Like Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, The Captain’s crew heads off on an adventure to a mysterious volcano. But instead of throwing something into it, we’d be hoping to pull something out.
When we first heard tales of a group of volcanic craters in Victoria full of chinook salmon, I called bullshit. I’ve travelled to the US countless times in search of these delicious buggers and have only ever caught a handful. All that time flying back and forth across the Pacific and I could’ve been fishing in bloody Victoria? So we got on the blower to the fishiest bloke in The Captain’s contact list, Scotty Gray, to sort this quandary once and for all. “Scotty, apparently you can catch salmon down your way in western Victoria. Is this legit?” “Mate, I’ve caught some monster salmon out here!” came the reply. “They stock them in the volcanic lakes near Camperdown.
Some of the craters are shallow and the lakes only hang around for a couple of years after we get good rain. But Lake Bullen Merri and Lake Purrumbete always hold water, and I believe they’re the deepest natural lakes in the country. Next time you’re cruising down the Great Ocean Road, give me a holler and I’ll take you out salmon fishing on one of them.”
Nek-minute, we’re bouncing down the Princes Highway toward Lake Bullen Merri in Scotty’s duel-cab ute with his brand-spankin’ Seacruiser 6000CC Safari in tow. I’ve got a camera in one hand and a KFC Wicked Wing in the other — essential ingredients for any good Captain fishing trip. However, Scotty isn’t making any promises about how well the salmon will be biting. “The fishing in these lakes is boom and bust,” he says. “You’ll have sessions when the salmon are in a feeding frenzy and others when you won’t get a bite all day.” Now, when it comes to anything fish-related, you take note when Scotty talks.
Along with being a gun recreational fisho, he’s also a fish scientist. Lately, he’s been running field studies and fishing surveys on southern bluefin tuna, but he has a pretty healthy knowledge of anything with gills. Scotty moved to the Great Ocean Road 30 years ago to study aquatic science at Deacon University’s Warrnambool campus. He says it was his awakening. “I love the environment, the rugged coastline, the four seasons in one day and the diversity of the aquatic areas. We have lakes, rivers, estuaries, beaches and the ocean — each offering unique angling opportunities.”
THE GOOD OIL
Before launching the boat, we head over to the tackle store at Lake Purrumbete Holiday Park. The owner, John Clements, is a good mate of Scotty’s and he gives us the drum on where the fish are biting. Inside the store hangs a collection of trophy fish mounts and rows and rows of Tassie Devil lures.
John explains that the awesome fishing is due to the region’s volcanic characteristics, “When you stock an area like this with trout and salmon it produces big fish.” Scotty chimes in: “Back in the day they were said to get to 20lb, but the biggest I’ve caught was 10lb. I’ve also caught a 10lb brown trout out of the lake on fly.”
We browse the store for a solid half-hour and I quiz Scotty on the best way to catch these slippery salmonoids. “Trolling lures are a great way to catch salmon,” he says. “In winter, the lakes are well oxygenated so you can catch fish from the surface all the way to the bottom. But in summer, I usually find the fish squeezed in around the 10m mark — so a downrigger is a great tool to precisely target them. “Come on, mate, you know we love a good bait-fishing session. Will these things eat a live worm?” I ask. “The salmon respond really well to bait and you can burley them up around the boat!” Scotty replies. Next thing I know, he’s running from the store and rummaging through the esky in the back of his ute. Out comes a crayfish, which he offers to John in exchange for a couple of bags of frozen pilchards. John definitely got the better of that deal.
LIGHTS ON, NO-ONE HOME
The drive down to Lake Bullen Merri boat ramp is pretty cool, cruising past golden paddocks stuffed with Angus cattle, then along a winding road bordered by eucalyptus trees. The lake is surprisingly large for a volcanic crater. We ponder for a moment what would happen if it actually erupted while we were fishing. After launching the Seacruiser, it doesn’t take long for the sounder to go ballistic. We mark thousands of fish, all sitting at the magic 10m. Scotty deploys the downrigger and we slow troll through the masses. Nothing. Hours of trolling pass. Frustrated, we decide to pull in the lures and start rigging up the baits.
