trophy-salmonNow is the time for targeting large Chinook salmon in the crater lakes.

Lake Bullen Merri has recently recovered from an extensive algae bloom which occurred throughout the summer months and fishing effort has increased as anglers flock to the lake to take advantage of the Chinook salmon as they head into spawning season and become more active and aggressive.

With a mild summer behind us, no fish kills reported, improving water quality and water temperatures cooling the lake is set to produce some excellent fishing in the months ahead. While the thrill of chasing a trophy Chinook salmon is enough to keep many anglers interested at Lake Bullen Merri this water is also producing some of good quality rainbow trout in good numbers.

Fisheries Victoria has been working closely with the local angling community to re-establish quality Chinook salmon fisheries in the Victorian crater lakes over the past few years. This has included a review of past fishery performance using past creel surveys and angling club records provided by the Lake Purrumbete and Camperdown Angling Clubs.

The review found that stocking rates strongly influenced the performance of the fisheries in terms of both the numbers of fish caught and the size of those fish. As a result, anglers and fisheries managers used the research to work together and design a four-year stocking plan which began in 2012 to try and re-establish Chinook salmon fisheries with high catch rates and trophy fish that these waters are known to produce.

Lake Bullen Merri received the first re-stocking of advanced yearling Chinook salmon in November 2012 and since then approximately 20,000 yearling salmon have been stocked annually. The re-introduction of salmon has been successful so far; however it has come at the expense of the trophy brown trout fishery. Despite this the salmonid fishery is still diverse with rainbow and brown trout also being stocked at a rate of 5000 yearlings annually.

This salmonid fishery is a shining light in what has been a tough few seasons for many freshwater lakes and impoundments across Victoria as many of the state’s salmonid fisheries suffer from the effects of drought and unfavourable water quality. Lake Bullen Merri is a volcanic, productive natural (unregulated) crater lake which has excellent water security (despite the slow decline in lake level over the past 50 years). It reaches up to 50 metres in depth and for most of the year the water column provides an almost unlimited cold, well oxygenated habitat for salmonids in which they actively feed on the abundant forage fish populations of galaxias and gudgeon. This is one of the reasons the fish grow so well and to such as large size.

Chinook salmon are active predators and under optimal water quality conditions and an abundant food supply have been found to reach trophy size in this water with stocked fingerlings in the early 1980’s reach up to 11kg in 3 years! While the lake remains productive these growth rates have not been seen for many decades, but in the 3-4 years that these fish usually live they are still very capable of reaching of over 5kg which creates excellent opportunities from anglers to land that trophy fish of their dreams! The other great benefit of stocking this species is that by being an aggressive predator they provide excellent returns to anglers, are a great sport fish and respond well to both bait and lure fishing techniques.

Trophy chinook salmon are certainly available all year around in Lake Bullen Merri, but you need to mix up your methods to get the best result. Trolling (flat lining or downrigging lures) is an effective technique all year round, however bait fishing seems to be more effective in the height of summer and this may have something to do with the activity of the fish in the warmer water which heats up during the summer period.

My favourite time to fish for trophy Chinook salmon is during the late summer and autumn months just as the day length and water temperatures begin to fall. Usually by early autumn Chinook salmon begin to mature and this usually occurs when the fish reach 3-4 years of age. The Chinook salmon mature before any other species of salmonid in Australia and are usually a month or two earlier that brown trout (late autumn) and rainbow trout (early winter).

When the fish mature their bodies undergo metamorphosis and the fish change colour from their well known silver flanks to a darker green and males develop a distinctive hooked jaw. As this process occurs the fish usually become very active and also very aggressive before they move in on the edges of the lake in a futile attempt to try and spawn. For this reason downrigging is very effective particularly when the lake is stratified in late summer and early autumn and then as the water starts to cool the fish move right in on the edges and can be caught in good numbers fishing from the bank, usually during mid to late April.

Despite their often obvious appearance close to shore they can be very difficult to catch at this time as they tend to cease feeding and focus more on trying to spawn on the rocky shore and black volcanic sands. This still makes for some very exciting visual fishing as large fish cruise the shallows.

The interesting thing about the biology of the Chinook salmon compared to the brown and rainbow trout is that they usually die after spawning, like many of the other true salmon. Whereas brown and rainbow trout usually survive becoming mature and may spawn again in the following seasons.

The closure of the western shoreline road in past years has limited access to the lakes edges so the best chance to chase a chinook from the shore is either at the South Beach, near the boat ramp or on rocky shoreline along the North Shore (near the old ramp). There are also some elevated areas near here which makes for some great land based polaroiding.

