish to catch, even in late spring and early summer when they are most prolific in Port Phillip and Corio Bays: The fact that most anglers have yet to catch a big Snapper bears this out. On the other hand, should you be a genuine fishing strategist with a good record at targeting various species, catching a big Snapper or two during the winter may be a realistic challenge.
Geoff Wilson Fishnet Pro Angler
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Fishing reports may be sent by e-mail, or mail to Geoff Wilson:
PO Box 384,
Geelong 3220.

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