I drop anchor while Scotty switches out the bomb on the downrigger for a burley pot. He then drops it down to 10m and gives it a solid shake. We rig up pilchard fillets onto small hooks and slowly feed them down to the burley trail. Still nothing. We give it a couple more hours and with the burley almost finished, decide to give the trolling one last shot before it’s wheels up.
Scotty decides to work a different part of the lake in the hopes of finding an active school of salmon. The sounder isn’t as jam-packed as the first spot, but after 30 minutes, we notice the tip of the rod connected to the downrigger is bouncing.
Scotty starts to fight the fish, but it’s so small it hasn’t managed to break away from the downrigger clip. Classic. Scotty flicks the line, freeing it from the clip and reels the tiny salmon to the surface.
As we lift the chinook over the gunwales of the Seacruiser, it’s laughs and backslaps all round. You’ve never seen two grown men so excited to catch a fish so small.
A few weeks after we returned from the trip, we heard the horrible news that high water temperatures and PH, and low oxygen levels had produced a massive fish kill in the lake. This is probably why we were struggling to catch anything — the salmon were sick. Fortunately, the lake has already been restocked and in about a year, the chinooks will again be ready to rock and roll.
Scotty’s ride is pretty unique. She’s a chameleon of the sea, adapting to Scotty’s every fishing need. “I love my diving, spearfishing and line fishing,” he explains. “I wanted a boat I could use to troll for salmon out on the lake one day, then drop for blue eye out on the shelf the next.” Scotty’s professional and recreational careers have thrown plenty of boats his way and the Seacruisers seem to have stuck — this is his second. “I’ve had a few boats over the years,” he recalls. “It all started 25 years ago with an old fibreglass thing without a motor. From there, I worked my way through a few tinnies, but as I got a bit older, I wanted to go further, travel more and do different types of fishing. An open-console boat suits me to a tee — I’m all about versatility.” We’ve already run a story on Scotty’s Seacruiser in issue #13 of The Captain, but here’s a rundown on how she was conceived. Scotty wanted something he could fish out of locally while still being able to shoot up the west coast when he got sick of the Victorian winter.
“When I was younger, I just wanted to catch all the fish — and the biggest fish,” he remembers. “That changed as I got older and now I love the adventure, road trips and not knowing what’s going to happen next.” Scotty gave Seacruiser head honcho Ed Richardson his wish list and sent him off to build this adventure tourer. At the top of the list was a big fuel tank (240L) for long runs and lockable storage to keep gear safe on the road. All this extra weight meant he’d need a big donk, so they opted for a Suzuki 175HP with fly-by-wire. “It’s awesome being able to load her up with heaps of gear, fuel and people and still have plenty of power,” Scotty says.
He also wanted to take it off-road, so opted for a beefed-up Easytow trailer, perfect for tackling the ruts and corrugations of WA. Scotty’s definitely a centre console tragic, much like the rest of The Captain’s crew. “I don’t mind getting a little bit wet when the conditions turn to shit, I’d much rather have the ability to use the whole boat,” he says. We couldn’t agree more. There’s something about that feeling of salt in your eyebrows, windswept hair and a sunburnt nose that you just can’t replicate — even if you’re just catching miniature salmon.
RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT, OR NOT
There are plenty of ol’ fisherman’s tales floating around Lake Bullen Merri, including the one about the 20lb salmon. Here’s a few more Scotty shared with us.
1. The story goes that one night, a wallaby was standing by the water’s edge and a hungry salmon came up and dragged him into the depths of Bullen Merri.
2. One night, a guy was checking his bait trap and while he was pulling it up a salmon grabbed onto the end of it and almost dragged him into the water.
3. A small child was swimming one day and a salmon bit him on the leg. He survived.
4. A salmon once chased down and grabbed onto a waterski handle that was skipping behind a boat.