One of the reasons fishing for chinook salmon was excellent this autumn was because the lake had a significant stratification event this year which occurred during summer months when the water warmed up the water column ‘stratified’ (a layering effect) and developed an associated thermocline (drop in water temperature) at around 12-15m in depth. Below this thermocline there was little mixing of water and low oxygen so the amount of available preferred habitat for salmon and trout became limited and the fish tended to congregate on and above the thermocline, where there is enough oxygen and they can shelter from the warm summer surface waters. This congregation made them easy to target during this period by downrigging lures. If you could imagine the whole population of fish in the lake (including the baitfish) were limited to living in around 25% of the actual lake’s volume, technically making the fish more concentrated and easier to target for recreational anglers.

Trophy Techniques

Trolling for salmon can be as simple or complex as you like and there are a range of lures that work well. Many anglers prefer winged style lures or wobblers that run well at low speeds (1-3km/h) while I have more preference for bibbed minnows which you can run at faster speeds (3-5km/h). Lures such as the Rapala xrap 06 and 08 models and the F7 and F9 cm models in natural looking patterns (brown trout, rainbow trout, perch, spotted dog, spotted ghost) are my favourite.

Whatever you choose to put over the side you need to check that the action is appropriate for the speed you are planning to run. Flatline trolling is effective usually early and late in the day, but when the lake is stratified and the surface waters are still over 18 degrees I suggest using a downrigger to get your lures down into the strike zone. Downriggers give you so much control over exactly where you can put your lure and because of the depth of the lake often you aren’t really trying unless you are getting your lure down. This way you can fish comfortably throughout the day when they go down and continue to catch fish.

The fish generally feed on abundant galaxias and gudgeon which range from 1”-3” in size so large lures are not essential, however the larger fish will respond to big lures during spawning season so it pays to put a larger lure out there from time to time! If you are by yourself fish you can use 2 rods at once so I rig one rod with a big lure 10cm+ and one smaller 6cm+ and see which draws the bites. I’ve caught plenty of big fish on smaller sized lures, so don’t just fish big lures for big fish!

Dodgers and cowbells are also effective attracting devices to help bring the fish closer to your lure when trolling and these can be fixed to you main line with your lure trailing no more than a metre behind. When fishing deep I certainly like a bit of UV in my lure selection and it’s certainly something worth experimenting with.

Knowing that there is the chance of a trophy fish it is important that you don’t skimp on your leader. I usually troll with a 20 pound leader connecting my braid to the dodger then a 12-15 pound leader to the lure. This might sound heavy, but when you are continually fishing 10-15m deep on the edge of the reef and you have the chance of connecting to a fish over 5kg its gives you piece of mind!

Bait fishing
The best way to catch fish on bait is to mark up a few fish on your sounder, usually in 10-20m of water and drop the anchor and berley with a mixture of chopped pilchards, tuna oil and chook pellets. You need to be patient and it might take an hour or more for the berley to work to get the fish’s attention, but once they start to bite you usually can catch good numbers of smaller fish. You will usually need to persist to catch a larger fish.

One important thing to note is that they can often be finicky biters so it is important to use lightest leader possible for the size of the fish you are targeting and therefore you will get alot more bites. I generally use 8 pound fluorocarbon and a size 6-8 sized hook, but if you are targeting trophy fish I suggest putting out at least one rod with 10-12 pound fluorocarbon leader and a size 2-4 hook and a whole small whitebait (or bluebait) or live galaxias or gudgeon. Although live minnow work well, I prefer salted baits such as whitebait, bluebait and pilchard fillet.
Fishing baits from the shore is also very effective and you just need to use as little weight as possible or present you bait under a running bubble float (depending on the wind direction).

It is important you cover the hook with small fillet baits with enough barb penetrating to hook the fish. The baits can either be fed down with the berley unweighed or lightly weighted with a split shot or small running ball sinker.

Probably the best piece of advice for any angler chasing a trophy fish in Lake Bullen Merri is persistence. While this fishery produces some excellent fish, it never comes without hard work and perseverance and some days you are left wondering where 30,000 fish can hide in a large, deep open lake with limited structure, but knowing that trophy fish are there to catch is enough to keep you going.

The other good news this year for boat based anglers is that the boat ramp at the South Beach has been recently upgraded and extended to make the launching of larger vessels more efficient and I recently launched a 6.5 metre boat easily. Make sure you put Lake Bullen Merri on your bucket list for a trip this season, it’s the only place in Australia you can target a trophy sized Chinook salmon!

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