This area comprises estuary, surf and freshwater on the west side of Cape Otway. Aire River nestles in a valley along the foothills of the Otways. To get there, follow the Great Ocean Road past the Cape Otway turn-off, and as you descend from the Otway Ranges turn left on Horden Vale Road. This road starts as bitumen and turns to gravel. Follow this road until you see a track off to the right and a sign for the national park. If you cross a creek, you have gone too far. An alternative route is to continue on the Great Ocean Road to Glenaire, where there is dry- weather access via Sand Road.
The estuary comprises reeds in many areas. From spring through autumn, the green and brown hues of the river flats and mountains seem to light up. In the depths of winter, low-lying grey clouds can roll in, blanketing the estuary, and the valley acts as a funnel for icy, southerly winds that seem to come straight from Antarctica.
It is under such wintry conditions that the surf and estuary fishing can be exceptional. The estuary holds a solid population of bream to 46 cm, yelloweye mullet and sometimes there are brown trout. Most bream are caught on shrimp, spider crabs or scrub worms. If you decide to net shrimp, then blanche them in hot water before using them, as they seem to attract fish better. When fishing with crabs as bait, leave your bail arm open and allow the bream to run. The fish will slow down or stop to swallow the crab and then take off again. This is the time to set the hook.
During winter, a major lure for anglers are the sea-run brown trout which are returning to the river to spawn and are often caught on lures around the old bridge pilings. On a visit here more than 20 years ago I witnessed an angler catch a 5 kg trout on a chrome Wonder Wobbler. He was trolling the lure near the old bridge. Veteran Aire River angler Doug Lucas says the best method for the trout is to troll broken back minnow lures.
Beach fishing can be extraordinarily productive and the easiest and best way to get to the beach is to launch a small boat alongside the bridge. Walking to the beach across sand from where you park your car can be arduous. However, the hard slog is sometimes rewarded with fishing of a quality equal to anywhere in Victoria. I have seen salmon so thick they are like clouds in the water.
Gummy sharks are also caught at night and sometimes anglers manage a bonus in the form of a mulloway or snapper.
Best times to fish for salmon are sunrise and sunset, but for the bigger predators fish at night. The high tide can be productive, particularly if it coincides with dawn or dusk.
Look for gutters and channels. The best fish will be in the clean water away from the froth and sand being stirred by the wave action.
While the estuary and surf fishing can be excellent, this is an extreme stretch of water in terms of brown trout. The Aire begins life as a series of small trickles high in the Otways. As it grows, its crystal waters rush through verdant valleys dense with ferns, bushes and blackberries. Blackwood trees line much of its course and there are pine plantations. On the higher ridges, tall stands of mountain ash dominate an undulating skyline.
In the upper reaches, the trout are small, with 350 g considered above average. However, in the lower reaches where the river is wider and deeper, some of the biggest trout you are likely to encounter in a river on mainland Australia lie waiting.
One of the prime fishing areas is the Aire crossing near Beech Forest. The area has picnic facilities and the river is easy to access. There is a weir at the crossing, below which the river turns into a series of riffles, runs and shallow pools.
The long stretches are narrow and shallow – broad, deep pools are as scarce as pan-size trout – but at least you can wander downstream a fair way without getting into too much trouble.
These weenie browns are colourful, nicely proportioned and most importantly, not always easy to hook. Size and quantity are irrelevant – the fly-fishing here is more about the challenge. Dry flies such as the red tag, mayfly, caddis imitations and thorax patterns No. 16–22 can produce satisfying fishing. However, unless there is an obvious hatch underway, it’s less about matching the hatch and more about potluck. The recipe for success still requires skill and application, but it comes with large dollops of frustration.
Oddly enough, size is less of a problem for spin fishers. The deeper stretches are best worked with thumbnail-sized minnow lures or else the ever-reliable Celta. Casting requires a refined, gentle touch. The dense foliage overhanging much of the water means that an underhand flick or a bow-and-arrow cast is more functional than the normal overhead style.
Lest you think the Aire is only about weenie browns, think again. The main course in this river, from the foothills to the ocean, holds a healthy population of sea-run browns equal in size to any found on the mainland of Australia. The lower reaches, where the Aire leaves the ranges and runs through verdant pastures to the Southern Ocean, are in stark contrast to the high country. After it leaves the hills, about 3–4 km of river is dominated by a succession of deep logjam pools flanked by steep embankments. Where the Great Ocean Road crosses, it changes again, with a lower riverbank and fewer logs. Further downstream the Aire forks, the eastern arm running into Lake Craven. The west fork joins with the Ford River, rejoining the main flow at the southern end of the lake.
The full potential of Lake Craven is unrealised. It has produced some estuary perch, and excellent trout caught mainly by anglers trolling in canoes and small craft. Most reports I have on the lake come from people who decided to have a bit of a troll in between bait sessions, the results often surprising them.
Big trout hunt all the way down to the sea. Most of those caught in the lower reaches range from about 500 g to 3 kg. These fish linger along the river edge, lying in wait under shelter of overhanging grass for shrimp, galaxias and insects. Shrimps are the most easily obtained bait; all you need is a long- handled fine mesh net and a coffee jar with moist sawdust to keep them alive. They are found living in the submerged watercress overhanging the riverbanks.
Local identity Stan Wright achieves top results by threading half a dozen of the little crustaceans onto a No. 4 Gamakatsu hook. The shrimp are too small to thread longitudinally, so the hook passes through the middle of the shrimp at right angles to its body. Stan describes the method as ‘criss- crossing’ and admitted it may be a bit unorthodox, but that it worked for him.
He also believed in stealth, staying low, using the grass and cumbungi to mask his presence while slowly and quietly edging along the river. Stan’s method was to cast an unweighted shrimp bait close to the edge. The bait was allowed to sink and then slowly brought to the surface. Every couple of paces the bait was checked and cast out again. The method is methodical, slow and very thorough. It is similar to a fly-fisher casting nymphs into every square metre of a creek, one step at a time.
The logjam pools upstream from the highway bridge are home to the biggest trout. Big, hook-jawed cannibals, merciless and mean, they offer up an irresistible challenge to an angler’s skills. They feed as readily on other trout as they do big yabbies, elvers or small snakes weaving across the surface. Due to the terrain, these fish are not easy to catch. Successful anglers like Stan – who has caught them to 7 kg – use live bait. His preference is for wood grubs, and he fishes at night.
Stan’s method is basic. The grub is hooked through the collar, cast to the middle of a pool, and allowed to sink. As it runs down with the current, the grub is slowly retrieved; the critical strike time is just as the grub is nearing the surface. As big trout often take a tail-up vertical position in the water, the pull gives the impression of being snagged.